Zorn's long, sad vigil finally ends

Jim Zorn's tenure as the Washington Redskins' coach included unexpected highs and crushing lows.
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010

SAN DIEGO Can a coaching funeral last any longer than this one? Even if Jim Zorn, the ultimate optimist, didn't know it, the rest of the world knew he was a goner as far back as Sept. 27. That's when the Washington Redskins lost in Detroit to the Lions to drop to 1-2. It was over then, in Week 3 of a 16-game season. Anything less than at least one win in the playoffs and Zorn was going to be fired the week of Jan. 3, although it was plain to see early on that the Redskins didn't have what it takes to rally.

Immediately after the Redskins' latest and last loss to the Chargers on Sunday, Zorn asked, "Is anybody ready to talk about the game?" at his postgame news conference, as if dissecting a three-point loss in a 4-12 season finale means anything to anyone outside the Redskins' locker room. But that's who Zorn is, a football man looking to the next day of football. "I'm working on the offseason schedule," he said, when asked to talk about his future.

Even if he was the only one who didn't know, the last 14 weeks have been a professional deathwatch, a particularly uncomfortable vigil as these things go because the man twisting is an especially decent sort. Yet he suffered one indignity after another.

He was humiliated when the owner fired him as the play caller. He had to endure hearing his Hall of Fame teammate say on the radio in Seattle, where they both had such distinguished careers, that his friend had been presented with a nasty ultimatum. Zorn made amateurish decisions one week after another. He had to hear about one of his lieutenants interviewing for his job while the chair was still occupied. And anybody who watched is scarred forever from watching that double-fake field goal backfire as brutally as anything seen recently in professional football.

Even though he won six of his first eight games as a head coach, there were signs Zorn was in over his head. And since we're obliged to play the blame game, start with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for putting him in a position to fail from the very beginning. By the time fall turned to winter, Zorn's greatest attribute -- and maybe this is no small thing -- was his ability, despite walking the plank, to get his players to play with great spirit and energy every single week (except that Giants game at FedEx Field). That, alone, isn't good enough in professional sports. Zorn, no matter what the title on the door said, is a really good position coach in the NFL. Maybe he'll prove to be a legitimate coordinator.

The man who reportedly will replace Zorn, Mike Shanahan, is a proven successful head coach, though it still is worth pointing out that Shanahan has won exactly one playoff game in his career without John Elway.

Either way, the question is going to be whether the Redskins will function any more efficiently under Bruce Allen and Shanahan than they have with Snyder calling the shots through Vinny Cerrato. The contention here is there isn't a man in football today I'd allow to both be in charge of personnel and coach the team. Nobody. Don't tell me about Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys in the early 1990s; it fails spectacularly 90 percent of the time.

And it's not going to work for the Redskins if Allen is just there to be the Amen Chorus for Shanahan, the model for the in-charge-of-everything head football coach. If this is just a twist on Celebrity Football, Redskins Style, it's going to fail, like every other installment.

"I think Dan Snyder has learned his lesson, finally," one Redskins player told me after the game. "I think he's done with the fame game and trying to bring in big-named guys instead of keeping the homegrown guys who are out contributing to so many teams in the league. I think he's done with that, I really do."

The player, and another veteran, said that while the team played with passion for Zorn, the fact was there were places he came up short as a coach, such as preparing the team for situational football. "We were never as prepared as we were because we didn't practice that," the player said.

"Other coaches make that a priority during practice and we didn't."

I've covered more than one of these funerals and it's never easy. It's hardest watching the truly nice folk walk the plank. I was standing in front of Norv Turner the day before it happened to him some years ago, so there was irony that Zorn's final day as coach of the Redskins took place in San Diego, where Turner has resurrected his career as a head coach and now leads the hottest team in the NFL into the playoffs.

Zorn, like Turner, is a nice person you'd rather go to dinner with than some of the more successful coaches in the NFL. Zorn started his final postgame news conference as Redskins coach by thanking the local media "for dealing with the likes of me every week." He even added that it was a tough season for anybody who was on board for the choppy ride because "it's the nature of the NFL." Zorn called it "very compelling," and it is. He thanked the players because they played hard every week. And while saying over and over that he wouldn't get into the specifics of what he thought might happen, Zorn added: "I'm going to be forthright [in conversations with Snyder]. I certainly want to be the coach next year. I have a lot to say, not just a little bit."

It's a rewarding profession when you're on top as Turner is now, and you've got a hot quarterback (Philip Rivers) and a loaded roster, not to mention a bye-week and home-field advantage in at least the first playoff game. But it's a cruel profession when you've struggled to win four games, the fewest the franchise has won in 15 years, and your staff members are wondering whether they'll be spared by the owner or the new coach or have to move yet again.

Jim Zorn flew five hours Sunday night, across the country with his team, trying to figure out an offseason schedule that he'll never have a say in.

His next day of work figures to be in Cleveland or who knows where. It's, as Zorn said, the nature of the business and now it appears to be Mike Shanahan's turn to deal with the consequences.

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