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Expect the Expected

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."

After that celebrating, however, there will be furrowed brows. "I have got to look at this thing very hard because it is my responsibility," he said after 362 yards of offense, and a decent statistical day by Jason Campbell (23 for 35, 242 yards, no turnovers) resulted in only three field goals. "I can wave all kind of magic wands, but I've got to come up the right play and put our guys in the right position."

You almost pity the Redskins' offensive players, so many of whom have been together since well back in the Joe Gibbs II period and are painfully aware of their limits, especially close to the opponent's goal line. When was this team last efficient in the red zone, I asked Antwaan Randle El. Late in '06, maybe?

"I can't even remember when," he said, after trying to think of various games in different years. "Not this year, for sure."

The player at the heart of the problem is Campbell. He can march a team up and down the field reasonably well, as attested by his 84.2 career passer rating. And he is actually the second-best quarterback in NFL history at avoiding interceptions -- just 2.1 percent of his throws get picked off.

But through all 38 of his starts, the same ugly thread has run. He can't get his team across the goal line. Only six times in those 38 games has his offense scored even three touchdowns. And in his starts, the Redskins have averaged 1.72 touchdowns per game with their offense on the field. They lack a tall, talented wide receiver to catch ally-oop passes. Clinton Portis is their only dangerous back, so their goal-line attack lacks variety. Tiny wide receivers Santana Moss and Randle El get erased in heavy traffic. Foes focus on shutting down big tight end Chris Cooley.

All of this, combined with Campbell's bullet passes, which sometimes overpower receivers at close quarters, and his fear of red-zone turnovers -- drilled into him by every offensive coordinator -- has culminated in one stunning statistic.

One of the critical ways to measure an NFL quarterback is his percentage of touchdown passes. In all eras, from Sammy Baugh (6.2 percent of his passes were touchdowns) to the present, the great passers know how to finish a drive. A typical touchdown percentage for a star is between 4.5 percent and 6 percent. Below 4 percent is poor. Zorn himself, as well as ex-Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, were only at 3.5 percent.

Out of all the 219 passers in NFL history who have thrown at least 900 passes, Campbell ranks in a five-way tie for 201st at 3.1 percent. Only 14 quarterbacks, all nonentities, rank lower. Is the flaw in Campbell? Or, as on Sunday, when both Devin Thomas and Mike Sellers missed possible touchdown catches from Campbell, is his paucity of scoring passes merely a reflection of an ill-built red-zone offense?

Give Campbell credit. He soldiers on, year after year explaining why so many drives, so many scoring chances, result in so few points. But it can't be lost on him that even Zorn seems have lost some confidence. In this game, on third and goal from the Rams 5-yard line, Zorn called for a pass -- but not from Campbell. Instead, he had Portis, whose passes are more like shot-puts, make the attempt -- which failed.

"We'll get killed again tomorrow," said Campbell, meaning the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking (like this) that is a precious part of Washington life. "Take it for what it's worth.

"Would you rather be on the other side [of 9-7]? Oh, everyone expects a lot [before the game]. But this is the Rams team that broke our season last year [with a 19-17 victory in FedEx]. We'll take the win."

Perhaps all those who hope the Redskins do well should feel that way. It's easy to wish that the Redskins were a better team. But, year after year, they aren't. The same problems and limits define them season after season. Now, if anything, the situation is even more dire with veteran right guard Randy Thomas likely out for the season. The last thing the Redskins needed was a depleted line. "That hurts a lot," Campbell murmured.

For the Redskins and their fans, this is a difficult line to walk. Too much realism seldom helps a football team. How do you convince yourself to take so much physical risk, week after week, simply to be pretty good? The hope of becoming exceptional is the ultimate carrot, even for mules.

"I am very pleased with how much we are progressing," Zorn said.

He said it with a straight face. He's a farmer without a choice.

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