By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
For Jim Zorn, there is always an explanation for why a specific play didn't work, and each day that follows a game during the Redskins' season, he spends time investigating the particulars on every snap. On Monday, he went over each of 69 plays his offensive unit ran in Sunday's 9-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Twenty-one of those plays resulted in first downs. Seven of them went for at least 15 yards. None of them -- not even the dozen plays the Redskins ran inside the Rams 10-yard line -- resulted in a touchdown.
"If I could see it now, if I could see every play that was going to fail before it failed, I wouldn't call it," Zorn said. "But I felt very confident, because we work on it. We have to execute it. . . . It's not a grab-bag situation. I'm going to go back and study it more, and I'm going to be hard on myself as well, which is what I do. We'll see what happened."
What has happened 18 games into Zorn's tenure as both the Redskins' head coach and its offensive play caller: Washington has averaged 16.2 points and 1.5 offensive touchdowns per game, and is still very much looking for an offensive identity. Zorn envisions a dynamic attack in which points come in bunches, in which the goal line is an open door, not a barrier.
"I think we improved," Zorn said on Monday, a day after the Redskins gained 362 yards.
Still, in two games this year, Zorn's offense has two touchdowns -- both against the New York Giants, one on a fake field goal run by punter Hunter Smith, the other in the final two minutes when the Giants were protecting a two-touchdown lead. Since the 2008 season began, only three NFL teams have scored fewer points than the Redskins. Those teams -- Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis -- all have head coaches who previously served as defensive coordinators.
The situation has Zorn's players and coaches alike stewing as the Redskins prepare for a trip to Detroit, which has lost 19 straight games, this weekend.
"It's one of those things, man, [that] just makes you scratch your head," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "You wonder why [stuff] ain't working for you. All you can do is scratch your head, man. Yeah, it's true, we have the talent. Yes, you're sitting there saying, 'We should be doing this; we should be doing that.' But 'should be' ain't good enough. You got to go out there and do it. At the end of the day, you have to go out there and get the job done."
During his tenure overseeing the Redskins' offense, Zorn has professed confidence in his ability as a play-caller, even though he had never held the job in the NFL before Washington hired him from the Seattle Seahawks, where he had served as quarterbacks coach under offensive whiz Mike Holmgren. Monday, he considered his vision for the offense, the difference between what he is seeing and what he would like to see, and he paused.
"I think [my vision] would look like we are between the 20s, right?" Zorn said. "Because we're moving the ball. We're making big plays."
That, though, has generally stopped inside the opponents 20-yard line, known in NFL parlance as "the red zone." Four times Sunday, the Redskins ventured inside the Rams 20. Three times, they settled for Shaun Suisham field goals. Once, they were stopped on fourth down.
"As soon as we get inside the 20, something happens," center Casey Rabach said. Then came the question no one could answer: Why?
"If I knew that," Rabach said, "we'd be scoring points."
"A lot of it just has to do with attitude and mentality to score," quarterback Jason Campbell said.
Zorn, more than anything, believes it is a matter of players executing their assignments. It is a theme that dates from last year, when the Redskins shot out to a 6-2 start only to collapse by losing six of their final eight games. When he was asked about failed plays from the victory over the Rams, Zorn pointed to problems in each one. Wide receiver Devin Thomas and fullback Mike Sellers each dropped catchable balls that would have gone for scores. On a fourth-down call in which the Redskins tried to use running back Clinton Portis over the left side, the play wasn't blocked correctly. One pass from Campbell to the flat developed only because Campbell was pressured; the call was actually designed for Moss, who Zorn said was open well down the field.
"It was one play, and we had what we wanted," Zorn said, using one example to point out how an entire offense can appear to break down because of small mistakes. "But on every single play, we're not going to be successful. So I dial up another play. And to everybody, it looks like, 'Why's he throwing to the flat? Boy, that was a bad throw.' And yet, everything else was just right on to throw a touchdown pass to Santana Moss."
The play, though, wasn't maximized, and so the questions about the offense continued. Each time the Redskins had a first down in the red zone -- twice from the Rams 8, once from the 7 and once from the 11 -- Zorn called a run. He said he did that because "one of the calls to get down there was a run." Twice, that was the case: Portis gained 11 yards to set up a first-and-goal situation in the first quarter, and he gained nine yards to get first and 10 at the 11 in the fourth quarter. Twice, though, the first-and-goal situations were set up by passes.
"I think, 'Here we go,' " Zorn said of the runs. "That is what we're looking for, positive plays just like that. And so I called another one. . . . You only have a critical moment to make that decision, and I thought I was -- I look back, but I thought I was right on in the thought process of getting those plays."
Zorn also defended a halfback pass play on third and goal from the 5, one on which Portis overthrew tight end Chris Cooley. "It was a play we had in our game plan," Zorn said.
The issue of play-calling is a touchy one in any NFL locker room, and the Redskins almost all said it was up to them to correctly run the plays Zorn calls, not to question them.
"Players think a lot of things," Moss said. "Every player's going to wonder why we didn't call something or why we did. If you [are] a team, you don't sit there and dwell on the fact of, 'We didn't call it.' The coaches give us a chance to make a play, so whatever we call, whatever they dial up, we have to be ready for. We execute it to the best of our ability, whether we score or not. It's never an issue when it comes to what the coach dials up, because he's giving somebody a chance to get it done."
The Redskins, though, have not gotten it done. In those 18 games under Zorn, the Redskins have scored three touchdowns in a game just three times. Ten times, they have scored either one or no offensive touchdowns. Because the players believe they have the talent to score -- "Definitely, man, no question about it," second-year wide receiver Malcolm Kelly said -- they continue to be perplexed. Asked whether he would expect the offense to score more given the Redskins' personnel, Sellers -- one of three members of the offense who made last year's Pro Bowl -- mulled it over before saying, "Next question."
The next question, for Zorn, is simple: Can the offense produce more points during a crucial stretch of the schedule? The Redskins' next four opponents -- Detroit, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City -- are a combined 0-8. In the 32-team NFL, their ranks in scoring defense are as follows: 32nd, 31st, 30th and 24th, respectively. Can Zorn's offense, still looking for its identity, score against that lot?
"We have to pay attention to the detail of the work," Zorn said. "That is what it's going to take for us to continue to improve."