By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn stood in the rain, waiting for a NASCAR race to start as the downpour came. Until last month at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, the retired-for-good Redskins coaching icon and the man who succeeded him had never really spent time together.
They talked family and Washington and football, which meant they also talked Jason Campbell.
"Just like anybody else would, like two armchair quarterbacks," Zorn said, quickly adding, "With maybe a little more knowledge."
"Good conversation," Gibbs said. "We talked a little bit about everything. Not personnel, but more general talk between coaches."
Asked if he felt Campbell was mistreated by an organization that dangled him for Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez, Gibbs wouldn't bite.
"I have a different outlook on that," Gibbs said of shopping the quarterback he had plucked from Auburn. "At some point you're going to have to take the team down the field in a driving hailstorm to win the game. If you get all uptight about stuff as the quarterback -- if [trade rumors] is something that bothers you -- you're in the wrong position."
Translation: Buck up, Jason.
"You gotta realize an NFL quarterback is going to go through a lot -- all the ones I coached did," Gibbs added through that shrill laugh of his. "If it wasn't [Mark] Rypien getting benched in the middle of a season, it was Joe Theismann technically going to get benched. Or it was Doug Williams going through two teams and coming here when everybody thought his career was over."
Gibbs related his meeting with Zorn at a recent FedEx charity event in front of the Salvation Army off New York Avenue in Northeast Washington. The president of Joe Gibbs Racing had invited Zorn down to the speedway to experience the zoom of his racing team's engines, and Zorn finally took him up on the offer. He brought his son Isaac to Charlotte while also visiting his father, who lives in the area.
Zorn has been supportive of Gibbs's charity, Youth for Tomorrow. But for much of the past 18 months, since he got the Redskins' head coaching job in February 2008, Zorn has tread lightly on the topic of Gibbs, walking a fine line, paying homage to his predecessor's great past while being careful not to get caught up in the hyperbole that surrounds a legend.
For weeks during his first training camp in Washington, Zorn never mentioned Gibbs by name, and his say-anything candor felt like a cutting protest to the tight-lipped icon he replaced.
Zorn clearly felt comfortable around Gibbs and admired and appreciated what he had accomplished. But he was also confident, without being arrogant, that he could make his own mark as a head coach in the NFL.
If the post-Gibbs Redskins were still going to be all about Joe, what kind of environment would that be for a newbie to foster respect in the locker room?
As the long season wore on, it was also natural for Zorn to wonder what made Gibbs so beloved as a leader, so good at what he did.
They spent probably an hour together in Charlotte talking, mostly because the weather forced postponement of the race. Zorn never heard a car start, but he got to see how Gibbs meticulously runs a team.
"To see Joe in his element as a racing owner, how much he is involved, was pretty incredible," Zorn said, recalling that one crew member he met from Michigan was flown in specifically to take care of the two rear tires of Gibbs's Home Depot car.
"He had all the parts and systems working and he made it seem so easy."
"I think he has a good feel for the job and where he is," Gibbs said of Zorn. "He understands coaching. He understands where he is. I think that going through that first year, I know what that was like for me. I mean, he wound up in the same spot I did -- 8-8. The second year, you're more settled."
Blemished legacy or not, Gibbs said he doesn't regret his second go-round in Washington, coming back for four more years and three playoff games.
"In life, you get an opportunity you take it," he said. "It was important for me to come back. I felt like it was the right thing for me to do. I think it was the right time for me to leave. I took my best shot and went after it.
"The four games we won after Sean [Taylor] died was the most unbelievable coaching experience ever," he added. "How that team came together and got into the playoffs, man, just unbelievable."
When they spoke in the rain a few weeks ago, Zorn said he didn't make any cracks about following an icon. "No, but I know," he said.
"My hope is he sees my passion for this football team as well," Zorn said. "My hope is he sees it in good hands and he likes how it's run. I want him feel like it's run well, where he says: 'Hey that's good. That's good.' And those 'That's goods' get louder and louder, instead of 'Aw, sheesh.' He still cares about what we do."
One last thing: When the rains became heavy that day, Zorn recalled Gibbs coming over to make sure he and his son Isaac stayed dry.
"He handed me an umbrella," Zorn said of Gibbs, the man still very good at protecting others from a downpour.