Shadows of doubt

With Lewis calling plays in place of Zorn, Redskins are unsure of what to expect

Redskins Coach Jim Zorn, who had his duties taken away after this press conference on Sunday evening, says he's "willing to try" a new play-caller.
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn, who had his duties taken away after this press conference on Sunday evening, says he's "willing to try" a new play-caller. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

He still has his headset, and that means for now he's technically still the Redskins' head coach. But Jim Zorn left few doubts Monday that management's decision to strip him of his play-calling duties six games into the season was a disappointing one.

Because he still wants to win, Zorn said, he will "comply" with management's request that he allow Sherman Lewis, a recently hired offensive consultant, to call the team's offensive plays.

"We can't continue to go on and just score six points a game," Zorn said. "I don't want that. I don't think our players deserve that. So if it's me, if it's really the play-calling, I'm willing to try it."

Before he was linked to the head coaching position, Zorn came to Washington to run the Redskins' offense. He wanted to call the plays and score points. Starting this week, he'll be merely a middle man, accepting play calls from someone else -- a coach who was retired and calling bingo games at a senior citizens' center two weeks ago -- and relaying that information to the quarterback.

Following the Redskins' latest loss, this one to previously winless Kansas City on Sunday, Zorn met with Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operation, and said "it was strongly suggested" that Zorn relinquish play-calling duties.

Meeting with reporters a day later, Zorn said he understands management's decision to use Lewis, who coached in West Coast-style offenses for 22 years. But Zorn said it might have been an easier transition to wait until after Monday's game against Philadelphia, when Washington has a bye week and 12 days between opponents. "But that's not the way the suggestion came down," he said.

Zorn said he was both confident and content with his play-calling thus far. While visibly frustrated discussing the change, Zorn was careful when assessing his feelings. "My comfort level is somewhere between 1 and 10," he said. "It's not at 10."

Cerrato declined a request to discuss his decision, and Lewis, 67, was not made available to reporters. For 18 minutes on Monday, Zorn took questions and tried to answer for both.

"I'm not going to speculate on how comfortable Sherm feels," Zorn said. "I do know this: He's been here for two weeks."

Despite more than two decades of NFL coaching experience, the man Cerrato picked to revive the Redskins' dormant offense has limited experience as a play-caller. A former assistant of Bill Walsh's in San Francisco, Lewis made his mark as Green Bay's offensive coordinator from 1992 to '99. But head coach Mike Holmgren ran those prolific offenses.

Lewis didn't assume play-calling duties in Green Bay until after Holmgren left the Packers to coach in Seattle. Lewis lasted one season there as a play-caller, as the Packers went 8-8 in 1999. The season still ranks among Brett Favre's worst.

The following season, Lewis took over as offensive coordinator in Minnesota, where he was the primary play-caller and had talented wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, plus Robert Smith at running back and Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. The Vikings' offense was ranked No. 5 in 2000 and No. 12 in 2001, but the team's play-calling was a source of consternation both seasons.

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