Zorn upfront about team's performance, and his, too

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jim Zorn kept his gaze down last Sunday as he strode toward a lectern in a concourse underneath the stands at the Georgia Dome, another loss just past. It was the fourth straight defeat for the Washington Redskins, and the season -- now halfway over -- was palpably slipping away.

Yet when Zorn stepped up to the microphone to face a bank of television cameras and reporters, he said what he says basically every week in virtually every such instance: "Hi, everybody."

It is, perhaps, the one constant in Zorn's interaction with the public, a unique and friendly moment even in the worst of times. But so much else of what Zorn says publicly has changed over the course of his brief tenure leading the Redskins. A 6-2 start to the 2008 season, in which Zorn was exhorting his players to shout "Hip! Hip! Hooray!" after victories, has dissolved into the misery of 12 losses in the past 16 games.

Such results have taken a toll on Zorn, an optimist who preaches positivity over all else. Zorn carried that optimism -- and mixed it with a fascinating blend of self-confidence, quirkiness and originality -- when he arrived in Washington. He told tales about how he climbed mountains and shaped metal sculptures, spun stories about when he served as a disc jockey or how he skinned a coyote.

Now, as the losses mount, he appears physically drained. "Winning is the most important thing," he said. But he has had the opportunity to address only two wins this season. Instead, he has been forced to discuss management's decisions to first bring in an offensive consultant, then strip him of his play-calling responsibilities. Now, questions about why a play failed or how much a loss hurts occasionally yield a muffled "Uh," into the microphone, as if he has absorbed a shot to the gut.

With six days between one loss and another chance to win, such a season wears on football players and coaches. It has, it appears, worn on Zorn, who is trying to maintain the same public face even as the circumstances around him have changed drastically.

"I know this: Over the last year and a half, winning is so much more fun than losing," Zorn said last week. "And talking about winning is more fun than talking about losing. So being 6-2, I think there was this thought that we were going to -- I mean, in our minds, we should've been in the playoffs. This year, it's been different."

With that, Zorn has overhauled his public assessments of his team. Consciously or not, there are far fewer explanations of what, specifically, went wrong on a given play and far more instances in which Zorn takes the finger and points it squarely at himself.

"It depends on what the angle is," Zorn said. "Some of the angles, I couldn't foresee what people were really trying to write. That's the hard part for me. . . . It's not that I'm more cautious. I'm just trying to continue to answer the questions in an honest and straightforward way."

Caught by surprise

That, though, can be a struggle, one in which Zorn's natural instinct to explain the whats and the whys and the hows -- his fascination with football and how plays succeed or fail -- can meet head-on with the typical coach's mantra of keeping those thoughts within the team.

Fifteen months ago, when Zorn was in the first weeks of his first regular season as a head coach, the way that he spoke had already garnered attention around Redskins Park. Early in training camp, he chastised then-rookie wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas for failing a conditioning test.

"He wasn't necessarily in condition to go through a training camp like this," Zorn said of Kelly at the time. "He really wasn't."

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