Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Embattled Redskins Coach Jim Zorn Focuses on Details

By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jim Zorn is the only football coach I know who could say "I will be real to them" and not sound like he's doing a SoyJoy commercial.

Zorn was back to his old self Monday during his news conference at Redskins Park, answering every question thoughtfully and occasionally worrying afterward that he hadn't quite gotten to the crux of it. He's usually a meticulous, even ponderous, speaker, taking time to choose just the right words and put them in just the right order.

It was a bit of a change from Sunday evening. Zorn had a somewhat glazed look as he left the Ford Field turf after the Redskins' 19-14 loss to the Lions. (It could have been the thrill of meeting Tom Cruise, but I doubt it.) Some questions during the postgame news conference seemed to cause him actual physical pain, as if he didn't want to relive moments such as the pass interference call on Chris Horton.

More worrisome, the guy who could have been a model for Henry Winkler's Coach Klein in "The Waterboy" didn't call a single gadget play until the final snap, when he pulled out the hook-and-lateral. No one but the quarterback threw the ball against Detroit, and the Redskins didn't fake a thing.

But Monday, if there was consternation at Redskins Park, if there was concern about a potential coaching change, both Zorn and his players hid it pretty well. An exception was a visibly subdued Santana Moss, who denied that Zorn had "lost" the locker room after the Redskins' 1-2 start.

"No, not at all," said Moss, who was perhaps the lone bright spot in Sunday's loss, with 10 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown. "You're going to have people say what they want to say and people have different opinions about situations, but I doubt any player told anyone that he lost this team because every week we go out there knowing that he's giving us a chance to go out there and be productive. So that's basically what I have to say about it."

Ask Zorn the same question, and you'll get a discussion of how hard his captains are working to keep the team on a positive note. Always, always, always, no matter the topic, Zorn returns to one word: details. Zorn truly believes that the Redskins' problems are a series of tiny mistakes, and that if he looks at the film, finds those mistakes, points them out and corrects them, everything will be fine.

But sometimes it seems like he's out in the yard, tinkering with the engine in a hot red sports car that's sitting up on blocks.

Zorn is unusual for an NFL coach. For one thing, he seldom exhibits a temper. (It was refreshing to see him jump up and down Sunday after the pass interference call; if that was a "be real" moment, let's have more of those.) He also has a great knack for avoiding a question without seeming to avoid it. I am not sure yet if this is deliberate or just the way his mind works. For instance, he was asked about details vs. the big picture surrounding this team, and came out with this:

"As we've lost two games -- and there are high expectations for us, we have high expectations for us -- I think that creates a little bit of an issue."

Another topic is broached, but then we come back to this. What kind of an issue?

"Losing creates thoughts. We have to look and see what happens; we have to take care of the details."

Again, another subject comes up. Did he talk to owner Dan Snyder after the loss? Not for long, but "I'll be spending a lot of time with him as we go along this week, no question."


Finally, back to the "losing creates thoughts" statement (I see a burgundy and gold bumper sticker in our future). He explained thusly:

"When you end up with a loss or even with a win the week before, that was, you know, why didn't we score 30? All those thoughts come up; all those questions come up. Nobody in our locker room [is] coming up with those questions. I think it's really all outside."

That's a lot of layers to peel back to get to "the fans and the media are worked up, but we're not." Sometimes -- not often -- you wish for a Bill Belichick-style screed. Instead, when asked what he would do to "keep the team together," you get the New Age-y "I will be real to them. I don't need to yell at a bunch of men to say, 'Come on guys, let's really go now.' Or I don't need to try to play a psychological game with them either."

(As someone who worked in management for 25 years, I think you do occasionally need to yell at a bunch of men. But to each his own.)

Listen, after two months around Zorn, I'm not sure if he's the most sincere coach I've ever seen or the greatest confidence trickster in the game. The truth, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in between.

But if he doesn't find a way to pull this bunch out of the free fall they're in, it won't matter. When he says "we're progressing" and "we're getting better" he means it, but the NFL season is 16 games unless you're good enough for the playoffs. This isn't a Broadway play; these games aren't rehearsals.

Don't get me wrong; I believe Zorn can right this ship. The schedule is in his favor: The Redskins' next three opponents are 0-8 through Sunday. On the other hand, that would be good news for any other team. But Washington's last opponent was 0-19, and we saw how that turned out.

Stop me if you've heard this before: This is the week that will make or break the season. Tampa Bay looks like an even bigger sitting duck than did Detroit, which makes the Bucs all kinds of dangerous for this Redskins team. One more loss to a team they should beat, and Washington will officially have become the cupcake to which every other team looks forward on its schedule.

Let's face it: Losing Sunday to the Bucs will certainly create more thoughts, and those thoughts will likely be that Zorn's time is up.

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