By Mike Wise
Monday, September 14, 2009
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
If I'm scoring at home, I wouldn't be worried about a season-opening loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands. Outside of Washington, that was expected.
What I would worry about was the trick play called before halftime, the fake field goal that, lucky for Jim Zorn, wound up with his punter scoring a touchdown.
That play did not have Sept. 13 written all over it. It looked like a gadget to be used Oct. 26, home against the Eagles -- or, heck, Nov. 22, in Dallas.
But an aura of desperation surrounded that call in the first game, such an absolute do-or-die mentality after two failed trick plays. It smacked of Zorn having to pull out something this season. Or else everyone in the world -- including the Redskins owner -- was going to tear into him something fierce.
It smacked of a coach on the hot seat.
If I'm Jim Zorn, I'm also worried about what I'm going to say when someone asks me Monday at my post-mortem news conference, "Who makes that audible call at third and eight late in the third quarter?" The inexplicable play that resulted in Ladell Betts losing two yards off right guard. Because if it's Jason Campbell I really want to know why and how he came up with that.
If it was Zorn's call, I need a better answer.
I like Jim Zorn, the person. I consider him a refreshing change, a cutting protest to the gruff coaching stereotype. Between his choice in music (electronica played on kids' toys) and the abstract rumination ("You know what's awesome?" he once began, "repetition."), we know Jim Zorn is out there.
Fine. Beautiful. Beats the Bill Belichick-Jon Gruden-I'm-A-Miserable-Coach Club.
But is it asking too much for the coach of the Washington Redskins to be here on game days?
Trickery certainly didn't work Sunday in this eyesore. I love the "Inspector Gadget" in Zorn, but until the very end of a miserable first half, he caught no one off guard, other than his own players.
His play-calling in the red zone didn't work, either.
With the ball at the 11-yard line at the end of the third quarter, not once was Campbell allowed to take a shot in the end zone -- in a physical scrum that almost demanded a touchdown instead of a field goal at that point.
And then there was the discipline issue, which Zorn was visibly upset about afterward.
Santana Moss trading blows with Giants defensive back Corey Webster, the best receiver on the team losing his helmet and his composure as he was body-slammed to the ground deep in his own territory.
LaRon Landry popping Brandon Jacobs after the Giants' running back galloped down the right sideline and had gone out of bounds. It was unclear whether Landry remembered that he was pancaked by Jacobs a year ago in the opener, but it was just one of those what-are-you-thinking moments that brings up a lot of questions about a team losing its wits about itself when it matters.
"We have to be the ones to maintain our composure," Zorn said. Earlier he said, "We didn't have our poise."
Did we mention a couple of unnecessary timeouts taken by a team that needed every one at the end of a game, when it couldn't stop the clock to get the ball back? One had something to do with offensive alignment, which isn't specifically Zorn's fault.
But he's the coach and he would agree that all of it is his fault in some way.
The hard truth for Zorn and his ability to keep the reins of this franchise in his hands: He's not only got to look good on the win-loss ledger, but he's also got to look competent and worth keeping on team owner Daniel Snyder's ledger. It begins with one question:
Is this my coach next season?
In order to succeed in that vein, Zorn doesn't have to be who he's not -- Bill Parcells or some other blowhard who says quotable gruff stuff like, "Don't show me the pain, show me the baby." (Although, just once, I would like to see a Zorn news conference where he's not explaining everything as thoughtfully and thoroughly as my pre-Algebra teacher, where he just said, "No," "Yes," "No," and walks out, angry as hell about a loss).
But he does have to come across as a leader of men, someone whose players aren't questioning his methods or his strategies because they firmly believe Zorn's ways have a means to an end -- and that end is making the Redskins a playoff team.
There were two players in the locker room Sunday, who, on condition of anonymity, under their breath when everyone else walked away, wondered whether an option was the right play to call from the second play from scrimmage, after Clinton Portis had ripped off a 34-yard run -- a play that resulted in Antwaan Randle El being tackled for an 11-yard loss.
Or whether a reverse pass near the goal line, which went for a two-yard loss to Moss, was really the right call in that instant.
"It was scripted," Portis said. "Unfortunately for us, we weren't in a rhythm to run them at that moment. Look, the only thing that happened [Sunday] was we found out we can't go undefeated."
For Zorn's sake, I'm glad that fake field goal Hunter Smith scored on worked. Because if it didn't, the Redskins go into the locker room down 17-0 in one of the most dreadful first halves imaginable.
Count me among the multitudes of people who wanted to see the re-emergence of the roll-the-dice character who fooled the Cowboys and the Eagles in the first month of the regular season a year ago.
When Zorn unearthed a fourth-down fake in his own territory during the preseason -- that amazingly went for a first down when the ball was hiked to the upback, Rock Cartwright -- a chorus of people worried aloud that the coach was showing his cards too soon, that coaches shouldn't give away tells like that in the exhibition season.
It seemed trite logic at the time, especially if Zorn wasn't going to break out the magic book until October or November. But that fake field goal before halftime did not look scripted -- not one bit.
It looked like the call of a man who knows it's got to happen for him and his team now.
The discipline. The improved play-calling. And especially the points on the scoreboard, the notion that this offense is appreciably better than the sorry lot that closed out last season.
Or Jim Zorn will be out there all right -- in a way that has nothing to do with the abstract.