When I heard the news early this morning that Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen fired Jim Zorn at 4:00 AM Eastern Time upon the team’s arrival at Dulles Airport, I couldn’t help but feel sad for the much maligned former coach.
Then, I hear he was escorted from Redskins Park by security as if he were a disgruntled postal worker. Did you watch how this went down, Mike Shanahan? Is that how you want to be remembered in what will likely be your last coaching stop?
Don’t do it! Just don’t do it! I know, Mike, your confidence factor is high and failure never crosses your mind. Good for you!
The reality of the situation at Redskins Park delves much deeper than football strategy and NFL combine results. A culture has developed over the last decade, one that resembles the Oakland Raiders organization over the last 25 years.
But who am I to tell you about the Raiders and dealing with a dysfunctional franchise? After all, you lived it with the Los Angeles Raiders for a year and half in 1988-89 before you were fired by Al Davis.
Mike, do you really want to live the Al Davis nightmare all over again some 20 years later with the Raiders of the East?
I hear you’re in town to meet with Daniel Snyder and Bruce Allen. I’m sure you guys are having some good laughs and enjoying the Washington nightlife as Snyder attempts to wine and dine you. Let me tell you a little story about the previous coach in Washington.
I was fortunate enough to observe Jim Zorn on a daily basis at Redskins Park. Zorn was a strong man internally. You could tell he had a purpose outside of football. Beliefs that were stronger than Snyder’s will to win. He wasn’t going to change who he was or his approach for anyone. He was going to succeed or fail his way.
Believing that professional athletes were not in need of motivation was perhaps his biggest mistake. It is human nature to become complacent, no matter the success or money you have accumulated.
But Zorn refused to challenge his players, at least publicly. Maybe he believed he was? Just because the players liked him, didn’t necessarily mean they respected him.
He ran very soft practices with little or no contact. Although he claims that is the norm in today’s NFL, I’ve heard from my counterparts with the Ravens and Steelers—two of the most physical teams in the league—that they have some sort of physical/live contact daily whenever the players are in helmets and shoulder pads.
Missed tackles and injuries were the results of “Camp Zorn” and his team’s walkthrough practices. Even at the high school level, coaches understand building mental toughness and training their players' bodies to absorb bone-crushing blows come from grueling physical practices.
Indulge me for a moment, as I try to relatively compare Zorn’s approach to the rough and violent sport of professional football with the survival instincts of a lion roaming the African plains.
When approaching a potential meal, the lion plans and calculates its attack. Patiently the hunter waits, ever so slowly creeping toward its prey. It waits for a sign of weakness or a momentary lapse by the unsuspecting prey. With great violence it pounces on its victim, tackling it to the ground. Survival is the ultimate motivator.
Now you take that same lion, and place him in a created habitat like a zoo. Feed and provide it shade, maybe throw in a watering hole and a few hundred pounds of meat on a regular basis.
Although that lion still maintains the ability to hunt and catch its meals to survive, it no longer utilizes those skills. The lion becomes slower, weaker, and susceptible to complacency. Before long, a glazed look ensues, as the once mighty and powerful lion has lost its thirst to follow its instincts and attack.
Snyder and Zorn together (and sprinkle in a little Vinny Cerrato) made for a lethal combination as a franchise killing machine. Together, they slowly stripped the players of their instinct to perform with an emotional fire. The hunger to succeed dissipated with every game. Snyder unwillingly did so by rewarding the players financially, Zorn by taking their natural aggressive behavior away on the practice field.
Honestly, I witnessed tougher practices at the youth league level when compared to what took place at Redskins Park in August. I understand they have to protect their million dollar investments, but football isn’t a coddle sport.
A change in philosophy going forward must take place by the incoming regime. They have to add depth to the roster, build toughness through physical practices, and accept and prepare for the fact that players will be injured.
Sound familiar? That‘s exactly what Marty Schottenheimer brought to this team in 2001. It was a difficult adjustment for the players at first. The Redskins started the season 0-5, but the mentally tough coach built an even stronger team. Refusing to quit, Schottenheimer’s squad would finish the season winning eight of their final 11 games.
Narrowly missing the playoffs despite the 0-5 start, momentum was building heading into the 2002 season. But Snyder opted to fire Schottenheimer rather than allow him to continue to build.
Some believe Snyder hired Schottenheimer to embarrass him. After all, Schottenheimer was very outspoken when it came to the Redskins' young new owner.
On a national NFL pregame show, Schottenheimer was highly critical of Snyder and the way he handled the firing of Norv Turner. Ironically, Turner would replace Schottenheimer as the San Diego Chargers coach in February of 2007.
So Mike Shanahan, do you miss coaching football that much? You’re still making $7 million a year through 2011 from Denver Broncos and owner Pat Bowlen.
Daniel Snyder may be fascinated with your coaching record and history with the Broncos, but it’s likely his desire for you will ultimately end with a fatal attraction. Why would you want to be the next guy escorted by security from Redskins Park? Before your Denver contract expires, it is likely you’ll suffer the same fate as Jim Zorn.
Think about it: Zorn had no head coaching experience two years ago and led this team to an 8-8 record. What will be the expectations of a coach who has won two Super Bowls? I would think an NFC Championship appearance by 2011.
Can Shanahan rebuild one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL in two years, while simultaneously upgrading the defensive backs position? Can he find a quality replacement at running back? Can he win with Jason Campbell at quarterback, or will he draft a rookie to mold as he did with Jay Cutler?
So many holes to fill, so little time will be afforded to do so.
Before you sign that contract Tuesday morning, Mike Shanahan, think long and hard. Wouldn’t Buffalo be a better place to re-build a franchise, or are you in Washington to scalp Snyder of his money like everyone else?