The Fates of Coach Jim Zorn and Quarterback Jason Campbell Are Inextricably Linked

A behind-the-scenes look at Sports columnist Mike Wise's new radio show on 106.7 The Fan. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Mike Wise
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Before a clear-the-air moment with the owner last spring, Jason Campbell had another meeting -- a sobering sit-down with the coach, best described now as, "You might have to clear out your locker."

"I didn't make a phone call; I had him in my office," Jim Zorn said of his starting quarterback, whom the Washington Redskins didn't trade after all, despite dalliances with Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez and Dan Orlovsky. (Okay, everyone but Orlovsky).

"The conversation? I told Jason: 'This is reality. Deal with it. All these things that are happening are for real. We owe it to ourselves to take a look. You owe it to yourself to stay calm and get yourself ready and that's it.' Campbell managed a smile four days into his fifth training camp in Ashburn, finally laughing about his coach's frank words from this past spring.

"It's all about how you take in and process information," he said. "I didn't just hear the, 'You might be traded' stuff. He also said: 'A lot of things went wrong. Don't just sit here and think everything is on your shoulders.' "

Nah, it just feels that way.

Especially when a starved-for-attention kid behind the crowd barrier yelled, "Colt Brennan!" after Campbell threw an interception Sunday morning in Ashburn. Or, "Get off the field!" -- after Campbell ended the wet and drizzling session by throwing the ball away to avoid a possible sack.

Get off the field? Really? Four days into training camp? Isn't it swell to live in a town where each snap comes with an instant referendum?

When I think of Jason Campbell and Jim Zorn this season, I think of two men marooned on an island -- each needing the other to get back to the mainland, to maintain employment in Washington. They are inextricably linked this season, tethered to each other more than maybe any other quarterback-coach combo in the NFL.

One, Campbell, is in a contract year, and has been told by the only person who matters, Daniel Snyder, that he is not yet the quarterback the franchise wants him to be. Prove it or lose it, he was told.

The other, Zorn, has been given a fairly lofty target by ownership -- go out and win the toughest division in pro football in your second year. It's a 10-6-or-better proposition for the coach, who also knows how the game is played. His Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler -- the men rumored to take his job if he falters -- are named Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher. And if he can't get Campbell to take this team to the playoffs, the assumption is Zorn is on his way out.

So after all the position battles and manufactured preseason drama, there is one story line:

Can a quarterback and a coach trying to avoid lame-duck status bond and grow and use each other to keep their jobs and cement their future here?

"I'm tethered to all my guys," Zorn said. "Look, Jason is my quarterback. He was the quarterback that I decided when I got here he was going to be my number one guy. There is a reason I decided that."

Zorn went through the same process as a player himself once. Cold, hard fact: As a rookie quarterback in Seattle in 1976, he threw as many interceptions in one game as Campbell threw all of last season.

"Yep, six of 'em," he said. "And after I threw my fifth, [Coach] Jack Patera said to me, 'I'm putting you back in the game and we're still going to throw the ball.' "

The moral of that tale is that, through the absolute worst of times, Zorn knew his coach had his back.

"I'm solidly in his corner because he's progressing," Zorn said of Campbell. "He would be just another guy if he wasn't getting better. I'm watching his progression every day."

Said Campbell: "He gets a lot of criticism, too. And I know it's not all his fault."

Thinking back to their meeting in his office last April, Zorn gives Campbell a lot of credit for how he absorbed and dealt with what his coach was saying.

He didn't demand a trade or throw a Cutleresque conniption to ensure he was shipped out of town before he had genuinely proved himself.

He might have internalized the franchise's maneuvering as shady and disloyal. But Campbell got beyond all that, purging the negative thoughts about not being wanted and preparing himself for the most important training camp of his career.

"He could have done anything he wanted," Zorn said. "He chose to stay the course and work hard and try to not panic when things were all over the press. That says a lot about Jason."

As they dodge a litany of obstacles, all Jason Campbell and Jim Zorn have to do is repeat an old quarterback's creed: Avoid. Reset. Throw.

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