When Zorn Talks, the Redskins Listen

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 3, 2009

There is reason to believe Coach Jim Zorn can succeed with the Washington Redskins, though it's difficult to separate from wishful thinking. The natural mood at all NFL training camps is inflated expectation, and the upbeat, offbeat Zorn tends to invite an especially giddy sense of what's possible, with his karate kicks and coin tricks and drills that look like game-show stunts.

Extreme caution is called for because the Redskins are the crown princes of overpriced hype, and their offensive line at the moment looks dreadful. But Zorn has a tendency to defeat caution with that fizzing personality and energetic speechifying of his, chopping enthusiastically at the air until you believe. Based on the early reports from training camp, he has this much going for him: The players listen to him, and do what he asks. Even when he hurls pads at them.

The last time we saw Zorn, he was handing out leaflets to the Redskins entitled "Pursuits for the Offseason." And you know what? They actually read them. What's more, they did the things on the list. It's not much, maybe, but it's a start. Whether they did it for him, or themselves, it's better than all the empty promises that have gone before.

When training camp opened a year ago, Zorn was disappointed with the shape in which many of the Redskins reported, and the fact that some of them couldn't pass their conditioning tests. But this week, he's not disappointed. All of them actually passed -- even Fred Smoot, who apparently made his times without collapsing for once.

At the end of last season's 8-8 campaign, Zorn urged the exhausted, beat-up Redskins to get in better condition. One of the things on the leaflet, remember, was a quote from John Wooden: "Don't mistake activity for achievement." He talked about something called dinosaur training. He wanted the offensive linemen to shed fat and put on muscle, he wanted them lifting heavy objects, literally moving big furniture so they wouldn't collapse with fatigue and injuries halfway through a schedule again, and turn 6-2 into 2-6. He wanted Clinton Portis to put in enough work in the spring and summer so he wouldn't fade or pull up lame again in the fall, unable to reach 100 yards in his last five games.

The Redskins come to camp every year claiming they have a new attitude. But there are a couple of indications that, for once, they really do have one. Portis stayed in Virginia to work out at Redskins Park "at a higher level of intensity than he has before, than he's used to," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith told The Post's Barry Svrluga.

The linemen went into the Arizona desert and lifted the back ends of trucks in 110-degree heat. Chris Samuels dropped nearly 30 pounds, and Stephon Heyer and Derrick Dockery about 10 pounds. "They're much more fit than last year," Zorn remarked over the weekend, "probably by inches."

It's very early, but it's a change, and an improvement. Not even Joe Gibbs could say he got this sort of offseason response from a team. Much as the players may have liked Gibbs, they didn't always do the things he asked of them, especially when it came to voluntary workouts. When have the receivers ever come out to catch balls from a quarterback the way they did for Jason Campbell? They're talking about the positive strides Malcolm Kelly has made, and how lean Santana Moss looks.

What all of this signifies is that Zorn has had an influence over the players. They didn't blow him off; they showed up when they didn't have to, which implies that they accept his methods as sound. Which is interesting, since everyone knows Zorn is on the hot seat. Another break-even season won't be enough to keep him around with an owner as fidgety as Daniel Snyder. The Redskins will either make the playoffs, or Zorn will be gone in favor of a Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. With that prospect hanging over him, it's suggestive that players are responding to Zorn as they are.

The question is, can Zorn translate his influence with the team into enough wins to keep his job? Zorn remains somewhat unproven as a field general, and he simply may not be able to surmount a decade of mistakes by the front office in just two seasons. The offensive line, for all of its hard work, has been eaten alive by the pass rush early in camp. If it can't hold up, that is less the fault of Zorn than of management, which either through stubbornness or stupidity has refused to update and upgrade the personnel. Campbell was sacked more than any quarterback in the division last season, and if it happens again, it's hard to see how the Redskins can be appreciably better.

Zany creativity and the support of a work-toughed team may only get Zorn so far. But for the moment, it's what he's got -- and it's more than he had a year ago.

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