By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; D01
Football players speak in code. But when your year ends 4-12 and your coach is fired the next day before dawn, that code is easy to break. Instead of using lingo to obscure, the Redskins on Monday used it on to clarify some of their core problems under ex-coach Jim Zorn.
According to several players, the Redskins lack discipline. They miss too many practices that tougher players gut out. They skip meetings and break curfew. They don't study as hard as winners and don't force themselves to practice enough. Internal communication, compared to Joe Gibbs II, has eroded. Stars go outside channels, circumventing and undermining their coach, to take controversial issues straight to team executives or the owner.
Maybe you knew or suspected all that. But now it's out there.
"We did lack some discipline on this team," running back Rock Cartwright said. Under Zorn, there were "rule guys and guideline guys." That's a bitter joke, folks. It means you go by the rules, unless you're a pet star, then "you go by your own guidelines."
With Gibbs, there was a lot of individual coach-to-player communication and a committee of players that conferred every week on any topic. "Gibbs was a very loyal guy. And you repaid it," Cartwright said. "You would never go above his head.
"When you've got guys that feel like they have that power, then of course that's a bad apple in the bunch," he continued. "Not necessarily go to the owner, could be the GM. Not getting into no names, but I know it."
But everybody knows the main names: Clinton Portis and Albert Haynesworth, the highest-paid players on offense and defense, respectively, who were called out by multiple teammates by describing them without quite naming them.
Now we may even know the moment that Zorn's regime, if it ever had a chance, was doomed. Just as the Redskins reached 6-2 in 2008 with a win in Detroit, Portis and Zorn had a shouting match on the sideline.
Portis was mad that the candid Zorn put too much of his business out in public view. With hindsight, maybe it was Zorn's way to try to keep Portis a "rules guy." Portis went over Zorn's head. And it was Zorn who got the internal hand slap.
"Zorn was made offensive coordinator. Then they asked him to be head coach. He didn't ask for that. He took it in. I felt sorry for Jim that he had to go through this," said veteran defensive end Phillip Daniels, a member of Gibbs's leadership committee. "He started 6-2. Then players got in controversy with the coach and after that it went downhill."
Better "discipline wins us four or five more games," Daniels said. "Study. Get your rest. Don't do crazy stuff. Be on time for meetings. We talked to some players about it."
Daniels added that the "disciplinary action" handed out to Haynesworth on Christmas day for being late was far from the only example of the problem. "If the coaches can't trust you, maybe you are in the wrong sport."
Eventually, Zorn's tenure degenerated into dysfunction. "I think everyone knows what went on with that. But there's nothing I can say that won't get me in trouble," tight end Chris Cooley said.
What about his teammates' comments on exit day about lack of discipline, a broken chain of command and lack of trust?
"It didn't help us," Cooley said.
"Certain things I can't talk about shouldn't even have been an option for players to do. The head coach needs to be the head coach and everybody has to buy into that," defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn said.
Perhaps the most perturbed player was Daniels. "All these missed practices, you can't do that and win," he said. "If I could play, and practice with [injured] ribs and [torn] biceps, I know other guys can suck it up.
"We need [a coach] who is real strict, who says, 'This ain't gonna happen.' It won't be difficult. . . . We've got some guys who need to understand that it's 'big team, little me,' not 'big me, little team.' "
NFL executives also speak in code. But when you're a general manager like Bruce Allen who's just flown coast-to-coast, fired his coach before 5 a.m., then had a morning state-of-the-team meeting with the players, you tend to let the truth slip out between the lines.
The Redskins entered that meeting concerned about the degree to which Allen leans toward breaking up the current team. "Not as much as everybody thinks," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "He thinks we have a lot of talent in this room. [But] we don't feel like a team."
Allen made it clear a demolition at Redskins Park is unlikely. "The best way to improve is usually by addition, not subtraction," he told reporters. So, think refurbishing, not a total house cleaning. "We've laid the foundation. We're going to lay the cement soon and hopefully we'll have a beautiful house."
And who's going to be master -- quarterback -- of that house?
What about Jason Campbell? Sorry, looks like bad news for haters.
"He's got a lot of starts -- 51. He's seen a lot of [defensive] looks," Allen said. "And he hasn't played his best football yet."
Since Campbell, playing behind an awful line, finished 15th in the NFL in passer rating, 14th in yards and 18th in touchdown passes, that's at least a semi-hug from the new GM. If Allen thinks Campbell's best football is ahead of him and he's already rated in front of half the starters in the NFL, how much better can you do?
When the Redskins' new coach, presumably Mike Shanahan, is introduced, he'll find he's in the right place at the right time. He's nailed the bottom. Things can't get any worse for the Redskins. Oh, they could stay this bad for another year in terms of won-lost record, just as Gibbs's first year back (6-10) was only one win better than Steve Spurrier's (5-11) exit line. But, broadly speaking, the Redskins can't get worse than this: A loss to the Chargers' junior varsity, a pre-dawn coach firing and a locker room full of players taking turns ripping their own discipline, loyalty, maturity, accountability and, frankly, willingness to be coached.
San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary, mad at a selfish 49er, once said: "Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners."
In the hours after Zorn was fired, several Redskins described their own team as the "Cannot Win With Them" type. This franchise may, or may not, need many new players. But it definitely needs an entirely new attitude. The Redskins must stop thinking that they are winners-under-an-evil-star and, instead, face how far they have to travel. Until they prove otherwise, they are losers, especially their richest most self-centered players.
The Redskins' next coach needs to understand what he's getting into. Redskins fans need to understand how much patience they will need. The owner must grasp that, after 11 years, this mess is his and he needs to get out of the way of the professionals. And the players, who know exactly what's wrong with them, need to take responsibility for their own team. When they start acting like winners, instead of just talking like it, they'll have a chance.