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In a Pinch, Zorn Took Play Sheet and Ran With It

Long Before He Became Redskins Coach, Assistant for Lions Showed a Glimpse of His Future

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008; Page E01

On the morning of Jan. 2, 2000, disaster had seemingly struck the Detroit Lions as they prepared for their game against the Minnesota Vikings.

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The night before, their offensive coordinator, Sylvester Croom, had fallen so ill he had been taken to a Minneapolis hospital. Though he returned before kickoff and was asking to coach, it was clear to everyone in the room that he was too sick to work. Only a half-hour remained before the start of the game and the Lions had no one to call the plays.

Running out of time and needing someone to perform the team's most important function of the day, Detroit Coach Bobby Ross walked up to his quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn, and asked, "Do you think you could call the game?"

"Absolutely!" Zorn replied.

When the Washington Redskins hired Zorn as their head coach in February, it seemed such a dangerous move in large part because Zorn assumed the role of play-caller despite never having done so full-time as an NFL assistant. The worry was that he would be woefully overmatched. And yet all anyone needed to do was go back to the time the play sheet landed in his hand -- with time running down and the game about to start -- to know it would not be a problem.

"It was a very critical situation and he never got rattled," said Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, who was the Lions' tight ends coach that season.

Detroit would lose that game, 24-17, to a superior team in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums. But the defeat had little to do with Zorn's play-calling. When pressed to identify a critical mistake or penalty committed by the offense, no one could remember anything. The Lions lost for other reasons. Mainly because they lost their starting quarterback, Charlie Batch, halfway through the game and because they allowed Minnesota to build a two-touchdown lead.

"I was hoping it would work out well and we would end up beating them," said Zorn, who returns to Detroit on Sunday for the Redskins' game with the Lions.

It had been a horrible week for Croom. On Christmas day, his father, Sylvester Croom Sr., the chaplain for the University of Alabama football team, had suffered a stroke that would turn out to be fatal. Immediately Sylvester Jr. flew to Alabama to be with his father, returning to Detroit on Thursday to finish preparations for the Minnesota game.

On Saturday night, according to news accounts, Croom began to feel pains in his chest. Some team officials feared he might be having a heart attack, which is why they sent him to the hospital. Doctors later told reporters that Croom had a virus which was likely brought on by stress. When Croom arrived at the stadium he was besieged by migraine headaches. Smith remembers Croom, drained from the ordeal, retreating to a dark room where he sprawled across a table hoping the migraines would disappear.

When it was clear Croom could not coach, Ross called the offensive assistants together and announced that Zorn would call the plays. This made the most sense to the men in the room. Zorn worked daily with Batch. He also, as quarterbacks coach, had the best feel for what each offensive player was supposed to do.

After the meeting, Zorn sat down at a small row of tables set up behind the lockers and began to rewrite Croom's playlist. Each coach makes such sheets to his own personal tastes, since the most critical element is finding the desired play as quickly as possible. Since Zorn's system was different from Croom's, he pulled out a sheet of paper and patiently copied down every play by hand, making sure each was right where he wanted it. This impressed Smith, who was awed by the calm Zorn showed as he pieced his list together.

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