Jim Zorn's tenure as Redskins' coach nears an end

Clinton Portis, right, was among those whose injuries hampered Coach Jim Zorn's second season.
Clinton Portis, right, was among those whose injuries hampered Coach Jim Zorn's second season. (John Mcdonnell/washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
washington post staff writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Friday morning, near the beginning of what was almost certainly his last practice as coach of the Washington Redskins, Jim Zorn walked across a snowplowed field at Redskins Park wearing a burgundy ski hat, burgundy sweatpants and a burgundy sweatshirt. He strode directly toward Bruce Allen, the Redskins' new general manager. As the club's special teams units went through their final preparations for Sunday's game at San Diego -- a game that will have no impact on either team's playoff prospects because the Chargers are in and the Redskins out -- Zorn chatted at length with Allen.

Ostensibly, Allen will determine Zorn's fate after the season. Realistically, Zorn's fate already has been determined. In two seasons as the Redskins' head coach, Zorn is 12-19, and Sunday he completes a miserable, turbulent 4-11 campaign.

Since being hired last month, Allen has not commented on Zorn's job security. But Jerry Gray, who coaches the Redskins' secondary, has already interviewed for the head coaching job, according to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which oversees the NFL's diversity program for coaches and executives. Because Gray is African American, the Redskins have already -- before Zorn officially has been released -- complied with the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires teams with head-coaching and senior front-office vacancies to interview at least one minority.

One of the most widely held assumptions in the NFL is that former Denver coach Mike Shanahan will wind up as the Redskins' next coach. Zorn has heard that news, naturally, and responded by sticking his head directly in the sand. He has already begun, he said, working on a plan that would carry the Redskins through the draft, into spring workouts and on to training camp.

"I've got a full offseason schedule that we've got to face here," Zorn said Friday. "We're going to take a little time off. Obviously, there's going to be some sort of state of the union. But I'm under contract. It's my job. It's what I charge myself with."

That sort of blinders-on optimism -- even as members of his own coaching staff are preparing to look for jobs elsewhere, following their dismissal -- has defined much of Zorn's tenure here. Those close to him say it will define him after he departs. "He's been really consistent," said offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, a friend from his playing days in Seattle. "I think he's been upbeat."

"He's been steady," quarterback Jason Campbell said.

Twice in the past week -- first on Monday, the day after the Redskins' latest humiliation, a 17-0 home loss to Dallas on national television, and then again on Friday -- Zorn characterized his experience thusly:

"It hasn't been fun," he said. "It's been a great experience."

What, he was asked Friday, does that mean?

"That just means when you string losses together, it makes it a grind," Zorn said. "I'm certainly held accountable, responsible, trying to take that responsibility and look and see what we can change. . . . The frustration of the losses can make us better. We just have to be able to use it in a way that can help us, not just shove it off to the side and say: 'Oh, well. Next year.' That's why I never really want to look at next year, because this year, it's still happening."

Zorn's experience with the Redskins included a 6-2 start to the 2008 season that filled the franchise with promise, a subsequent 2-6 collapse to miss out on the playoffs, and a disappointing start to this season that included losses to Detroit and Kansas City, two of the NFL's worst teams. With the offense stagnant, the Redskins stripped Zorn of play-calling duties in October and handed them to offensive consultant Sherman Lewis, who had been hired just two weeks earlier.

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