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.
"You have a quarterback that has a strong arm and likes to get the ball deeper downfield and hit those deeper and intermediate routes," Campbell said on the LaVar and Dukes radio show. The quarterback then said coaches might have been worried in New York about whether he would get enough pass protection for such routes or if the patterns would be run at the proper depth. (Ouch.)
Asked if he wanted a chance at those deeper routes, Campbell said: "Every quarterback wants that. . . . If a quarterback tells you they don't, then there's something wrong with them." Had he been given any of those opportunities yet? "Ummm," Campbell said.
Then, he explained that while Zorn wants to utilize more of his offense, it's not a simple decision to turn the attack loose.
"There's things he wants to get to, calling things," Campbell said.
Then Campbell touched the core of the offensive problems since Zorn arrived: Does the coach trust his players to execute his plays properly -- every player on every play in the book, including a hurry-up offense in mid-game? Have they earned that kind of trust yet? It's a tough two-way street.
"What we have to do is that trust thing," Campbell said. "We have to be able to trust each other, no matter what's called or no matter [who's] on the field. Every play's not going to be a perfect play or a positive play but make sure you have more big ones at the end of the day than the ones that you mess up."
Zorn has had two offseasons, two training camps, two preseason schedules and 17 regular season games in which to teach his pupils. At some point, you have to grade the teacher if the students don't learn. Last season, Zorn never stopped fretting. A Giants season opener on the road may be the wrong time to give the family teenager the keys to the Jaguar.
But if not now, with the Rams and the Lions on deck, when?
To outsiders, this may seem an easy call. It's not. Zorn has spent more than 30 years in the NFL. He knows how frequently the Redskins' offense blows assignments, runs the wrong routes or, in Campbell's case, exposes the ball to rushers in a crumbling pocket.
"I can tell you that we have a very good football team," Zorn said after Sunday's loss. "Our challenge [is] to become more disciplined. . . . I'm flashing on all these little things that happened with either decision-making, alignment, a couple of penalties, that hurt us [on offense]."
If you were Zorn, you'd be having flashbacks, too. Imagine how bad last season might have been except for Campbell's dramatic improvement in protecting the ball.
But in the NFL, risk and reward go together. The same conservatism that helped the Redskins commit just 18 turnovers in '08 was also a reason they scored just 15 offensive touchdowns in the final 11 games.
The Redskins' next five games are so merciful by NFL standards that any coach would hear the siren song of conservative play. Why blow the chance to start the season 4-2 just so the offense can come of age? Let 'em ride the defense's bus. Give the rebuilt offensive line a few more weeks in which to jell.
It's so tempting to put off days of reckoning.
In the end, this may be an example of nervous short-term thinking colliding with wise long-term franchise development. The Redskins need to find out if Zorn's system is special, whether he can teach it effectively and whether Campbell is the quarterback to run it. Both the coach and the quarterback need to be measured. And judged, too. Why not start getting answers when the schedule maximizes your chances for success?
Now is the time.