By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009
By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
As Redskins players filed into the locker room following Friday's practice, most hadn't heard that Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, had stated publicly that Jim Zorn would finish the season as Washington's head coach. Told of the news, linebacker London Fletcher smiled and pumped his first.
"Wow," he said. "Finally some good news around here."
It has been a difficult few weeks for the Redskins, the team's struggles on the field intimately tied to the uncertainty off of it. But in assuring Zorn that he would have his job for at least the remainder of the season, the front office has sought to stabilize a team that was awash in confusion and drama.
"We was the soap opera for the NFL for the last two weeks," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "Hopefully it'll calm down a little bit."
With the offense struggling and management stripping Zorn's of his play-calling responsibilities following last Sunday's loss to Kansas City, speculation about Zorn's job security had intensified. Speaking on his weekly radio show Friday morning, Cerrato said he wanted to make "a few things perfectly clear."
"Jim Zorn is the head coach of the Washington Redskins, and will be for the rest of this season, and hopefully into the future," Cerrato said on ESPN 980's "Inside the Red Zone."
Cerrato had declined to discuss Zorn's future in recent days and weeks. He hasn't spoken publicly since making the decision last Sunday to install Sherman Lewis, brought out of retirement 2 1/2 weeks ago to serve as an offensive consultant, as the team's new play-caller. Zorn did not agree with the decision and briefly considered quitting that night, according to his friend and former teammate, Steve Largent.
Following practice Friday, Zorn said he did not necessarily need a public declaration of support.
"My deal is, I'm the head football coach. I want to be here for the next 10 years," Zorn said. "That's my story. I have a contract; it says what it says."
Zorn said he did not hear the morning's radio show and said Cerrato had not offered similar assurances in private.
Cerrato was not made available to comment Friday.
Zorn acknowledged that it could alleviate a major distraction that's surrounded this team.
"If it comforts the players, awesome," he said.
His players echoed that sentiment after practice. Players say they can now play games without worrying about whether their performance will cost Zorn his job.
"Now guys don't have to worry about thinking about it any more or even talking about it," Campbell said. "We just worry about going out and playing on Sundays and Mondays and not feel like you're playing for certain reasons. You're just playing to win."
'Need to be focused' Reports on Zorn's future have been media staples recently, and players have been asked almost daily to assess their coach's job security. Last week, three players told The Post they hoped management would publicly support the coach to eliminate the growing distraction.
"Guys need to be focused," defensive end Phillip Daniels said Friday, "so now we can stop answering these questions that we're getting asked. Hopefully, things will go better. Distractions like that can take away from the team. I'm glad we don't have that anymore."
Said wide receiver Santana Moss: "The world outside is always so curious and they have so many answers and so many resolutions over what to do. So I'm glad we solved that and make everyone hush up. It's going to be one of those situations where now he can coach freely and not worry about that other crap."
With a bye week scheduled to follow a difficult "Monday Night Football" game against the Philadelphia Eagles, speculation had centered on the possibility that the Redskins' next game could be Zorn's last.
But Cerrato called Zorn's future with the Redskins "totally crystal clear," and he expressed frustration with the criticism that has been directed at the front office in recent weeks.
"There's been a lot of false rumors, media speculation, unnamed sources out there all the time," he said. "I hired Jim, along with [owner] Dan Snyder. And obviously -- obviously -- we're all very disappointed by the season performance thus far. In fact, Dan constantly talks about how disappointed he is for the fans. And we've got great fans."
Despite Cerrato's vote of confidence, the final decision likely belongs to Snyder, who has been through six coaches in his 10 years as owner. Snyder has made no similar proclamation that Zorn's job is safe.
"Dan has never spoken to the media during the season for over a decade now," Cerrato said. "And Dan's thing is, he feels that during the season, the stage belongs to the head of football operations, the coaching staff, the players. That's why he doesn't talk, all right?"
Move meant for support
When Zorn was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in January 2008, he 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.
"That's one thing you love to hear, when your ownership and the organization come out and say that," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "If they step up and say that for the season, I hope that's what it means."
Much of the speculation about Zorn's future was sparked by the decision to bring in Lewis as a consultant. Zorn initially was hired as the team's offensive coordinator; running the offense and calling the plays, Zorn felt, were his specialties.
Speaking for the first time about the change, Cerrato said bringing in an outsider was intended as a show of support for Zorn, not a swipe at his authority. Lewis is in Washington, Cerrato said, because the front office is determined to see Zorn succeed here.
"Yeah, that's why we brought in a consultant," Cerrato said. "Look at all the things that we've done to try to help. You could have done other things drastically. No, you have confidence in him, because you want him to do well."
Though Zorn will remain coach, Lewis will call the plays from the coaches' booth on Monday night, calling them down to offensive coordinator Sherman Smith on the sideline. Smith will then relay plays to Campbell on the field. Zorn will listen in but says he won't veto Lewis's calls.
It's not the job he signed up for, but it's the job he has been told he'll have at least through the end of the season.
"Hopefully we can get this thing turned around and win some games around here," Fletcher said, "so we'll ensure him being the head coach around here next year."