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Torn by the Trials, Zorn Still Finds the Joy
Redskins Coach and His Family Have Learned To Balance the Challenges With the Rewards

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.

"This is a bigger deal," Joy Zorn said. When the Redskins had lost in previous weeks, as the season began to slip away, she had wondered how her husband would respond. Each time, Jim Zorn bounded from bed around 5 a.m. Monday and headed to the office, eager to decipher the problems.

This time, she figured, might have been different. But when he awoke in darkness and prepared to rise, Jim Zorn looked at his wife and said, "Consider it all joy."

Joy Zorn knew precisely what he meant. With that, he went to work, to start a new week, to finish out the season.

Shouldering the Blame

The normal flow of the Monday meeting for the Redskins' coaching staff is predictable. Each of the position coaches has watched the tape of the previous day's game, each has graded his players and each is ready to provide an assessment of the performance.

Zorn knew, though, that last Monday had to be different. He had already given the players the day off, a move usually reserved for Mondays after significant wins. He had no desire to sit there, he said, and ask: "Okay, tell me how the D-line did. Okay, how did the O-line do?" He thought of Einstein's definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

"At some point, you got to do something different," he said.

So Zorn walked into a conference room at Redskins Park to face his coaching staff. He smiled, looked at his group -- some of them his hires, some men he inherited -- and said, "Let's pick up the pieces."

"He doesn't have a whole woe-is-me thing going, because no one wants that," said Chris Meidt, an offensive assistant whom Zorn brought on board. "He's being honest. We know he's hurting; we're all hurting. But for him to come in and pretend he's hurting worse is to discredit what everyone else is doing."

That afternoon, though, Zorn gave a performance that shocked some of his assistants. Part of Zorn's Monday routine, along with watching the film alone -- then with his coaches, then with the players, then again in bits and pieces to make sure he saw what he thought he did -- is to face reporters, a 30-minute barrage in which he has, in previous weeks, mused on his play-calling philosophies, joked about injuries to star running back Clinton Portis and assessed the development of quarterback Jason Campbell, his primary project.

This time, though, with the Bengals game film seemingly running through his mind, he heaped blame only upon himself, delivering the money line: "I just feel like the worst coach in America."

His offensive coordinator, Sherman Smith, read that quote, and others that backed up the sentiment, in the Tuesday papers. Thirty years earlier, Smith played running back in the same backfield where Zorn served as the quarterback, with the fledgling Seattle Seahawks. Smith left his job as an assistant with the Tennessee Titans in the offseason for one reason: Zorn. Smith's assessment, even as the season collapsed: This isn't all Jim Zorn's fault. Come on. Furious, he walked into his boss's office.

"Man, I'm a little bit ticked off," Smith said he told Zorn. "I've looked at the film. I think we evaluate ourselves pretty hard, scheme-wise. And what you said, that's just not the case. That's not the whole picture."

Zorn understood that, too. But over the course of the season, as Zorn's offense sputtered -- it ranks 29th in a 32-team league in scoring and has scored two touchdowns in a game only once during the second half of the season -- players had become increasingly aware of their coach's predilection for focusing on "execution." On the last day of November, veteran offensive lineman Pete Kendall stood in front of his locker at FedEx Field, a troubling 23-7 loss to the New York Giants just behind him. He was asked about such an assessment.

"It's always execution," Kendall said, allowing himself a small smirk.

That afternoon, Zorn had allowed the losing to get to him. The Redskins, playing in the rain at home, had failed to charge after an extra-point attempt, so when the Giants muffed the snap, they weren't in position to block it, and New York converted anyway. Campbell missed a receiver, wide open down the field, and settled for a shorter throw underneath. As Zorn's frustration grew, he began to rant on the sideline, not atypical for a coach whose game-day emotions sometimes betray his midweek mantra of "staying medium." Here, there was no medium. He berated ballboys. He -- gulp -- used a swear word, an infraction that costs him $1 to Isaac, who has hardly become rich on the deal.

"I want to be competitive and fiery," Zorn said the following week. "But I was whining."

Sitting in the coaches' box high above the field, Smith could take no more. He removed his headset and tossed it on the table in front of him.

"He was screaming in my ear, and I didn't want to hear it," Smith said. "It was like, 'Man, you're giving me a headache.' "

The next day, Smith appeared in his boss's office.

"You and I have never coached together," Smith said he told Zorn. "Is that who you really are?"

Smith knew the answer: No. Zorn told him as much. "That's not me," he said. From there on out, he ditched that act.

"If that's what's going on inside of me, I think I've got struggles," Zorn said. "I've got problems."

It was, weeks before his public lashing of himself, part of Zorn's ongoing self-evaluation, "absolutely a learning process," he said. During the Bengals game, there was no such meltdown, just a jutted-out jaw, tense with frustration. And by the end of the week, with today's final home game still ahead, Zorn had blended his harsh self-evaluation with Smith's advice, to look at the whole picture, 53 players, 17 coaches, the structure in which he is just one piece, albeit an important one.

"I feel like I let the organization down," he said. "I think, realistically, I can see what happened. I can see what the failings are. And yet, that part doesn't matter, because some of those failings were there the week before.

"And so I think it's good to just keep taking it a step further" -- and here, he took his left thumb and pointed it at his own chest -- "and check out what's going on inside of me."

'A Life-Skills Guy'

On Thanksgiving Day, the Redskins moved their normal Thursday afternoon practice to the late morning so the players and coaches could get home to their families. The Zorn house was filled that day, three of the four children; the son and daughter-in-law of Steve Largent, the Hall of Fame wide receiver from Zorn's days with the Seahawks; Zorn's secretary; and a few others. But before he headed to that full house and dinner, Zorn gathered his players after practice. The game against the Giants loomed three days later. Zorn did not speak of football.

"When you go home to your families today," Zorn said to his players, "don't walk in the room and say, 'Here I am!' You need to walk into the room this afternoon and say, 'There you are.' "

"I wanted these guys to be other-oriented, not self-oriented," Zorn said the following day. "I think that is one of the things that these guys get falsely pushed toward."

Most of the angst over Zorn and the Redskins over the second half of this season has centered on his development of Campbell, of the West Coast offense Zorn installed and why it hasn't worked. Few failures rankle Zorn more than his team's inability to reach the end zone, to put up more points, to win games that might have been won with one more touchdown. Those things, of course, are what will determine how long he keeps his job. Football coaches are, after all, judged in football terms.

Yet ever since the days when Zorn would invite players from the team at Boise State, his first assistant coaching stop, over to his house for food and fellowship, he has wanted more from the sport. "He loooooooved those relationships," Joy Zorn said, and it is one reason he keeps in touch with players and coaches from his past.

"He's a life-skills guy," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said after the Thanksgiving speech. "He'll focus on football, but he's going to make sure you get something about life, too."

Zorn, too, has learned to be far more "other-oriented" than he was in his playing days, he said. His commitment to Joy and the children is largely responsible for that. Joy Zorn was all of 22 when she married the Seahawks quarterback, and she knew little of football. Even after she became accustomed to the rhythms of a player's life, she knew nothing of a coach's. Yet she grew fond of Boise, and when she and Jim took a trip to Logan, Utah, where Jim interviewed to be the offensive coordinator at Utah State, she cried all the way back, to the point that Jim said: "I don't have to do this. I can work at McDonald's."

By the time Jim Zorn became a head coach in February, Joy knew the drill, and the Zorn family had the whole picking-up-your-life-and-moving-on thing down. At each stop, the Zorns have purchased a home, better to feel connected with the community to which they are entering, a mental investment as much as a financial one. This stop, in that sense, has been no different, and the Zorns have hosted friends from nearly all of their previous home towns at their Great Falls home.

"She has made all of these moves," Jim Zorn said. "And she's billed them as an adventure for our family."

The first chapter of the latest adventure is coming to a close, and the Zorns don't know what the next one will bring. Joy Zorn said last week that she has thought frequently of her husband's vow to "stay medium," even though she is now married to the head coach. The risk today, against the Eagles, is the same as it is every week, and Zorn is happy to accept it, even as his responsibilities have grown. Standing against a railing at Redskins Park the other day, his team with but one win since October, Zorn considered his position. He is not, he said, overwhelmed. Far from it. He does, in fact, consider it all joy.

"Here's what I know about being responsible for so much," he said. "I love it."

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