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

By Barry Svrluga
washington post staff writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; D01

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.

Along the way, the Redskins placed with 12 players on season-ending injured reserve. Three of them -- tackle Chris Samuels, tight end Chris Cooley and running back Clinton Portis -- made the Pro Bowl following the 2008 season. Nine of them were starters at the time they went down.

In the midst of this, Zorn had to try to salvage the season -- and save his job.

"He's trying to work his plan," said Steve Largent, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who was Zorn's favorite target in Seattle and remains his best friend. "He's tried to make do with the players that he has, given the injuries that they've had this year. He just does a fantastic job.

"But I can tell -- he would never admit this, especially in the middle of a season -- but I think at the end of the year, when he's done, he'll say it did take a toll on him. It's just been a hard year. It always is a hard year when you don't meet expectations."

Though the Redskins entered the season with significant personnel problems -- four starting offensive linemen 29 and older with no sufficient backups, the lack of a proven second receiver to complement Santana Moss -- the expectations inside the locker room, and on the coaching staff, were to improve on last year's 8-8 start to the Zorn era and make the playoffs. But when starting guard Randy Thomas went down in Week 2 and Samuels followed in Week 5, the offense looked horrendous, and speculation that Zorn would be replaced in midseason grew. Players were well aware of it. Zorn, though, did not share how it wore on him with his team.

"Obviously, it's not been a great year for us as a team, and it's been a tough year for him as an individual, obviously, as a coach with everything that's happened, all the speculation," middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "On the outside, he's definitely displayed a strong sense of steadiness. . . . He has not displayed [stress] to us at all. He's just gone about it and been the same way. He's always talking about the next opponent, the preparation, the focus that we need for the next game."

Somewhere in there, though, is how all this has affected Zorn's career. He is 56, not an up-and-comer, but a career assistant -- his previous job was as quarterbacks coach with the Seahawks -- who unexpectedly got his shot to be a head coach, and now must revive his career after disappointment and strife.

"I think I am a better football coach today than I was when I walked into the program," Zorn said. "I'm far more experienced. I've seen a lot of things. I've experienced a lot of head coaching responsibilities, and I couldn't have had that unless I was the head coach.

"I think each head coach has to deal with the circumstances as they come. Some, I could not have predicted. Some, you have to take them as they develop. That's what we're dealing with today. We've got to deal with this thing, the situation that we're in, and try to get our fifth win. That's the way I look at it. There'll be a lot of conversation after the season, and there'll be a lot of questions that have to be answered after the football season."

Even with one game left, the season is, for all practical purposes, over. The official answers to those questions will be delivered in the coming days.

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