Taming the Wild West

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

At its best, the West Coast offense is beautiful: Joe Montana hitting Jerry Rice with Rolex timing, Rice galloping after the catch, Bill Walsh standing on the sideline beaming at his creation. Textbooks have been written about it. Super Bowls have been won with it.

Jim Zorn's Washington Redskins run a version of that same offense, though the results thus far have made it scarcely recognizable. Twenty games into Zorn's tenure as both the Redskins' head coach and play-caller, the team's management deemed it necessary to hire an offensive consultant, one whose background in the West Coast system traces to Walsh and those San Francisco 49ers.

Thus, Sherman Lewis, an amiable man of 67, will sit in the coaches' box Sunday at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, where the Redskins will face the winless Carolina Panthers. To the rest of the league, his presence merely emphasizes the obvious: The Redskins have not demonstrably improved in the West Coast system, and management -- owner Daniel Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato -- isn't confident Zorn can change that on his own.

"To have another guy come in, another set of eyes, what does that tell you?" said former quarterback Rich Gannon, who won an MVP award in Jon Gruden's West Coast system in Oakland, and is now an analyst for CBS. "They don't bring guys in if they're scoring 35 a week. . . . It suggests some things are not where they should be."

The numbers are stark. In Zorn's 10-10 tenure, the Redskins have scored 33 touchdowns, just more than 1 1/2 per game. Only four teams -- Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland and St. Louis -- have scored fewer. Those teams, over that period, have combined for 19 victories. Just three times have the Redskins scored three touchdowns in a game, just once since last September.

And the statistic that perhaps best defines the consistency of the Redskins' offensive struggles in the West Coast system: They have yet to score 30 points in a game. Only one other team, Detroit, can say the same over the past two seasons. The 31 teams other than the Redskins have averaged 4.9 30-point performances during that time -- or about one every four games.

Though Zorn described himself as "open" to Lewis's input, he does not believe he needs the help. When Zorn sees the system in his mind, the offense flows, and at times, even this season, it has. But Zorn also knows that his own vision of the offense doesn't match what the Redskins produce.

"I think it's the execution," he said. "It's playing fast, and it's playing fast with the confidence of knowing all the nuances. If I call a run play, we line up, and you have to block what's in front of you, so we have to know what the front is, if they [change up] and don't end up in the same front they started with.

"All those little things take time to work together. . . . I would say that we are fairly cohesive, but at certain critical moments, we've dropped off. That's what we're trying to push towards, so we have no drop-offs."

The Quarterback

Jason Campbell, who has started at quarterback in each of Zorn's 20 games in Washington, used one word to describe the potential of Zorn's system, should it be run at its best: "Explosive." Campbell pointed out two plays, one from each of the past two weeks, each a long pass play to wide receiver Santana Moss, each a touchdown.

"We have to run it to the best of our abilities to be able to be successful," Moss said. "We can't go out there and say, 'Well, this is how Montana ran it, we got to run it like this.' You might not have a Montana at quarterback. We have to run it how Jason Campbell can run it, what his arm brings to the table, how his game [fits] to our offense."

Campbell's arm is strong, but he has not always been accurate with short throws or precise with his reads and decision-making, two imperative aspects of a West Coast scheme. Now, Campbell is coming off the first three-interception performance of his career, albeit in a win over Tampa Bay. And though his passer rating of 85.5 is the best of his career -- and better than those currently posted by Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo -- his performances have warranted scrutiny. "They have a quarterback that has some issues with pocket awareness," said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, who spent 12 years as an offensive lineman with Washington and with Denver, where he played in a West Coast system. "Sometimes it's when to step up, sometimes it's the clock in his head. He has a little bit of a long delivery at times. Those are all things that, together, can slow things down for the offense."

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