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The Redskins' unusual game of telephone

Redskins' offense has shown improvement since Lewis took lead role in play-calling from Zorn

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 6, 2009

More than 40 years after its invention, the telestrator is a common tool used by television football analysts who dissect complex and hard-to-understand plays. While it helps make sense of X's and O's, broadcasters assigned to Washington Redskins games in recent weeks have relied on the telestrator to explain the team's complicated play-calling system -- not its actual plays.

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They draw a line from two men in the coaches' booth to the offensive coordinator on the sideline to the quarterback in the huddle, each communicating by radio. Somewhere, left out of the connect-the-dots web, is Coach Jim Zorn, who was stripped of play-calling duties in October.

The Redskins were 2-4 with Zorn calling the plays to start the season and are 1-4 since offensive consultant Sherman Lewis was named primary play-caller on Oct. 19. Though the wins aren't piling up, players, coaches and analysts say the offense seems to be improving. The unanswered question is whether this is because of the play-caller switch -- or despite it.

"I'm actually amazed they can make it function as smoothly as they have," said Daryl Johnston, a Fox Sports analyst who provided color commentary for the Redskins' games at Atlanta on Nov. 8 and last Sunday at Philadelphia. "You would expect to see more problems at this point. It's very bizarre how they're doing it, but somehow they're making it work. Is it the best scenario? Absolutely not. You won't find many people who will tell you that's an ideal situation, but they're finding a way to make it work."

Lewis, who was brought out of retirement on Oct. 6 to be a consultant, has not spoken to reporters since assuming play-caller duties, and despite numerous requests, Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, would not comment for this article.

While coaches never agreed with management that a change was necessary, offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said that after five games with Lewis in the booth, "It's fair to say it's working."

"If you saw a lot of confusion on the field and a lack of improvement on the field, you could point to that and say, 'That must be the problem,' " Smith said. "It sounds confusing, but it's not confusing. It's working pretty good the way we're going about it. I think the communication is real clear to the number one guy that it has to be clear to, and that's to the quarterback."

Many analysts have said the team's offensive problems were never the result of poor play-calling, instead focusing on players' inability to execute Zorn's plays. Even as production has increased, the team's unique system has remained under fire. Following the Redskins' 7-6 loss at Dallas Nov. 22, former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann unloaded on his weekly show on ESPN 980, calling the team's play-calling system "Horrific! Terrible! Stupid! Dumb!" and also "the most absurd, ridiculous thing I've ever seen."

"None of us know what the style of the Washington Redskins is on offense because you've got too many stylists doing their hair," Theismann said. "You've got curls in one place, you've got straight in the other, you've got bangs over here, you've got a short back. I mean, that's the first thing that needs to get fixed."

Statistically, the offense is improved almost across the board since Cerrato and team owner Daniel Snyder pulled Zorn's play-calling duties following the loss to Kansas City on Oct. 18. It has improved even as injuries have ravaged the offensive line and taken down the top two running backs and tight end Chris Cooley.

"The production has been there, no question about it," Smith said. "What we attribute it to is that guys are executing better. I think we're running the ball a little bit more, and I think [Lewis] has come in and had some ideas in the passing game. He has a feel for what's working good in the passing game. I think all of that is a contributing factor."

Even as production has increased, the criticism of the play-calling system hasn't necessarily waned. Players say they have no choice but to block out the critiques.


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