The rise and fall of Jim Zorn

By Barry Svrluga, Jason Reid and Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; D01

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."

But to get to that point, there had to be secrecy, on a few levels. On the day Zorn was hired as the Redskins' offensive coordinator, Snyder's private plane landed at a small airport in Wisconsin. There, it picked up Greg Blache, the defensive line coach under Gibbs and Gregg Williams, who had served as Gibbs's assistant head coach-defense. Williams had interviewed to be the Redskins' head coach multiple times. Blache, to that point, had been a loyal assistant. But in a meeting at Snyder's house, it became clear to Blache: Williams would not be the head coach, nor would he remain to run the defense. Blache was being offered the defensive coordinator's job, even as Williams still hoped to be the head coach.

The next day, Jan. 26, 2008, Snyder released Williams from his contract. Blache became the defensive coordinator. "The decision was made whether I took the position or not," Blache said that summer.

Zorn wasn't privy to these machinations. He was trying to familiarize himself with the Redskins' personnel, with the offensive coaches who were left behind. In the days after Blache's elevation, the Redskins interviewed Indianapolis assistant Ron Meeks, former Detroit and San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, and New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo for the head coaching position. On Feb. 7, Spagnuolo -- the presumed favorite for the job, the man who had orchestrated the Giants' dominant defensive performance in the Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots -- pulled out of consideration, electing to remain an assistant in New York.

So that's when Zorn ended up at Snyder's house, having lunch with Schar and Michelle Snyder. At one point, the three Redskins officials excused themselves from the room, leaving Zorn alone. When they returned, Snyder asked Zorn one question: Did he want to interview to be the head coach?

"I was shocked," Zorn said. "I was glad I was sitting down."

Zorn would dress in a suit, return to Snyder's home and interview formally with Snyder and Cerrato, deep into the night.

"There were several different potential coaching scenarios during that time," Snyder said Tuesday through a team spokesman. "I don't recall the specific sequence of events. . . . I can tell you that there were many meetings and discussions with the candidates and with their references."

Cerrato, Zorn said later, had a "big book of questions." They would read a question to Zorn, Zorn would answer, and they would discuss. Zorn was told to go to work the next day, a Friday, and perform his duties as if he were merely the offensive coordinator. After that day was finished, and the other assistants had wrapped things up, Zorn returned to Snyder's home, and the interview continued.

"It was very surrealistic," Zorn said. "Having knowledge that other people don't have, it was a weird sensation because you want to express openly what's going on."

By Saturday, the job was Zorn's. On Sunday, he was introduced. Five-and-a-half months later, he opened his first training camp, where he stood with Snyder and Cerrato on the sideline, overseeing the team he would coach. Zorn's staff featured four coaches Zorn had a hand in hiring -- offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, running backs coach Stump Mitchell, offensive assistant Chris Meidt and defensive line coach John Palermo -- and 10 he did not.

An 'interested' owner

On Fridays at the beginning of the 2009 season, Zorn would meet with Snyder and Cerrato in Snyder's office at Redskins Park for lunch, a weekly ritual in which the topics might include the upcoming opponent, how that opponent might be attacked, and what the opening plays might be. The lunches served, Cerrato said on the radio show he hosted on Snyder's ESPN 980, as a ritual for the team owner, regardless of who was the coach.

"Dan's very interested," Zorn said early in the season. "He cares. He wants to know about the team, about what might work, about what the coaches are thinking."

That interest, though, transformed over the course of the 2009 season, assistant coaches said. The poor performances began to pile up, first in a loss at lowly Detroit, then a narrow win over horrid Tampa Bay. After that game, Cerrato wanted to hire a consultant who knew the West Coast offense to help Zorn. The club first reached out to Gil Haskell, a former Seattle assistant with whom Zorn once worked. Haskell, though, had personal issues that prevented him from taking the job, according to two people with knowledge of the Redskins' inquiry. So Cerrato turned to Sherman Lewis, a retired assistant with whom Zorn did not have a relationship; Cerrato and Lewis had briefly overlapped when they worked with the San Francisco 49ers.

Twelve days after Lewis was hired, a home loss to previously winless Kansas City might have provided the season's low point. That day, Zorn benched quarterback Jason Campbell against what was, at that point, statistically the NFL's worst defense. The Redskins failed to score a touchdown, lost 14-6, and fell to 2-4.

Afterward, Zorn, according to an account of one of his closest friends, was confronted with a choice that, in many ways, defined his tenure in Washington: Give up your play-calling duties, or give up your job.

"For me, the low point was when the Redskins were considering firing Jim after about six games of the season," said Steve Largent, Zorn's best friend and former teammate in Seattle. "I still say that's the most obscene, ridiculous thing that they could have ever done."

Largent, a Hall of Fame wide receiver and former U.S. congressman, was one of Zorn's primary confidantes over the course of the 2009 season, joining Zorn's wife, Joy, as one of the few people with whom the coach would share his feelings. In an interview the day of his firing, Zorn declined to go into the machinations of his downfall, including the meeting in which Largent said Redskins lawyers presented him with details of his contract, and told him that refusing to give up his play-calling duties would be akin to insubordination. Cerrato later denied Largent's claims, and Zorn also issued a statement through the team denying he had been presented with an ultimatum.

After he arrived at his Great Falls home the night of the Kansas City game, Zorn talked to Cerrato by phone. He would agree to cede the job for which he was originally hired -- calling the plays, running the offense. The next day, Cerrato would hand those duties to Lewis, a veteran assistant who had been with the team for 14 days.

"Can't see how that would work," one assistant said that morning, before Zorn announced the transition to his staff. "He's only been here two weeks. He doesn't know the offense."

Though Zorn never complained about the decision publicly -- "There's no point in me whining about it all," Zorn said late in the season -- he made clear the decision was not his, and that he did not believe it would improve the offense.

"He feels like he was handicapped with that decision," said Tim Trezise, a close friend of Zorn's since 1991. "But he wasn't going to wallow in that. He respects authority."

Several coaches, though, said the move changed the dynamic within Redskins Park. Offensive assistants said they felt shunned by Snyder and Cerrato. At practice, Cerrato would often stand with Lewis. Zorn became, to a degree, an outsider on the team he was supposed to lead.

"To do your job, the coaches have to have the confidence of their bosses," one coach, who requested anonymity, said this week. "Over the course of the year, it was apparent that wasn't the case -- especially for the offensive coaches."

Statistically, the Redskins improved. In six games prior to the change, they averaged 294 yards and 13.2 points; in 10 games after, they averaged 323 yards and 18.7 points. On Nov. 29, the Redskins looked as good as they had all season offensively in a game at Philadelphia. Zorn, though, had put a wrinkle into Cerrato's plans for Lewis to call the plays. Because the head coach had to be in charge of timeouts and decisions on whether to kick or run a play from scrimmage, Zorn took over the play-calling duties in the final two minutes of each half.

With 28 seconds left in the first half, with Washington leading 14-13, the Redskins held the ball at their 38-yard line. Zorn called timeout. On third and eight, he elected to run another play rather than taking a knee and taking the lead to the locker room. Campbell threw an interception. Two plays later, the Eagles kicked a field goal. Washington trailed at the half and lost the game, 27-24.

When he boarded the bus afterward, Cerrato seethed at Zorn, yelling at him in front of assistants and team personnel, berating him for his decision-making at the end of the first half, assistant coaches who witnessed the exchange said. The Redskins were 3-8 -- "I can hardly say it," Zorn said later in the week -- and the fissures in the club's infrastructure were showing. In the season's final weeks, Zorn was no longer invited to Snyder's office on Fridays, and they no longer shared lunch.

"I think we had a good relationship throughout his time here," Snyder said. "Our regular meetings and lunches did end after Bruce Allen came here three weeks ago. Bruce thought that the right line of communications was between himself and the head coach."

Troubling signs

There were strong indications, weeks before Shanahan emerged from Snyder's private plane Monday, that Snyder and the Redskins were preparing to replace Zorn. In December, according to the Fritz Pollard Alliance -- which oversees the NFL's rule that ensures team's with head coaching and top executive openings interview minority candidates -- Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray interviewed for Zorn's job. Gray is African American.

Those discussions occurred before the season took another twist: On Dec. 17, Cerrato abruptly resigned after a decade as one of Snyder's closest advisers. Cerrato, who has not spoken with the media since then, issued a statement through the club. In it, he said he "had the pleasure of working with some great coaches such as Joe Gibbs, Greg Blache and Sherman Lewis." At that point, Cerrato had worked with Lewis for a little more than 10 weeks. It was the final indication of the rift that had grown between management and the head coach. Publicly, though, Zorn wouldn't mention any friction.

"I feel bad in the situation that Vinny is gone," Zorn said that day. Cerrato had helped hire Zorn as the offensive coordinator, had helped elevate him to the head job. But as the relationship deteriorated, Zorn bit his lip. "He really hasn't outbursted about anything," Campbell said late in the year. A devout Christian, Zorn's closest friends believe his faith had the most direct impact on how he responded to situations, both internally and externally.

"I think Jim wrestles with all these things," Largent said. "I don't think it's natural the way he's responded. I think it's super-natural. I think Jim's faith is very much a part of the way he reacts, the way he responds, the way he leads. I think that's why, even in this tumultuous situation, Jim can have a sense of peace about himself, about his future."

The season, though, wore on Zorn, and over the final weeks, the team delivered its two worst performances, right in front of Allen, Cerrato's replacement and the new general manager. On Dec. 21, the New York Giants pasted the Redskins, 45-12, on "Monday Night Football." That night, after he addressed both his team and the media, Zorn walked down a cement hallway at FedEx Field. His teenage son Isaac, a freshman in high school, met him and threw his arm across his father's shoulders. For a moment, the son appeared to prop up the father. The following week, after a 17-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at home, Zorn marched upstairs to the box from which his wife, family and friends watched the games. The Redskins were 4-11, he was entering his last week as coach -- and he looked beaten.

"It was sad," said Trezise, who spent that weekend with the Zorns. "For an upbeat guy, he seemed to not have a lot of energy. He was tired. He looked worn out."

By that point, the Redskins' future clearly didn't include Zorn, and the players understood that, talked about it. "You never know what direction they're going here," cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

In those final weeks, as Cerrato was shoved aside, as Allen met with Zorn and the coaching staff to evaluate both the players and the coaches, the lame duck coach had conversations with those closest to him, with Largent and Sherman Smith, the offensive coordinator, and with Joy, his wife.

"I told him all the reasons why people were telling me not to come here all came true," Smith said prior to the Redskins' final game. "But I still don't' regret it because I thought it was a step of faith."

On the Friday before the team departed for San Diego for Zorn's last game, the coach conducted his final practice. He said afterward that he wanted to win "the fifth game," though it would be meaningless, because the Redskins finished last either way. But he also reflected on his approach, the approach that guided him through his tenure in Washington.

"Believe me: I err," Zorn said. "Believe me: I fail. Miserably. But here's what I don't do: I don't look at the season and count our win-loss [record] as: 'Gosh, that's just God's will. Isn't this great? Isn't this lovely?' I have pain in our record. I have pain in failing the fans and failing the Redskin organization in the win-loss record."

Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.

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