By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008
For the first time in his head coaching tenure, Jim Zorn will enter a football game Sunday knowing that the playoffs are beyond reach.
Zorn, though, has repeatedly said that this situation won't alter his approach against the San Francisco 49ers. He won't unleash a larger playbook; "that's been the thing I've been trying to avoid, is opening it up so much that we can't execute it," he said yesterday. And he won't use the regular season finale as a petri dish for his large rookie class, instead relying on the same personnel he would if a playoff spot were at stake.
"I'm not gonna experiment that way on the last game when we have a chance to go 9-7," Zorn said this week. "Because we can experiment during preseason, we can get these guys a little more ready during the offseason, where we can have a better evaluation of those younger guys as the preseason rolls around. So we're gonna stick with our group."
With a roster as healthy as it has been all season -- all 53 players practiced in some capacity yesterday -- the result may be a quiet end to several quiet campaigns from the team's 10 rookies. Washington's three second-round picks have combined to make two starts this season -- league-wide, the 32 second-round picks from last April's draft have averaged 4.5 starts -- and Malcolm Kelly is likely to be inactive Sunday for the third straight week. The wide receiver will thus almost certainly end his injury-plagued debut season in the NFL having played in five games, with three catches for 18 yards.
"I'm not gonna put him up, unless there's a real spot for him," Zorn said yesterday. "I'm gonna have enough trouble with the guys that are ready to do battle, trying to get the mix right."
Zorn said there are no longer injury concerns with the wideout, and that the issue remains getting Kelly "up to speed." The team had considered putting him on the season-ending injured reserve list several times, and Zorn was asked whether, in retrospect, that would have been wiser.
"Those are risks that we took," he said. "It's a good thought, but that always was gonna be the conversation at the end of the season, should we have done that. We would have gotten more out of another guy that could have potentially been active, but I think it was worth the risk, hoping that he would get better. Because he really is [talented], he's got a great presence on the field. Just couldn't get him there, really couldn't get him there."
Offensive lineman Chad Rinehart, a third-round pick, earned heavy praise in preseason, and has been on the active roster the past two weeks after Justin Geisinger was placed on injured reserve. But Rinehart said his practice routine hasn't changed this week: He takes snaps with the first team on Wednesdays, when veteran guard Pete Kendall rests his knees, and otherwise serves primarily with the scout team. He has yet to take a snap in a game, and barring an injury, doesn't expect that to change Sunday.
"From all indications, it sounds like it's gonna be the same game plan going in as the other games have been, so it'll probably play out about the same, too," Rinehart said. "I kind of figured once the year went on I'd hopefully get in and get some snaps, but we've been successful with the line we've had, so I guess I have to look forward to next year and proving myself then."
The defense has relied more heavily on rookies, with seventh-round pick Chris Horton nailing down a starting safety job early in the year, and fellow safety Kareem Moore also playing extensively. Other rookies, such as defensive end Rob Jackson and cornerback Justin Tryon, have seen less time, and defensive coordinator Greg Blache echoed Zorn's thoughts on using Sunday's game to experiment.
"Our philosophy? Win," Blache said. "We need to win. Young guys' time will come when their time comes. When I go into San Francisco Sunday, we're trying to win."
The 49ers have been out of realistic playoff contention for weeks, but interim coach Mike Singletary said the team's focus never shifted to the 2009 season, and that this weekend will be the same.
"I think the most important thing for us is to go out and try to win football games," Singletary said. "To try to see younger guys or whatever, we'll have some time to see that certainly going forward. . . . Obviously I'd love to see them, but at the same time, if it's a situation in which we can't, then we won't try to push it."
Kelly, who bought a house in the Washington area and plans to remain here during the offseason to improve his preparation for next year, said he was unable to recover from his time away from practice.
"Especially for a first-year man, you really can't miss any time, or not as much time as I did," he said. "I've got high expectations coming into next year."
But for Zorn, the time for next year will come later. His veterans endorsed this approach -- " to steal a phrase from [Kansas City Chiefs Coach] Herm [Edwards], 'You play to win the game,' " Kendall said -- with several veterans saying the time to evaluate youth is in the offseason and training camp. Zorn, then, is focused on getting a ninth win, which would give the franchise consecutive winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade.
"If we don't see Malcolm Kelly do 10 reps on Sunday, I don't think that our view of his potential and what he might be able to do for us next year [changes]. He'll be slotted in to be a big part of what we've got going, regardless of 10 or 12 plays," Zorn said. "We're not gonna get anything more out of that, out of a few more reps. We're gonna get a lot more out of winning, I think. So that's what I want to do, and I think everybody wants that as well."