By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
A day after the Washington Redskins were eliminated from playoff contention, Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, reiterated yesterday that first-year head coach Jim Zorn will return next season.
"Yeah," Cerrato said when asked if Zorn would lead the Redskins in the 2009 season. During an interview at his office at Redskins Park, Cerrato offered general observations about the state of the team as Washington (8-7) prepares to complete its season Sunday at San Francisco, and provided a more detailed public evaluation of Zorn, quarterback Jason Campbell and the 2008 draft class than he has previously this season.
Zorn, who is also Washington's play-caller, has come under scrutiny as the offense struggled during a three-game losing streak and 1-5 stretch that ended with Sunday's 10-3 victory over Philadelphia. But Cerrato said replacing Zorn, who has two more guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract, "has never been discussed, period."
Speaking on his radio program on ESPN 980 last week, Cerrato said Zorn's status had not been discussed in the Redskins' front office. He took things a step further yesterday, describing a question about Zorn's standing as "crazy. Why wouldn't he be back?"
Cerrato said he is confident Zorn, whom he strongly recommended to team owner Daniel Snyder for the Redskins' head coaching vacancy last winter, is "learning and he's improving. Just how rookie players learn and improve, same type of steps. He's making progress."
After a 6-2 start, the Redskins' performance sagged during the second half of the season and they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. The defense has given up an average of 284.1 yards per game, ranking fourth in the NFL, but the offense has not been productive, especially since the midpoint of the schedule. Of the 32 NFL teams, only Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis and Cincinnati have scored fewer points than Washington's total of 241.
Growing pains were inevitable this season as Zorn began to install his version of the West Coast offense that features many three- and four-receiver formations. "Every team in the National Football League has weaknesses," Cerrato said. "Once a season is over, you get together, and this is what we'll do. We'll get together as coaches, scouts [and] administration, we'll put down our strengths, weaknesses and where we need to improve. I think that's a process that every team goes through.
"Even if you're a Super Bowl-contending team, even if you're the Super Bowl champions, there are areas you need to improve," Cerrato continued. "Everybody is going to look to improve. You're always looking to improve. During the season, you're looking to improve the bottom of your roster. You're always looking to get better. Nobody's perfect. With that said, we will look, evaluate and try to fix as many holes as we can fix. Once the final game is played, we'll evaluate every area and look to see where we need to improve."
The evaluation of Campbell's play is a key part of the process. The fourth-year quarterback, who has worked closely with Zorn since February, performed at the highest level of his career in leading the Redskins during their strong first half. As the offensive line experienced major breakdowns in pass protection later in the season, however, Campbell had a significant drop-off in production.
In each of the last two games, Campbell has passed for fewer than 170 yards. He had only a 65.7 passer rating against Philadelphia -- his third-lowest of the season. Campbell's statistics are not among the league leaders but "I think he's made a lot of progress up to this point," Cerrato said. "Last year, I think he had 13 fumbles [losing eight] in 12 games. He's improved a ton on that.
"Just the way he handles checks and getting us out of bad plays, changing pass protections, he's controlling that at the line of scrimmage. Statistically, and everything he has improved, you see fundamentally how he's improved. To me, he's made great strides up to this point. Is he where he can be? No. He's got room. He's got a high ceiling. Has he gotten there yet? No. He hasn't reached his potential yet. He's still learning, growing and developing."
But Cerrato stopped short of saying he is convinced that Campbell could become a championship-caliber quarterback. "I don't think you can answer that," he said. "How do you know? He's still developing and learning."
The Redskins have age and injury concerns along the offensive and defensive lines. Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels, 31, has missed the last two games and is on season-ending injured reserve after having surgery to repair a torn triceps. Right tackle Jon Jansen, 32, the Redskins' longest-tenured player, also has sat out the last two weeks because of a sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. An ankle injury in the opener against Miami ended Jansen's 2007 season, and he missed the entire 2004 season because of a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
The offensive line's pass-protection problems could be the biggest impediment to Campbell's development. Washington used its top three draft picks in April in an effort to upgrade the receiving corps, but rookie wide receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly and pass-catching tight end Fred Davis did not emerge as consistent play-makers this season.
Several wide receivers in the 2008 draft class have had big seasons, including DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, Eddie Royal of Denver and Donnie Avery of St. Louis. Washington could have drafted each player, but Cerrato said he is not frustrated about the lack of contribution from the team's top picks "because to me, every situation is different."
"Donnie, DeSean, Eddie, they all had to come in and start." he said. "We weren't looking for anybody to come in and start, number one. And number two, I'll guarantee you none of them missed the whole training camp. Both our guys missed the whole training camp. They didn't play in any preseason games."
Kelly missed the preseason in large part because of knee problems the Redskins were aware of when they drafted him. Thomas was sidelined for part of training camp because of a hamstring injury but played in three preseason games.
All 10 of Washington's draft picks made the opening 53-man roster, but few contributed significantly, and only strong safety Chris Horton made a major impact. Ineffective punter Durant Brooks was waived in October. Guard-tackle Chad Rinehart, Washington's third-round pick, has been inactive in 13 of 15 games and has not played. Cornerback Justin Tryon, selected in the fourth round, often appeared overmatched in coverage during the preseason. He has played extensively on special teams and sparingly as a cornerback.
"The guys are developing, they're improving," Cerrato said of the rookies. "When we went into the draft, we said we weren't looking for a starter at any position. We were looking for young guys to add talent and depth that could learn, grow and develop into starters. How many guys on every team are starting as rookies? I don't know that. But they're all showing promise, progress [and] what we saw in them in the draft.
"Devin is playing faster, more confident and more consistent. Devin is feeling comfortable now. I think he'll get nothing but better. I think Fred Davis shows flashes of what he can do. I think he'll be an outstanding player. Malcolm, I think in [training camp] we saw what he can do. He just needs to get a hundred percent healthy and be ready to go. I think everybody will like what they see there."
No longer in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth, the Redskins could use their final game as an audition for next season, giving rookies such as Rinehart and Tryon playing time with the first team. But with the opportunity to finish with consecutive victories, "we're looking to win the game," Cerrato said. Rinehart "hasn't played yet. It makes no sense to do that. How's that fair to [starting left guard] Pete Kendall? We're not into evaluating, we're into winning the last two games in a row."
As Cerrato completes his first season in charge of Washington's football operations, he said he has learned a lot from Snyder about the business side of the franchise and remains focused on bringing another Super Bowl championship to the Redskins. "To me, success is always about wins and losses," Cerrato said. "If we didn't get to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl, I have to do more. There's a lot for me to do."