Redskins Coach Jim Zorn and His Family Have Learned to Accept the Risks and Rewards of the Job

Jim Zorn's tenure as the Washington Redskins' coach included unexpected highs and crushing lows.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

By the time Jim Zorn took off his burgundy Washington Redskins jacket and pulled off his ski cap last Sunday, exchanging them for a blazer, tie and trench coat, his stare was blank, far-off. He grabbed a Snapple, walked from the locker room and rolled his khaki travel bag to one of the team buses parked and running underneath Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The drive to the airport and the flight back to Dulles International Airport came only an hour or so after the Redskins' fifth loss in six games, yet the Sunday night and Monday morning quarterbacking was already under way. The list of people Zorn felt responsible to after such a swoon -- owner Daniel Snyder not least among them -- seemed endless.

"I just feel hollow," Zorn said of such moments.

From the airport, he called his wife of 29 years, Joy. He was on his way. When he reached his home in a cul-de-sac-laden enclave just off the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia, his 13-year-old son, Isaac, was riding his bike in the back yard with friends, and he went out to check on them. No football, not at the moment. It would come.

That night, the Zorn family hashed out, inside their own home, what would be hashed out all over the region all week. Joy Zorn joined 25-year-old Sarah, the middle of the Zorns' three daughters, and Isaac, the youngest Zorn, the only son. Jim Zorn is 55, has been a head coach for all of 10 months and was a rising star in the business all of two months prior, yet there was so much to digest.

The 20-13 loss to the pitiful Bengals was the freshest problem, the loss that meant the Redskins have almost no shot of making the playoffs even if they beat the Philadelphia Eagles this afternoon and San Francisco 49ers in their regular season finale next week. A stellar 6-2 start had dissolved into 7-7 mediocrity. The ramifications and possibilities rang through the Zorn family. At that point, Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president for football operations, had not yet gone on the radio and said the possibility of Zorn's dismissal had not been brought up, as he did Friday.

"Could this mean that we have to move again?" Isaac eventually asked his mother.

"Well, yes," Joy Zorn said. "That's the kind of career that Dad's in. It's very volatile."

Jim Zorn realizes that is the case now and always will be, whether he is the Redskins' head coach for one year or three years or the rest of his life, whether he coaches in Washington or somewhere else. At various times over the course of this season, by turns triumphant and trying, Zorn has admitted that he is learning on the job, though he is unwavering in his confidence that he can do it properly.

"I think I'm up for the challenge," he said last week. "I like the risk, because we risk it all. As a head football coach, every week, we risk the success of everybody."

Football coaching, almost by definition, provides an itinerant lifestyle, and the Zorn family has learned the risks along the way. But as she listened to her husband go through the particulars of the loss to the Bengals and absorb the impact of the past month, Joy Zorn thought of a Bible passage, from the book of James. The Zorns are deeply Christian, and though Jim Zorn rarely brings up religion publicly -- and certainly only when asked -- his wife couldn't escape the notion as she listened to her husband assess his first season as head coach.

"Consider it all joy, my brethren," the passage begins, "when you endure various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."

The Zorns went to bed that night fully aware of what the coming week might bring, the scrutiny their father and husband would be under. Yet these did not have to be morbid times. "It's not like we have to dress in black or walk on eggshells around him," Joy Zorn said. But they take losses hard, and maybe harder now, because their man is, for the first time, the head coach. He is responsible for the record. He is responsible for making the playoffs. He will be dismissed or retained.

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