Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn Deals With the Pressure of a Must-Win Season His Own Way

By Barry Svrluga Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Both flat screen televisions were on, one displaying a list of plays beamed in by computer, the other showing film of a football game, the execution of those plays to be assessed and dissected. Jim Zorn logged into his desktop computer and tapped into his iTunes library, packed with heavy guitars and the most obscure electronica imaginable.

The sun barely peeked through the window, past the Hoggettes bobbleheads and the trophy turkey feathers provided by defensive coordinator Greg Blache. Most of Zorn's mornings begin here in just this way: darkness outside, lights on in his office, eyes bleary, mind seeking clarity. Most days the head coach of the Washington Redskins pulls out a devotional, a thought for the day from one of his favorite pastors -- Tony Evans or Chuck Swindoll or Alistair Begg -- or perhaps one from a paperback pamphlet that sits on his desk called "Encounter with God." In the days leading up to the Redskins' season opener, the first game of Zorn's second season at the helm, the thought to pray over in that book read: "Lord, I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief."

Zorn, it is clear, believes. In his team. In his staff. In himself. It does not matter if that belief is widely held across the NFL, across Washington or even within the walls of the Redskins' complex in Ashburn. The pressures on Zorn are simultaneously inescapable and ignored. Should Zorn fail -- Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder lists the first goal as winning the NFC's East Division, something the Redskins last accomplished in 1999, 10 years and four coaches ago -- his career, and those of the men below him, will almost certainly be al tered.

That, though, is the broadest scope. As the sun rises and the work begins on a day late in the preseason, that big-picture view is elbowed aside by the minutiae at hand. The only way to handle the pressure is to obscure it by analyzing a quarterback's three-step drop, or by "investigating," as Zorn says, why a screen pass went awry.

"You're kind of hired as a man in my profession who is capable of handling a lot of pressure," Zorn said.

So he considers the amount of leeway he has, with the season beginning Sunday against the New York Giants in New Jersey, irrelevant. "To me, that's outside sources putting pressure on him," said Vinny Cerrato, the club's executive vice president for football operations. Zorn, too, dismisses the idea of external pressure. During the offseason, a staff member suggested they make a decision because, as he put it, "We really have to win next year."

Zorn cut him off. Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren -- all have won Super Bowls, all are unemployed, all might coach again. None of them can matter to Zorn.

"In this league, you always have to win," Zorn told his staff member. "And we are not going to, as a staff, make stupid decisions based on, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to win.' "

"He's not dumb," said Joy Zorn, his wife of 30 years. "He knows this is probably a do-or-die year, and he knows that the talk is out there that, 'Jim, if you don't get us to the playoffs this year, with so many quote 'Hall of Fame' coaches out there, Mr. Snyder's going to . . . ' " She trailed off. The end result is so obvious.

"But you know what?" she continued. "Jim has this job right now. He's got this opportunity. His attitude is, 'Hey, let's make it work.' "

Zorn's way of making it work is, by NFL standards, quirky, if not downright unconventional. He doesn't sleep at the office. "Couldn't do it," he said as he fumbled for his keys in the darkness on his way in. "But I'll get a nap in later today."

Those naps often come right in his chair, head on his fist, elbow on the desk, 10 minutes that revitalize his day. His mornings consist not only of the devotional, but of a daily crossword puzzle in the offseason, and maybe a little National Public Radio that might override whatever his 1,600-song library iTunes selects. ("I like the whole remix scene," Zorn said one day after practice. "Have you ever heard of the Knife? Have you ever heard of the Orb?" He pumped one band, Psapp, through his speakers and said matter-of-factly, "They play their music on kids' toys. Wait . . . listen to her voice.")

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