By John Feinstein
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
To paraphrase the great Keith Jackson, "there's a whole lot of booing going on around here."
Around here would be the Washington metropolitan area. The Redskins, whose fate is considered by most to be only slightly more important than the health care bill, actually won on Sunday and still got booed. It might have been their failure to beat the spread or -- more likely -- it was that the final score was 9-7 against the woeful St. Louis Rams.
The night before in College Park, the Maryland football team heard some serious booing after losing 32-31 to Middle Tennessee on a field goal as time expired. No, that's not Tennessee; it's Middle Tennessee -- a team Maryland lost to a year ago on the road. Terrapins fans no doubt would have left Byrd Stadium in a bad mood -- much like Redskins fans -- even if the final kick had somehow been blocked or sailed wide to allow the Terrapins to escape the way they did a week ago in overtime against James Madison.
The message in both places is this: The fans aren't happy. When fans aren't happy, the coaches bear the brunt of the criticism, usually about a step ahead of the quarterback.
Jim Zorn is two games into his second season with the Redskins. His record is 9-9. He took over a team that had gone 9-7 plus a first-round playoff loss under Joe Gibbs in 2007, a team that failed to draft any offensive linemen in the 2008 draft who could help right away. A year ago, with the Redskins at 6-2, one could almost envision a statue of Zorn outside the stadium formerly named for Jack Kent Cooke.
Then age and injuries caught up with the offensive line, the team collapsed and finished 8-8. So much for the statue. Half the town was crying, "Next!" urging Snyder to throw more money at another big-name coach -- a tactic that has yielded two playoff wins in his 10-year tenure as owner, one with Norv Turner, the coach he inherited.
The funny thing about it all is that three weeks from now, the Redskins could easily be 5-1. The next four opponents -- the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs -- are a combined 0-8. But if the team should throw in a loss during this next stretch, Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell will be pilloried again in every corner of Redskins-land.
Let's forget that it's almost impossible to judge an NFL coach after 18 games. Bill Parcells won three games in his first season with the Giants and Bill Belichick got fired in Cleveland after five mostly mediocre seasons. Gibbs was 8-8 -- just like Zorn -- in his first season. Eric Mangini made the playoffs in his first season with the Jets. He may never coach another winning team.
It is almost impossible to fairly judge a quarterback if his offensive line can't produce a consistent running game or pass protection. Mark Rypien looked like Terry Bradshaw in 1991, when the Redskins line kept him so well insulated his uniform rarely needed to be laundered after games. Of course, that hasn't stopped anyone from judging Zorn or Campbell.
Let's ask this question then: Who hired Zorn? Who put himself in a position where, even for huge money, almost no established NFL coach wanted to work here -- in part because the team had hired an offensive coordinator (Zorn) before hiring a head coach? What does it say when Steve Spurrier walked away from $15 million left on his contract just so he could get away?
Gibbs drafted Campbell. Gibbs also insisted on bringing in a washed-up Mark Brunell. But if Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato were so convinced that Campbell was the wrong choice, why didn't they simply pull the trigger on some deal -- ANY deal -- to bring in a new quarterback this season? Instead, they let Campbell twist in the wind, probably damaged his confidence and ensured that he'll leave after this season even if he emerges as a star. Either way, they'll be back to the quarterback drawing board.
Then again, to my knowledge, they haven't sued any of the "best fans in football" in weeks, so maybe things are improving.
The college game is different. The buck most definitely stops with the head coach. He chooses the staff and recruits the players. If Maryland is too young this season, that's on Ralph Friedgen. He's in his ninth year so if there's a recruiting gap, the finger should be pointed at him.
Having said that, it is worth remembering where Maryland football was when Friedgen arrived prior to the 2001 season. It had been mediocre, at best, since Bobby Ross had fled. Maryland alumni, led by Boomer Esiason, all but demanded that Debbie Yow hire Friedgen, also a Maryland grad, and it worked. Friedgen's first three seasons were breathtaking. The Terrapins were 31-8, went to the Orange Bowl as the ACC champions in 2001 and won bowl games the next two seasons. Three straight years with at least 10 wins. That's unheard of at Maryland.
Since then, there's been a clear leveling off. After the Middle Tennessee loss, Friedgen is 34-30 dating from 2004 and has had three losing seasons in the last five although last year was better: 8-5 including a bowl win, albeit in the Humanitarian Bowl.
That said, the Terrapins have never been more than a game under .500 under Friedgen, and he has earned some benefit of the doubt -- in part because he's had success; in part because he infused new energy into the program and was responsible for Maryland being able to raise the money for its stadium expansion, which in hindsight might not have been such a great idea.
Friedgen is 62. In February, at Yow's insistence, James Franklin was put in place as the "coach-in-waiting," a move that apparently didn't thrill Friedgen, who would like to decide when to retire on his own terms. There is still time for this team to recover. The schedule is hardly daunting. Rutgers, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina State and Boston College are all mediocre at best. Friedgen's team tend to improve as the season goes on.
Of course, as with the Redskins, if things don't improve there will be cries for Friedgen's head, calls to move the youthful Franklin up sooner rather than later. Friedgen deserves better than that. At the very least he deserves next season -- regardless of what happens this season-- to see what he can do with a team that should be more mature.
Most fans don't want to hear about inexperience. They don't want to hear the quarterback needs more time or the coach needs the owner and alleged general manager to do a better job picking players and dealing with the salary cap.
They want wins. If they don't get them, they're going to boo. And, as we found out Sunday, on occasion they'll boo even when they do get a win. To quote Keith Jackson, "folks around here are just plain tough to please."
For more on the author, visit his Web site at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com