By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Unhappy with the team's offensive production through the first four games, the Washington Redskins made their boldest personnel move since hiring Jim Zorn -- bringing in a consultant to help salvage the coach's embattled offense.
Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, said Sherman Lewis, a longtime NFL assistant and offensive coordinator who last coached in 2004, will provide "another set of eyes" for Zorn and his coaching staff.
Lewis was expected to start work at Redskins Park on Wednesday morning, as players begin preparations for Sunday's game at the Carolina Panthers. Speaking to reporters on a conference call Tuesday evening, Cerrato said the hiring was prompted by the team's offensive struggles and that Lewis joins the staff with Zorn's blessing.
Cerrato did not give his second-year head coach a vote of confidence but said the decision to add Lewis, 67, to the staff is not an indictment of any sort on Zorn.
"We have had some struggles and thought that it was a good time to bring in a fresh set of eyes and see if there's anything that the fresh set of eyes saw that could help us," Cerrato said.
Charley Casserly, the Redskins' former general manager, said during an appearance Tuesday on Comcast SportsNet's "Washington Post Live," that the move did not bode well for Zorn's future, calling the addition of Lewis a "kiss of death."
A confidante of Cerrato, speaking on the condition his name not be used, said lingering concern over Zorn's inability to make quarterback Jason Campbell more effective in the West Coast offense -- and particularly out of the shotgun formation -- was weighing on management's mind.
On the conference call, Cerrato played down the significance of the hire, noting that the Redskins similarly brought in Bill Arnsparger as a consultant in 1999 to help the team's ailing defense, and in 2002 added Joe Bugel and Foge Fazio as midseason consultants to assist struggling first-year Coach Steve Spurrier.
Zorn was not available to comment Tuesday night but said in a statement, "We're happy to have Sherm's set of eyes and voice to help us as we continue to find ways to create success on offense."
Through four games, the Redskins' offense is ranked No. 17 in the NFL, averaging 325 yards per game. But they're only No. 27 in scoring, averaging 14 points per game, and also No. 27 in red-zone efficiency.
Lewis did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday night. While Zorn is expected to continue calling offensive plays, it was not immediately clear what Lewis's responsibilities would include. Cerrato wasn't certain whether Lewis would actively coach on the field, spend game days in the press box or tinker with the team's offensive playbook.
"It'll be up to Jim," Cerrato said. "But he'll be a member of the offensive staff and Jim will use him. They'll get that figured out."
While Cerrato said Lewis met informally with Redskins coaches in Detroit last month, Cerrato didn't speak with him until this week, one day after the Redskins' offense committed four turnovers in their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I approached Jim on Monday [and asked] if he would like another set of eyes to evaluate the offense," Cerrato said. "He said, 'If it's the right guy, that would be great.' He and I kicked around names of guys that were available."
They quickly settled on Lewis, with whom Cerrato worked briefly in San Francisco and Zorn had been familiar because of mutual ties to Mike Holmgren, who coached Green Bay and Seattle to Super Bowls.
"Then we took it to Dan [Snyder]," Cerrato said, "asked him if it'd be okay to bring this guy in. Dan had heard of him because of what he'd done in football, but didn't know him as a person. So he wanted to know about the guy."
Both Zorn and Lewis have worked closely with Holmgren, and all three men can trace their coaching roots to Bill Walsh, who first developed the West Coast offense and used it successfully. Lewis was running backs coach on Walsh's San Francisco staff with Holmgren in the 1980s, and Zorn later coached under Holmgren in Seattle.
Though Lewis hasn't coached since 2004, he's had three stints as an offensive coordinator in the NFL: Detroit (2002-04), Minnesota (2000-01) and Green Bay (1992-99).
Lewis made a name for himself with the Packers, where he won a Super Bowl ring in 1997 and helped coach Green Bay to the playoffs six times in eight seasons there.
"He was a big part of Mike Holmgren's success in Green Bay," said former Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman. "He was kind of a mediator. He really seemed to know how to put the components of the passing game together. And wherever he's been -- Green Bay, San Francisco, wherever -- he's always been able to help get the ball to his playmakers. I know he always got me the ball. I mean, this is just a great, great move."
Green Bay's offensive success made Lewis's name a popular one for head coaching jobs around the league, though he was never hired. One of the knocks against him at the time was that Lewis wasn't the primary play-caller for those offenses.
After Holmgren left for the head coaching job in Seattle, Lewis did take over play-calling duties for one season; Green Bay went 8-8 in 1999.
Asked what message it sends to bring in a consultant just four games into the season while Zorn is already under scrutiny and intense pressure to succeed, Cerrato said: "It sends the message that, you know, we're bringing in a guy who has a ton of experience with the West Coast offense, [we] had some struggles scoring, so you're bringing in a fresh set of eyes."
Staff writer Mike Wise contributed to this report.