Public education
As Redskins' losses mount, Zorn forced to learn new tack in appraisals of his team

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."

That was a forthright assessment. The striking thing: It came from a football coach about one of his own players. Kelly hadn't heard anything like it, at least in public.

"It kind of surprised me," Kelly said last week. "There were other guys, guys that had been in the league, who failed it too. But you know what? It was probably just to get us going or something. And sometimes, Coach Zorn will say things to the team like, 'I told everyone that so-and-so wasn't blocking right.' So a lot of times what he says out there, in the media, is what he says to us."

The issue seemed simple to Zorn: Why not be upfront about what's going on? That was going to be what the coaching staff told Kelly and Thomas privately. Why not hold the players accountable?

"I just want to be honest about plays, and our players," Zorn said in September. "I don't know if we've got too much to hide from that standpoint. I don't want to talk about schemes; I don't want to talk about how we design things and all of that kind of stuff. But when players play well, I want to talk about that, and when players don't play well, there's no shame in that."

This was a marked difference not only from the Bill Belichicks and Tom Coughlins of the world, but also from Zorn's predecessor in Washington, Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Be it in his postgame assessments or midweek comments, Gibbs took pains to point out how his players "fought their guts out," and how the ultimate responsibility for any failures came directly back to him. The most infamous moment came when Gibbs called an ill-advised timeout in a 2007 loss to Buffalo. Afterward, Gibbs said, "That's on me to put the blame on that."

As the Redskins' fortunes have changed, so has Zorn's public evaluation of what's gone right and, particularly, what's gone wrong. In better times, Zorn frequently spoke about why plays failed. Perhaps quarterback Jason Campbell didn't get rid of the ball in time. Perhaps a specific offensive lineman missed a block. "Execution" became a buzzword, and the thought was clear: If the players executed correctly, the plays would work.

More self-evaluation

In 2009, though, execution has become something of a secondary problem as Zorn breaks down his team. The day after an Oct. 11 loss at Carolina, Zorn fielded questions about the flagging offense, whose line has been devastated by injuries. He left no question about where the blame should fall if the offense failed, even if it had to rely on backups.

"My responsibility -- and it really is my responsibility -- is to even have that work, because it's a sequence of plays, successes, that sustain a drive, and I was unsuccessful," Zorn said at the time. "My responsibility, because I am the play-caller. I am choosing the play out there. I am putting our guys at risk every play. That's my job. . . . I failed. I failed. It's tough. It's not easy."

That kind of brutal, public self-flagellation was once rare for Zorn, who arrived in Washington anxious to prove he could successfully call plays after a strong career as a quarterbacks coach. But the change to more public introspection began for Zorn last year, after a late-season loss to then-woeful Cincinnati that effectively dropped the Redskins from playoff contention. Then, Zorn said he felt like "the worst coach in America."

It was the first evaluation that felt like what Gibbs might have said, and as one Redskins official said privately, "Dan loved it," referring to team owner Daniel Snyder. Since then, Zorn has also turned to another Gibbs staple, lauding the Redskins fan base, which he has done after several losses this year.

Why does any of this matter? Because players pay attention.

"Some guys more than others, but some guys are really aware," veteran defensive end Andre Carter said. "I think it's always good to have a coach who expresses his opinion, to call guys out if it needs to be done. That's okay. That's the only way things can change within an organization, because you can say what's on your mind. That's the only way you can develop and grow."

Zorn was that way as a player, he said. During his 11 years as an NFL quarterback, primarily for the Seattle Seahawks, he listened to what coaches said privately, and then matched it to what was said publicly. Was there a discrepancy?

"I like the coaches who are upfront," Zorn said. "Even though I don't like to hear a negative comment about me, I would much rather hear the truth. I could always tell. If I had a coach that did not speak the truth in the public, then it was harder for me to listen to him in a team meeting.

"To try to create a false scenario for a football player, it just doesn't work. They'll call your bluff. If you got nothing to say, don't say anything."

Zorn, though, must say something, be it in defeat or in victory, because he is the head coach. The message, now, is it's his responsibility.

"I'm the head coach," he said. "It's on me."

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