Shadows of doubt
With Lewis calling plays in place of Zorn, Redskins are unsure of what to expect

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

He still has his headset, and that means for now he's technically still the Redskins' head coach. But Jim Zorn left few doubts Monday that management's decision to strip him of his play-calling duties six games into the season was a disappointing one.

Because he still wants to win, Zorn said, he will "comply" with management's request that he allow Sherman Lewis, a recently hired offensive consultant, to call the team's offensive plays.

"We can't continue to go on and just score six points a game," Zorn said. "I don't want that. I don't think our players deserve that. So if it's me, if it's really the play-calling, I'm willing to try it."

Before he was linked to the head coaching position, Zorn came to Washington to run the Redskins' offense. He wanted to call the plays and score points. Starting this week, he'll be merely a middle man, accepting play calls from someone else -- a coach who was retired and calling bingo games at a senior citizens' center two weeks ago -- and relaying that information to the quarterback.

Following the Redskins' latest loss, this one to previously winless Kansas City on Sunday, Zorn met with Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operation, and said "it was strongly suggested" that Zorn relinquish play-calling duties.

Meeting with reporters a day later, Zorn said he understands management's decision to use Lewis, who coached in West Coast-style offenses for 22 years. But Zorn said it might have been an easier transition to wait until after Monday's game against Philadelphia, when Washington has a bye week and 12 days between opponents. "But that's not the way the suggestion came down," he said.

Zorn said he was both confident and content with his play-calling thus far. While visibly frustrated discussing the change, Zorn was careful when assessing his feelings. "My comfort level is somewhere between 1 and 10," he said. "It's not at 10."

Cerrato declined a request to discuss his decision, and Lewis, 67, was not made available to reporters. For 18 minutes on Monday, Zorn took questions and tried to answer for both.

"I'm not going to speculate on how comfortable Sherm feels," Zorn said. "I do know this: He's been here for two weeks."

Despite more than two decades of NFL coaching experience, the man Cerrato picked to revive the Redskins' dormant offense has limited experience as a play-caller. A former assistant of Bill Walsh's in San Francisco, Lewis made his mark as Green Bay's offensive coordinator from 1992 to '99. But head coach Mike Holmgren ran those prolific offenses.

Lewis didn't assume play-calling duties in Green Bay until after Holmgren left the Packers to coach in Seattle. Lewis lasted one season there as a play-caller, as the Packers went 8-8 in 1999. The season still ranks among Brett Favre's worst.

The following season, Lewis took over as offensive coordinator in Minnesota, where he was the primary play-caller and had talented wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, plus Robert Smith at running back and Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. The Vikings' offense was ranked No. 5 in 2000 and No. 12 in 2001, but the team's play-calling was a source of consternation both seasons.

At one point, early in the 2001 season, Coach Dennis Green stripped Lewis of play-calling duties during halftime of a game. Green was fired later in the season and Lewis's contract was not renewed after the season ended.

Steve Mariucci then hired Lewis in Detroit, and Lewis lasted two seasons as coordinator there. Mariucci was the primary play-caller, though when he was forced to relinquish those duties late in the 2004 season, the team's quarterbacks coach -- not Lewis -- took over play-calling.

Lewis retired at the conclusion of the 2004 season and was out of football until the Redskins asked him to return earlier this month.

Exasperating matters for the Redskins, Zorn wasn't sure Monday who he'd start at quarterback against the Eagles. Zorn replaced a struggling Jason Campbell at halftime of Sunday's 14-6 loss to the Chiefs, but Todd Collins didn't fare much better in the second half.

Zorn said he will choose next week's quarterback. The coaches will then work together to come up with the game plan, and on Monday night, Lewis will call the specific plays.

For the past two weeks, Lewis has been a daily presence at Redskins Park, spending most of his time studying film and observing meetings. Players say that while Lewis could often be found seated in the back of position meetings, dutifully taking notes, they've had limited contact with the newly hired consultant. Some hadn't met him and others had just cursory introductions.

"Some of the guys weren't even kind of sure who he was, but that's just because they didn't get around and talk to him," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said.

Randle El called the change of play-callers "weird" and said offensive players would have preferred the responsibility be passed to Sherman Smith, Zorn's hand-picked offensive coordinator. Smith is familiar with the players, the offense and the terminology. Lewis has had a two-week crash course to try to catch up.

"I don't think he knows the personnel very well, but he's familiar with this offense," Collins said. "I don't know if it's exactly the same offense that he's used to running. But he's going to have to become more familiar with it right away. It will be interesting to see how that transition comes."

Collins acknowledged that it's not an "ideal situation." Lewis is expected to watch games from the coaches' booth, dictate play calls via radio to Zorn on the sideline. Zorn will then send the play in to the quarterback.

"Generally you have some play-callers work with a quarterback for years and years," Collins said. "This is going to be a quick change for us. But seems like maybe drastic measures are called for."

Jason Reid contributed to this report.

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