The rise and fall of Jim Zorn

Jim Zorn's tenure as the Washington Redskins' coach included unexpected highs and crushing lows.
By Barry Svrluga, Jason Reid and Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On the morning of Feb. 7, 2008, Jim Zorn began one of his first meetings as the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, a planning session focusing on how the team would run the ball. The season was seven months away, the club didn't have a head coach, and Zorn wore jeans and a Redskins T-shirt. The meeting was moving, and Zorn -- never before a coordinator, charged with running his own offense -- was excited.

But just before noon, someone entered the room. Daniel Snyder, the Redskins' owner, wanted to meet with Zorn at Snyder's Potomac home, wanted to introduce him to some of the club's minority owners. Zorn, mid-meeting, had no choice.

"I'm thinking, 'Okay, I know what he wants,' " Zorn said that summer. "There's no head coach yet, so somebody has got to act as a guy to bring sort of reality to what's going on this offseason. . . . The head coach hadn't been hired yet, so let's talk about football."

Three days later, Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato introduced Zorn -- with no head coaching experience at any level -- as the Redskins' 27th head coach. Six hundred ninety-five days later, Snyder and Bruce Allen, Cerrato's replacement, fired Zorn from that same position.

By that point on Monday, the surprise of Zorn's hire was replaced by the inevitability of his departure, and Snyder's airplane was flying to Denver and back again, scooping up Zorn's presumed replacement, former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, and returning him to Dulles International Airport. There, he climbed into a car and headed to Snyder's Potomac home, the same place Zorn once showed up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Though Zorn's tenure -- a 12-20 record, two last-place finishes in the NFC East -- will be easily marginalized when Redskins history is discussed, his rise and fall remains a pertinent chapter going forward because it helps to reveal how the Redskins organization, one of the most valuable franchises in sports, works.

Snyder's office, where he spends most of his days as a hands-on owner of the franchise for which he rooted as a child, is at the southern tip of the Redskins Park facility in Ashburn. The head coach's office, replete with flat-screen televisions for watching computer-spliced video, is at the opposite end. The walk between the two is short, and it passes a case that houses the Redskins' three Super Bowl trophies. But the gulf between the two men that used those offices for the past two years grew to an irreparable distance as the losses in the 2009 season mounted, according to assistant coaches who requested anonymity.

In the months after he was hired, Zorn said, "I think Dan Snyder takes a lot of pride in being fair."

Sunday evening, in the hours before he was fired, Zorn was asked about the fairness of the conditions under which he worked. "You got to understand," he said. "In my world, nothing has to be fair. It's not up to me."

Snyder said in a statement: "I am mindful that this is a tough day for Jim and his family, and I do want to wish him success in his next endeavor."

Early optimism

When Snyder met with the media to introduce Zorn, his optimism matched the level it reached when he hired Marty Schottenheimer in 2001, Steve Spurrier in 2002 and Joe Gibbs in 2004. He said Redskins officials -- including those who had met with Zorn during that first luncheon, minority owner Dwight Schar and Snyder's sister, Michelle -- had discussed, above all else, the character of the candidates.

"We also talked about leadership, great leadership, but it starts with character," Snyder said. "It starts with a person's character, their integrity, their smarts, their drive, their energy, their passion. We ended up with the right guy. We ended with a person that has all of those plus much, much more."

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