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Redskins Coach Jim Zorn Remains Resolute Despite Pressures

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The Washington Post Redskins Insider Rick Maese talks about the Redskins' upcoming game against the Detroit Lions, a team that has lost their last 19 games. After a lackluster win over the St. Louis Rams last week, the Redskins find themselves under pressure to turn out an authoritative win against Detroit.

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By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn is arguably the most pressured coach in the NFL. He's dealing with a thin roster, bad management and an owner with a record of running off coaches every two to three years. He also has his own inexperience to surmount, having been leapfrogged into the head job without ever having called a play before. He shows signs of being inspired, but he makes visible mistakes as he learns on the go (what did anyone expect?), and to top it off he's dealing with an enraged fan base that booed a home victory, though that was likely less about him and more about a decade of mediocrity.

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Worried about what your employer thinks of your job performance? Feel like your colleagues are backstabbing you? Concerned that you've been given a lot of responsibility but not enough wherewithal? No matter what Zorn's failings, he's done an excellent job with the Redskins in one respect: He has provided the whole city with an example of how to cope gracefully with stress. He's shown enough courage in his football convictions to deserve the chance to prove he can be successful, though a flawed roster and hair-trigger owner may not allow it, and he maintains his upbeat outlook and insists that over time the team "will grow."

Zorn needs time to grow, too.

"That's right," he said. But: "Really, I'm not even asking myself that question or thinking about anything like that partly because I don't have time. Maybe in my old age I'll reflect and whine a little bit about that. But that's not this league, and that's not what a man does."

It may be that coaching the Redskins is an idiot's job, pointless and untenable, but Zorn continues to act as if he's got some self-determination, and to prove it he would still bench Sonny Jurgensen. During a postgame radio exchange, Jurgensen said if he were the quarterback he would have ignored Zorn's call for a halfback pass on third down and changed the play; Zorn responded that he would bench a quarterback showing such insubordination. The wrangle was mostly harmless, but it was also meaningful, because there's no such thing as light banter right now at Redskins Park.

"I think people ought to recognize that I actually listened to the question, and I know what I would have done in that situation," Zorn said following a midweek practice. "I know what I would have done. No joke."

Those who read a personal problem between Jurgensen and Zorn into the exchange are wrong. Sonny and Zorn are two of the most entertaining conversationalists in football, and it's evident they get along. But given the circumstances, the dynamic between them is worth analyzing. Not many coaches would have the stomach to spar with Jurgensen, a confidante of owner Daniel Snyder, without paranoia or losing a sense of himself.

"Yeah, he got in my face about something, and I just got back in his face," Zorn says. "We talked afterwards as well, and I don't think one bit differently toward Sonny than I did before. I think it's fun to have on the show, because it's two guys, you know, yah-yah-yah. We're just jawing."

The exchange left the misleading impression that Zorn's play-calling is a major problem for the Redskins. It's not. Their futility is less a matter of calls than execution. What held the score to 9-7 against the Rams was not controversial decisions but dropped passes and missed reads. Clinton Portis estimates they've left 42 points on the field with mistakes, and they're capable of blowing up the scoreboard against the Detroit Lions if they get some of those things right.

"If they looking at the game tape, they thinking that we could be explosive," Portis said. "They going to look and say this team got the capability of being good, they not there yet, but I think you see the weapons, people, the explosion . . . they see we have a man running downfield wide open and we collapse, or miss a block, or miss an assignment, or I miss a read."

Play-calling is an ephemeral craft. It's partly about game science and preparation, but the rest is tempo, intuition, educated guesswork, and situational feedback, it's a violent high-speed card game. In a way it's highly individual, an expression of personality, and Zorn's still-emerging personality is intriguing. His mistakes tend to be aggressive ones that raise the professional stakes. He puts himself on the spot.

Zorn gets some mercy on this subject from an interesting source: Jurgensen.

"Play-calling, let me say this, and I've said this as long as I've been in the game, or around the game: It's overrated," Jurgensen says. "Play-calling is overrated. And the reason I say that is that you can call the worst play in the world and if you execute it, if you go in the huddle and tell the guys to give you time, and you call a pattern and you execute it and get a touchdown, boy, what a good call that was. It could've been into double coverage and everything else, right? It's a matter of execution. The coach calls a draw play on third and eight, and he gets seven. What a dumb call. Why would you do that? But if he gets nine, it was a great call, wasn't it?"

Jurgensen's pronouncements aren't just opinions for pay as an employee of the Redskins Radio Network; he's deeply invested and more entitled than most to question what Zorn is trying to do. It's a relationship that puts some heat on Zorn, but it's also one that's potentially beneficial. It's worth taking a moment to revisit who Jurgensen was as a quarterback. He could beat the clock like no one else, find five different receivers and peer through defenses like a clairvoyant. His career was a triumph of physical courage and -- this is significant -- he endured a succession of bum coaches who didn't know half what he did about the game. The exceptions were George Allen and Vince Lombardi.

Zorn is smart enough to know Jurgensen is a man he can borrow from. Their on-air interviews reflect just a fraction of their conversations; they talk football intently each week after tapings, chewing over their approaches to the game.

"Sonny, and myself, we've been behind the center, and we've been in programs for so long that you kind of know some of the mess that goes on," Zorn says.

The other day, when the two were talking about how to get better execution, Jurgensen quoted Lombardi. "Gentlemen you're going to be on the field 75 plays," Lombardi said. "Two or three of those plays will determine the outcome of this game. Unfortunately I can't tell you which ones they're going to be. Therefore you're going to have to play them all."

Replied Zorn: "I'm using that."


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