By Mike Wise
Monday, December 22, 2008
After a week of self-flagellation, of psychologically revisiting the site of that unsightly accident in Cincinnati last week, of referring to a radio host as "negative" -- on a program entitled, of all things, "The Jim Zorn Show" -- the man who said he felt like "the worst coach in America" finally cut himself a break.
"I don't feel like the worst coach in America," Jim Zorn began, "today."
Zorn's job never was in jeopardy after the most abysmal week of his Washington career. But if his team was blown out badly at home Sunday, you couldn't blame any struggling Great Falls realtor for contacting him before the season finale in San Francisco.
A week later, the agonizing, the second-guessing, the idea that he was in way over his head -- it all feels so last Monday.
After sweeping the Eagles and ensuring his first season would not be a losing one, any conversation about Zorn's status as head coach needs to be officially shelved for another year. Zorn is going to finish with at least the same record Joe Gibbs did in his first season in 1981 and could very well end up 9-7 in a year filled as much with growing pain as regret.
When a reporter informed Zorn the Redskins had been officially eliminated from the postseason after Atlanta's victory over Minnesota, the briefly subdued coach replied, "It's our fault, that's what it is.
"There's a couple more games we're going to look back on and be very frustrated about for years to come," Zorn said. "We fumbled three times in the Rams game. We had a chance to win last week and we didn't. So there's a couple losses there you get real frustrated about, or we can be even better shape than we were. We deserve what we're getting because we didn't earn the right."
There might be a few doomsayers who will point out Marty Schottenheimer was 8-8 in his one and only season before Daniel Snyder jettisoned the my-way-or-else coach; Zorn is more pliable and likable, much cheaper and -- this is a guarantee -- isn't going anywhere after this season.
He ended up 3-3 in the most rugged conference in pro football, made Jason Campbell more than incrementally better, learned the hard way how to deal with diva drama and, in that Zornball way of his (he referred to his players as having "super confidence" yesterday) he barely negotiated his way around the perception last February that Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of football operations, had hired a flat-out rube to replace an aged and tired legend.
Of all the players Zorn can thank most for making the masses lower their pitchforks, he probably has to start with punter Ryan Plackemeier, who buried the Eagles deep in their own territory with nicely placed kicks that would've saved Durant Brooks's or Derrick Frost's jobs, and a defense that played more emotionally and maliciously than it had for most of this season.
When asked if he and his teammates believed Zorn would return next season, Marcus Washington said simply: "He's got to. No question."
There was no denying the entire franchise's tightness in manner and demeanor all week.
"We never thought Coach's job was in jeopardy, we just felt like we needed some building blocks for what's next to come," Campbell said. "We're going to kick ourselves for letting a couple of those games get away, we really are."
For all the talk of whether Zorn's job is safe, don't think many of these players weren't auditioning for next season. If it wasn't Plackemeier or Shaun Suisham, who fell woefully short on a 54-yard field goal attempt (the Eagles, who smartly placed a return man in the end zone, seemed to know more about his leg than Zorn), Jason Taylor had to be thinking about his future entering the game.
After he sacked Donovan McNabb and stripped him of the ball to set up Washington's only touchdown, he looked more ready to rumble than retire. Taylor, too, was unmerciful during a radio interview when it came to his own contributions to the Redskins last week.
"When [Zorn] makes a comment, 'I'm the worst coach' and I said, 'I stink and I'm not worth the money' doesn't mean we feel that all the time about ourselves."
At least not early Sunday evening at FedEx Field, where the light died and the wind came up and the Redskins recovered from the worst debacle of their rookie coach's career.
The way the team responded brought to mind something Joe Bugel had said in training camp about Zorn.
"I like him, and I think he'll be good," said Buges, the team's offensive line coach since, well, the Paleolithic era. "But I think the test for him is going to be when things get tough. See, that's when you saw who Joe Gibbs was and why he was so good at what he did. He could rally you together when you're down. That's going to be the real test for Jim. If he can do that, he won't have any problems in this league."
Sweeping Philadelphia was a start. And if Zorn indeed felt like the "worst coach in America" a week ago, what does that say for Andy Reid today?