Zorn considered resigning over play-calling
Longtime friend says coach was given ultimatum; Redskins deny trying to force Zorn out

By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn considered resigning Sunday night after team management told him he must relinquish his play-calling responsibilities or lose his job, former congressman Steve Largent, a longtime friend of Zorn's, said Wednesday.

"They went to the point of pulling out his contract and said, 'You have to do whatever the owner tells you to do,' " Largent told KJR radio in Seattle. "His choice was either to resign or to continue on under the current scenario."

Contacted by telephone later in the day, Largent said it was his opinion -- not Zorn's -- that the Redskins were trying to force him to step down. "Jim isn't going to do that. Jim isn't a quitter," Largent said.

Three people who said they were familiar with Zorn's conversations gave a similar version of what happened. They requested that their names not be used because of the sensitive nature of Zorn's status with the Redskins.

However, in a statement released by the team Wednesday evening in response to the Post's request for comment, Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, said Zorn was not given an ultimatum when he met with the Redskins coach at FedEx Field after the team's 14-6 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

"I met one-on-one with Jim and I suggested to take the play-calling off of his full plate," Cerrato said in the statement. "In no way did I ever give him an ultimatum. In fact, I received a voice mail from Jim that said, 'You decide how you want to handle this and I'm in.' "

In a separate statement on the same sheet of paper issued by the team, Zorn said: "There was no ultimatum. My focus is preparing for the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night."

Zorn initially refused to give up play-calling in his meeting with Cerrato, those familiar with Zorn's conversations said, but later that night he called Cerrato on the telephone and agreed to allow Sherman Lewis, hired two weeks ago as a special consultant for the team, to take over those duties.

In the telephone interview Wednesday, Largent said Zorn had considered stepping down "for a moment. But just in his heart, he wasn't ready to give up. It's just not something that he would ever do. He has too much integrity and class."

Asked whether he would have been fired had he refused the team's order, Zorn said this week he couldn't answer the question. "I don't have that answer for you," he said. In a separate interview with Comcast SportsNet, responding to the same question, Zorn said, "I'm not going to answer all those questions. I don't want to dig deep into all this psyche of that issue. It is what it is, and [a new play-caller] is going to happen."

When he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in January 2008, Zorn signed a five-year contract that included two team options. He is owed the remainder of his salary from this season and in 2010, which is believed to be about $4 million total.

Largent said the turmoil surrounding the Redskins is wearing on Zorn, but added that his onetime teammate with the Seattle Seahawks is still committed and thinks he can win in Washington.

"It's not that Jim needs the money, the fame or anything else," said Largent, a former Oklahoma congressman who is currently president and chief executive officer for CTIA, a wireless communications lobbying group. "This is the truth: Of all the guys I've ever met who coaches, I've never met anybody who loves to coach as much as Jim does."

Largent said he speaks with Zorn almost daily and stressed that his feelings about the Redskins were not representative of Zorn's. "He's never said one negative thing about Dan Snyder, Vinny Cerrato, anything. That's the way he is," he said. "Going to play the cards he's dealt and go on. But I don't have to play that game. And I speak my mind."

While Zorn has been careful with his words since management installed Lewis as a play-caller, Largent spoke up on behalf of his friend on Wednesday, first in an interview with the Seattle radio station and later in an interview with The Post, both times saying Snyder, the Redskins owner, and Cerrato have made it virtually impossible for Zorn to succeed in Washington.

"They've asked Jim to come in and win games in his first and second year with players that they put on the field and with coaches that he inherited," he said. "With few exceptions, that's the situation they've given him. I don't think it's fair to judge Jim on the performance of this team at this point, when he has had to so little say in the composition of the team.

"He's as frustrated as anybody about what's happening with the team. He's frustrated with the whole situation. He wants to make it work, he thinks he can make it work. I don't personally feel like he's been given the time or the resources necessary."

Told of some of Largent's comments Wednesday, Zorn responded, "That's probably his thoughts on the process," he said. "I don't really know what he said. Listen, friends, they kind of get fired up for friends. Well, I'm going to have to go bust him. I haven't talked to him in a while."

Other football experts spoke in Zorn's defense in recent days, including Tony Dungy, the NBC football analyst and former coach of the Indianapolis Colts. "I can't recall ever seeing anything like this, at least not in the past 15 years or so," Dungy said. "It's really seemed strange to me the whole way through. You hope it works out for the best. I like Jim Zorn a lot and I hope this works, but there's not a history of this type of stuff working out well."

At Redskins Park on Wednesday, the team started installing its game plan for the Philadelphia Eagles, whom they play on Monday night. As practice started, Jay-Z thumped through the loudspeakers, Zorn chatted with Snyder on the sidelines, Lewis talked to running back Clinton Portis, and Cerrato and former Redskins player Rick "Doc" Walker held their own conversation.

The players underwent stretching exercises not far away.

"I've been enduring change since I've been here," Portis said. "Every year, even when Coach [Joe] Gibbs was here, we had three or four different coordinators. . . . We done had something different. We done had new linemen. We done had a new this, a new that, a change in quarterback. All of a sudden, it becomes shock. But that's what it is around here: Change."

Lewis declined to comment Wednesday and has not spoken since he was introduced as a consultant Oct. 7.

Zorn said following practice that it was "absolutely" hard for him to be involved in offensive meetings without having complete control.

"I need to have composure," he said. "I need to understand what the reality of the situation is. I think our players expect me to rise up. We expect them to play under adverse condition. We expect them to risk it all. I think that's my point to our football team. I'm here for them. I have to make sure that I give them what they need."

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