Thomas Boswell on the Redskins and the Patience Required With Low Expectations

With the offense sputtering around him, especially inside the 20-yard line, Jason Campbell cuts a solitary figure.
With the offense sputtering around him, especially inside the 20-yard line, Jason Campbell cuts a solitary figure. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 21, 2009

Wise farmers know that only a fool gets mad at a mule. A donkey is just a donkey. You can't expect it to be a thoroughbred. If you're dumb enough to scream at an ass, then it will be smart enough to sit down in the field and quit working entirely.

You can tell what a football coach thinks about his team by the way he treats it when it frustrates him the way a stubborn mule drives a farmer to the brink of sanity. If he thinks he's got a thoroughbred team, he makes demands and raises his voice. You can hold a thoroughbred to a high standard. If he thinks he's got mules, then you can tell that, too.

Jim Zorn thinks he's got mules, same as last year. Get your patience ready. Nothing in the Redskins' first two games gives any reasonable hopes, as yet, for much change. Prepare for close games, even against the very worst of opponents, as well as a stellar defense that makes any game winnable and an infuriating offense that would make even the most stoic farmer cry.

On Sunday at FedEx Field, as his Redskins barely escaped from the unutterably bad St. Louis Rams (5-29 since '06) by a homely 9-7 margin, Zorn got so frustrated that he ran 50 yards down the sideline, all the way to the goal line, to yell "timeout" at an official.

Yet after the game, after he'd calmed down, after his team had survived its terrible offensive play in the red zone as well as his own rip-up-the-book coaching, Zorn showed his true feelings about his team. And generous emotions they were. Zorn probably has it right. Don't beat this team with a stick. Coax it. Encourage it. Live with its limitations. But that is hardly what the Redskins' ardent fans, or the team's impatient owner, may want from him.

Silence, full of the unspoken anxiety of his players, greeted Zorn as he walked into the locker room after his gamble on fourth and one at the Rams 2-yard line with two minutes to play had failed, but his defense had bailed him out on his failed gamble.

How would he react? That is the question the Redskins always face. How will the fans, the media or the owner react? Will they rant and demand heads? And what will the coach think, because their efforts so often fall short of the demands?

"I feel really good about the win," said Zorn. "When we walked into the locker room, it was quiet. We knew that we under-performed in areas. But we were really good in a lot. We're going to celebrate the victory. We will celebrate what we did well and then we will get back to work. We will get better again next week."

Get better again?

Actually, the Redskins -- especially Zorn's offense -- haven't improved at all, instead falling backwards since midseason last year. Once again, just as in '08, Zorn's biggest problem is the inability of his offensive coordinator to design plays, then call them appropriately, to score inside the 20-yard line. But Zorn is essentially his own final word on all offensive matters. So why yell at his team until he finishes berating himself?

In the most vivid symbol of his frustration, Zorn made as dubious a decision as you'll see, going for it on fourth and one at the Rams 2 with two minutes remaining. The conventional -- some would say "sane" -- reasoning is that you take the easy field goal for a five-point lead and force your foe to go all the way for a touchdown to win. Why get stopped, surrender the ball and risk losing the game on a long field goal -- which statistically is far easier to get than a touchdown in a short amount of time.

The fourth-down gamble failed, but the defense held. So, smile. In the world of hard-fought .500 football, that's not a reprieve, it's a cause, as Zorn said, "to celebrate."

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