Zorn Must Decide if Time Is Right to Unleash Campbell, Offense

Just as he did in the season-opening loss to the Giants, Jason Campbell had problems hanging on to the ball in last year's loss to a Rams team that won just one other game all season.
Just as he did in the season-opening loss to the Giants, Jason Campbell had problems hanging on to the ball in last year's loss to a Rams team that won just one other game all season. (2008 Photo By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 17, 2009

NFL players have gut checks, but so do coaches. On Sunday against the Rams at FedEx Field and a week later in Detroit, Redskins Coach Jim Zorn will probably face two.

Against the two teams that gave up the most points in the NFL last season, and which got torched again Sunday, will Zorn give quarterback Jason Campbell and the offense their heads?

Will he finally let Campbell do a lot more of what he does best: throw intermediate to deep passes? Will he ignite the careers of young wide receivers Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas with an aerial attack? After 17 games in which the Redskins have failed to score 30 points and have averaged just 16.6, will Zorn at last show that his version of the West Coast offense is a potent attack, not a dud?

Or will he adhere to a fundamental rule of NFL survival: Don't lose games you know you should win. Will he continue to impose a play-not-to-lose game plan on Campbell and his offense, just as he has, for the most part, since he arrived?

Last season, the 2-14 Rams and the 0-16 Lions never played a close game unless they had an advantage of at least two turnovers. They are so bad, outscored by 233 and 249 points last season and by 28 and 18 in their openers Sunday, that they're competitive only when their foes invite them into the game with turnovers.

That's exactly how the Redskins lost to the Rams in Landover last year. On the flukiest play of their season, guard Pete Kendall caught a deflected Campbell pass, tried to run with it, and fumbled. The Rams returned the ball 75 yards for a score -- a 10-point swing with seconds left in the first half. That led to a 19-17 loss.

So Zorn has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

But which is which?

One is whispering: "If you lose to the Rams at home two straight years, your career could take a big hit. You saw what happened in New York: Campbell fumbled twice, once for a Giants touchdown, and threw an interception when he was three yards past the line of scrimmage. He's your weak link. Don't trust him."

The other is saying: "To succeed as an NFL coach, your offense has to work. That's why you were hired. You don't have a long leash. It can't work unless your quarterback improves -- a lot. He needs a second viable wide receiver besides Santana Moss. He has to learn to convert in the red zone. He has to be confident, a leader, even charismatic. He's got to torch some folks."

The Redskins' offensive players know which way they would like to go. Chris Cooley said Tuesday that, if they ran their offense crisply, the team would be "blowing people out." Clinton Portis, on John Thompson's radio show, said: "We didn't get an opportunity to go downfield, or we didn't attempt to go downfield many times last week. But once we get people out of the box and we get to throwing and catching and spreading people out, we'll be fine."

At the skill positions, the Redskins' offense is high on swagger. But, under Zorn, they have no body of work to back it up. If they get rolling, that attitude might become contagious, and "29th in scoring" can be forgotten. Even Campbell, who seldom shows his cards, is clearly chafing to show his skills.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company