Taming the Wild West

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

At its best, the West Coast offense is beautiful: Joe Montana hitting Jerry Rice with Rolex timing, Rice galloping after the catch, Bill Walsh standing on the sideline beaming at his creation. Textbooks have been written about it. Super Bowls have been won with it.

Jim Zorn's Washington Redskins run a version of that same offense, though the results thus far have made it scarcely recognizable. Twenty games into Zorn's tenure as both the Redskins' head coach and play-caller, the team's management deemed it necessary to hire an offensive consultant, one whose background in the West Coast system traces to Walsh and those San Francisco 49ers.

Thus, Sherman Lewis, an amiable man of 67, will sit in the coaches' box Sunday at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, where the Redskins will face the winless Carolina Panthers. To the rest of the league, his presence merely emphasizes the obvious: The Redskins have not demonstrably improved in the West Coast system, and management -- owner Daniel Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato -- isn't confident Zorn can change that on his own.

"To have another guy come in, another set of eyes, what does that tell you?" said former quarterback Rich Gannon, who won an MVP award in Jon Gruden's West Coast system in Oakland, and is now an analyst for CBS. "They don't bring guys in if they're scoring 35 a week. . . . It suggests some things are not where they should be."

The numbers are stark. In Zorn's 10-10 tenure, the Redskins have scored 33 touchdowns, just more than 1 1/2 per game. Only four teams -- Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland and St. Louis -- have scored fewer. Those teams, over that period, have combined for 19 victories. Just three times have the Redskins scored three touchdowns in a game, just once since last September.

And the statistic that perhaps best defines the consistency of the Redskins' offensive struggles in the West Coast system: They have yet to score 30 points in a game. Only one other team, Detroit, can say the same over the past two seasons. The 31 teams other than the Redskins have averaged 4.9 30-point performances during that time -- or about one every four games.

Though Zorn described himself as "open" to Lewis's input, he does not believe he needs the help. When Zorn sees the system in his mind, the offense flows, and at times, even this season, it has. But Zorn also knows that his own vision of the offense doesn't match what the Redskins produce.

"I think it's the execution," he said. "It's playing fast, and it's playing fast with the confidence of knowing all the nuances. If I call a run play, we line up, and you have to block what's in front of you, so we have to know what the front is, if they [change up] and don't end up in the same front they started with.

"All those little things take time to work together. . . . I would say that we are fairly cohesive, but at certain critical moments, we've dropped off. That's what we're trying to push towards, so we have no drop-offs."

The Quarterback

Jason Campbell, who has started at quarterback in each of Zorn's 20 games in Washington, used one word to describe the potential of Zorn's system, should it be run at its best: "Explosive." Campbell pointed out two plays, one from each of the past two weeks, each a long pass play to wide receiver Santana Moss, each a touchdown.

"We have to run it to the best of our abilities to be able to be successful," Moss said. "We can't go out there and say, 'Well, this is how Montana ran it, we got to run it like this.' You might not have a Montana at quarterback. We have to run it how Jason Campbell can run it, what his arm brings to the table, how his game [fits] to our offense."

Campbell's arm is strong, but he has not always been accurate with short throws or precise with his reads and decision-making, two imperative aspects of a West Coast scheme. Now, Campbell is coming off the first three-interception performance of his career, albeit in a win over Tampa Bay. And though his passer rating of 85.5 is the best of his career -- and better than those currently posted by Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo -- his performances have warranted scrutiny. "They have a quarterback that has some issues with pocket awareness," said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, who spent 12 years as an offensive lineman with Washington and with Denver, where he played in a West Coast system. "Sometimes it's when to step up, sometimes it's the clock in his head. He has a little bit of a long delivery at times. Those are all things that, together, can slow things down for the offense."

Zorn, in his weekly breakdowns of Campbell, considers the same elements. He also realizes how long he and then-Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren needed to develop Matt Hasselbeck into a Pro Bowl quarterback in Seattle. He has tried to preach patience where Campbell is concerned. The results have not made that easy.

"I really think, honestly, the guy's got a chance to be a good player in this league," Gannon said of Campbell. He pointed to his own situation, dealing with a new system in his final year in Oakland. "I was in my 17th year, and I worked all offseason to learn everything, and when we rolled into the first game of the season in Pittsburgh I was scared to death because I knew things weren't tied down like they should be," he said. "That's how important comfort level in a system is."

Campbell, though, often hears the other side. Shouldn't a quarterback making his 41st NFL start -- and 21st in this offense -- be adjusted by now?

"Here's the deal," said Al Borges, a West Coast expert who served as Campbell's offensive coordinator in the system at Auburn. "How quickly the quarterback gets it, usually a lot is dictated by how good the people around him are. If the core is good, and the quarterback is not always expected to make a ton of plays, then they can develop quickly. But if he feels like he's obligated to make plays, then he can struggle."

Campbell admitted that was part of the problem in the first half of last week's victory over Tampa Bay, when he threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and had a passer rating of 18.1. The fumble, though, came a play after Campbell had already been sacked. The offensive line, anchored by 10th-year veteran Chris Samuels at left tackle, has been spotty in its protection, coaches said, and that makes establishing those key elements -- rhythm and tempo -- difficult.

"They have to have protection," Schlereth said. "Chris Samuels is not the same guy he was when he was dominating. Nobody is when they age."

When Zorn sent in a first-down play with the Redskins at their 41-yard line last week, Campbell arrived in the huddle to relay the information. "This will be a touchdown if we protect it." The Redskins did, Campbell found Moss, and it saved the game. Campbell thought about that after he identified the scheme's "explosive" potential.

"It has to be more and different people," he said.

The Receivers

In the West Coast system, Moss plays the "X" receiver, the player lined up on the strong side, the same side as the tight end. "He's just hard to cover," Zorn said, and even at 5 feet 10, Moss can fundamentally change a game.

As much as Moss has excelled throughout his nine-year career, though, he is not a prototypical West Coast receiver. Perhaps the most discussed aspect of Zorn's offense since he arrived has been the opposite receiver spot, labeled the "Z," or flanker. As many characteristics as West Coast offenses share, almost all experts point instantly to one: A strong, physical receiver capable of catching short passes over the middle and turning them into long gains. Redskins fans are all too aware of the rest: The club took 6-2, 215-pound Devin Thomas and 6-4, 227-pound Malcolm Kelly in the second round of the 2008 draft, and they have combined for 25 catches in 20 games.

"I love Santana Moss, but he's not really a guy who's going to catch a short slant and break a tackle and take it to the house," Schlereth said. "He's not a big-body receiver. They took Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, and it hasn't worked out for them. When you miss -- and it's still early, these guys are second-year guys -- but when you miss, it hurts."

It has, in particular, hurt Moss, whose production must come despite of, rather than because of, the opposite receiver. Nearly every week, Moss addresses the fact that he will be the focus of the defense's coverage. "Ain't nothing I can do about it," he said. But that fact, experts said, affects the whole offense.

"When you're the guy who they're just saying, 'Hey, we'll roll a safety over to Moss and we'll double [tight end Chris] Cooley, and you just take him over there,' " Schlereth said, "then that guy should be tearing people up. He should really be tearing people up."

Zorn is diplomatic when analyzing the struggles of Kelly and Thomas.

"I'd like to think if there is any hold-back it is because we've got young guys improving," he said. "We've got young guys improving. That's what I think."

The Redskins' inconsistencies and the arrival of Lewis signal to those around the league that the improvement must come in a hurry. When Snyder hired Zorn as the surprise replacement for Joe Gibbs in February 2008, the owner cited Zorn as a man of tremendous character, integrity and passion. "We got the right guy," Snyder said at the time. Snyder and Cerrato believed the West Coast system would be right for the Redskins.

Zorn, though, had worked as the quarterbacks coach in Seattle, where Holmgren served as both the head coach and the play-caller.

"It's going to be a work in progress," said Steve Mariucci, an NFL Network analyst who coached with Holmgren in Green Bay and San Francisco. "Mike always called the plays. You watch him do it and you learn from it, but you're not doing it."

Against Carolina, Zorn will not concern himself about where he might rank as a play-caller. A victory would put the Redskins above .500 with a home date against winless Kansas City up next week. "We know which games we need to win right now," Zorn said, and whether the offense improves is secondary to that all-important goal.

And in the coaches' box, high above the field, Sherman Lewis will look down, analyzing how Jim Zorn runs his own version of the West Coast offense. Will it -- can it -- resemble the versions he coached in the past?

Redskins Note: Defensive end Renaldo Wynn, signed as a free agent last March for his second stint with the team, was released Saturday to make room for punter Glenn Pakulak on the 53-man roster. Pakulak will punt in place of Hunter Smith, who injured his groin last week, against the Panthers. A 29-year-old journeyman with his ninth NFL team, Pakulak also will hold on field goal and extra-point attempts.

Wynn has not been active for any of the first four games. Wynn, 35, previously played for Washington from 2002 to '06 and was a regular starter for the first four years. The Redskins released him and he spent a season in New Orleans and another with the New York Giants before the Redskins brought him back in the spring.

The team isn't expected to make a corresponding move to fill the empty spot on the practice squad until after Sunday's game.

Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.

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