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With one trick play, Redskins Coach Jim Zorn shows defiance

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; D08

The zaniest, most off-kilter called play of the NFL season began with the Redskins' punter taking a snap from the backup tight end before halftime with, incredibly, no line in front of him. As if the New York Giants were supposed to count to "Three Mississippi" before they rushed past Todd Yoder to disembowel poor Hunter Smith.

Leaving the meekest of his players in harm's way, Coach Jim Zorn sent the rest of his offensive line and wide receivers to line up at the far left sideline for some kooky, bizarre gadget play. Watching the replay in the press box of a pass that had no chance but to be intercepted, which it was, the original thought stuck: Nuts, just nuts.

But the more I saw the replay, the deeper I went with Zorn's motivation, reaching further than even his doomed fake field goal try: Toward pure brilliance, toward outright defiance -- straight to a cutting, scripted protest in the final days of his two-year reign as a powerless figurehead.

Crazy, completely counterintuitive, but quite possibly true. That absurd call Monday night was the only way Zorn could exact some revenge on his meddlesome bosses, the only way he could get back at a splintered organization he will almost certainly cease to be a part of by the first week of January.

And if that's the case, well, it's about time.

Finally, with a call brought to you by a man who has 13 more days of Fantasy Coaching Camp left, we see the full splendor of the Z-man. Before he leaves us for good in two weeks, he finds his true Zorn identity.

Fearful he could forfeit some or all of his 2010 salary, Zorn of course can't admit toying with the playbook. And the masses will surely view the play as Zorn's signature rotten decision as a lame-duck coach, another reason to say, "good riddance" to the coach who proved to be the stopgap between Joe Gibbs and, very likely, Mike Shanahan.

But seeing the glee in his postgame grin describing that failed play, hearing him actually say, "Oh, no, it was good defense. It was really good defense. That's what hurt that play," it gave me real pause.

"The play was unique enough to where I didn't think they saw what we were really trying to do and then they smelled it out pretty quickly, we didn't really have a chance," Zorn said, still believing and smiling.

And at 4-10, two weeks from Bruce Allen firing him, why not humor himself at the expense of the people who took all the fun out of his job and life the past two years?

Publicly emasculated with every move from above, no one in authority ever having his back, for two years Zorn was metaphorically Hunter Smith on Monday night -- all alone in the backfield, big, angry men with malice on their breath, bearing down.

But Unemployed Coach Walking deserves a last meal, doesn't he?

Forget Mike Shanahan for a moment. Imagine, instead, your own assistant coach, Jerry Gray, reportedly having interviewed for your job. It was so bad that ESPN actually interviewed its own announcer in the booth, inquiring whether Jon Gruden wanted Zorn's job before the game. Of course, Gruden said no, because he probably saw New York 45, Washington 12 coming, saw 4-12 or 5-11 coming.

With two weeks left in his NFL head-coaching career -- because that job is not coming back around for Zorn -- at least he can say he has risen above the nastiness and back-biting. For that, and for incredibly outlasting Vinny Cerrato, which Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier cannot say, he should be commended.

But before Monday night, I began to sour on Zorn. As a parade of candidates was rumored to be either interviewing or negotiating for the second-most important job in Washington, I just felt he had to stand for something or fall for everything.

Especially when the owner puts his weekly Friday lunches with Zorn on hold for more than a month, when the man who signs your paychecks doesn't have a substantive conversation with you other than to say, essentially: "By the way, you've got a new direct supervisor. Vinny's out and Bruce Allen is in. Good luck."

Before the final two weeks of his two-year odyssey as coach of the Redskins ends, Zorn had yet to develop a strong conviction, appear as if he wanted to go down with the ship. The Z-man has been playing dumb, waiting for them to throw him overboard so he could collect his coin.

I wanted him to say something from deep within about never being given a genuine chance to succeed. From the moment he was forced to inherit the staff given to him nearly two years ago, all the way up to the day two months ago they gave his play-calling duties to 67-year-old, out-of-football Sherman Lewis, he became a substitute teacher who did not have control of his classroom.

He was essentially Sister Mary Elephant, Cheech and Chong's exasperated nun character from the 1970s, who taught in a Bronx parochial school full of unruly youth. Sister Mary Elephant could never teach with all the chaos around her, and her job became more about trying to get the kids' attention or, in extreme cases, asking a young man for his knife. After the blade strikes her wooden desk and audibly vibrates, she says, firmly, "Thank you."

The difference in Ashburn is, the knives came from the school administration.

Amid all this lack of support, I wanted Zorn to come out and express his sincere displeasure about never being given a genuine shot to be a leader.

Now, that's easy for me to say. Via that kind of insubordination to void a contract, I won't lose $2.5 million-plus for not coaching next season. I won't lose the last year of the last contract I will ever have collected from as an NFL head coach.

But I thought this was more about self-respect than money, about leaving with more than Daniel Snyder's dollars, about leaving with what Zorn came to Washington with: integrity, pride, strong self-worth, irrespective of the fact no one promoted him beyond a position assistant in Seattle.

And now, with just two games left, the man I thought would never develop the persona to lead, the edge to stand up for his principles in the waning days of his career in Washington, has finally decided to lead in the most perfect, anecdotal way possible.

Beautiful, no, that ridiculous, bone-headed play call before halftime in the first blowout of his two-year failed regime? The guy pushed by management as a diamond in the rough now realizes how much they set him up to be a space-holder -- the fall guy -- all along.

Finally, Jim Zorn is sticking it to the Redskins like they've been sticking it to him since he was hired.

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