A Season of Discontent: The Jim Zorn You Never Saw

Ed Sheahin@@NFLSkinsCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2010

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell #17 of the Washington Redskins speak on the field during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field on December 27, 2009 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

The Fall of Zorn

We all saw it. That befuddled look plastered on former Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn’s face when things would go terribly wrong. Pretty much the same look Redskins fans had watching the highest paid team in the NFL perform like a dysfunctional high school squad.

From the very start, Zorn was determined to coach this team the way he believed a professional organization should be managed.

With 20-plus years of NFL experience as a player and assistant coach, Zorn had seen it all at the professional level. 

He had to have known that the laid-back approach to coaching seldom produces long-term results. Sure, there have been a few exceptions to the rule. Former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores had success with "Da Raiders" and their loose ship approach in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Since Flores, today’s successful NFL coaches have been fiery and of the no nonsense variety. Even the mild mannered Tony Dungy was fired when he failed to get the job done in Tampa Bay. He needed a fresh start, and got one in Indianapolis. It was at this stage in his coaching career when Dungy started demanding more from his players. 

Dungy won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, but the persona he displayed on the field or in front of the cameras was not the same mannerism he used in the locker room. He had to learn that there was a time to acknowledge players and a time to challenge them.

Jim Zorn did not have the luxury of time. There was no on-the-job training afforded to him. Winning now was the only option.

Success jumping from a position coach to an NFL head coach is a massive undertaking.  Managing three to four employees in your area of specialty is one thing; overseeing 100 or more professionals who count on you for leadership is completely different.

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder operates by bringing in his handpicked people, and in return he demands loyalty. Those staffers are expected to work together and achieve success. But the puzzle pieces never fit together.

In February of 2008, Zorn received a promotion with the Redskins to become the team’s offensive coordinator after serving 10 years as an NFL assistant. This was a natural move for a successful quarterback coach working his way up the NFL chain of command.

However, a week later Snyder offered Zorn the head coaching position. Snyder, acting out of desperation as well as admiration for Zorn’s personality, placed Zorn in a position he was completely unprepared for.      

Can you blame Zorn for accepting a position he wasn’t qualified to do? What person in his/her right mind wouldn’t want to triple their salary and financially care for his/her family for the rest of their lives?

Although he probably had his own reservations and doubts on whether he would succeed, Zorn is a competitor. He thrived on the challenge of taking the Redskins back to the Super Bowl and believed that, given the right amount of time, he would succeed.

Whether it was Jim Zorn or the late Bill Walsh coaching this organization, 10 years of mismanagement created a no-win scenario. Zorn never had a chance. Management did a poor job assembling a strong offensive line by continuously ignoring this area in the draft. 

There were additional issues impacting Zorn’s recipe for disaster, like the fact players were allowed to bypass the coaching staff and discuss concerns with the owner in his office. 

Most of Zorn’s coaching staff was assigned to him, so their loyalty naturally migrated to Snyder (i.e. Jerry Gray interviewing for Zorn’s job while he was still the head coach). 

There was also the franchise model from which former coach Joe Gibbs and Snyder built this team. They believed that players with strong character traits (God, family, and a strong work ethic) equaled success on and off the field. This was an ideal plan for reaching out to the Washington community but a bad strategy for playing with attitude and purpose on Sundays.

The team lacked "nastiness" come game time. A "win at all cost" mentality that a Ray Lewis or a Brian Dawkins brings to the stadium every week.

Zorn never stood a chance to succeed.

Lifelong Connection to Zorn

I was a rookie reporter on the NFL beat. In Washington, news channel reporters, the Washington Post, and the former Washington Times dictated the line of questioning to Zorn, his staff, and the players. 

Rarely was I able to time my questions to beat the veteran reporters to the punch. So I quickly learned to become a good listener, studying an individual’s actions and reactions to a line of questioning.

Jim Zorn had been a link in my life since I was a 12 year old boy in 1977. This is when the NFL introduced two new franchises to the league. The Seattle Seahawks' logo and uniforms appealed to me over the creamsicle orange of the Buccaneers. 

As an appealing left-handed quarterback playing for an underdog franchise, Zorn was one of my favorite players. When assigned to cover Zorn’s Redskins, my endearing passion for professional football had come full circle.  

2009 Redskins: Zorn’s Character Remains Strong While His Redskins Falter

As the 2009 season progressed, I spent a good portion of my time around Redskins’ coach Jim Zorn watching his reactions. I studied his mannerisms and actions before, during, and after practice and post-game press conferences.    

The following is my account of Zorn’s final season as the Redskins’ head coach. How he handled himself, his confidence, and body language, as well as his demeanor.

In August, Zorn was upbeat and full of optimism. There was pep in his step and you could sense he was excited when heading toward the practice field.

After surviving his first season with an 8-8 record, he showed more confidence. Early in camp he took some time to walk off the practice field with me. I was able to pick his brain a bit about some of the practice drills he utilizes and their purpose.

Zorn was extremely accommodating. He afforded me more time than I could have anticipated. He didn’t know me from Adam (not Schefter), yet he talked to me as if I were Peter King from Sports Illustrated .

His confidence and ease in the job rubbed off on me. I believed the Redskins would be okay. After all, how could a veteran team with a relaxed and self-assured coach take steps backwards?

September started rough for the Redskins with a déjà vu loss to the New York Giants opening weekend and an ugly home win against the hapless St. Louis Rams—owner Daniel Snyder was storming the locker room after the team squeaked out a 9-7 win—and the month ended with the most embarrassing loss in franchise history. 

With a 19-14 loss to the Detroit Lions, snapping their 19-game losing streak, Zorn can look back on this game and pinpoint the start of his end.    

It was at this point when I jumped off the Zorn bandwagon and felt the season could be salvaged with a change at the top. But owner Daniel Snyder stuck with his project coach.

Zorn unraveled on the sidelines, jumping up and down after a questionable referee call during a crucial point in the game. This was the first time the Redskins’ easy-going coach showed signs of unraveling. 

The pressure to win was getting to him. The confidence he had in August dissipated. Perhaps he sensed the end was near. But the week following the Lions game, Zorn was once again upbeat and felt certain his team would work through this crisis.

His words remained positive whenever he addressed the media. He would not blame his players or assistants. Zorn’s press conferences stressed the positives and rationalized the errors.

Now it’s October and the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Washington. It was another ugly offensive performance, but a win is a win. Sitting at 2-2 despite the hideous play of the team, one would expect Zorn to feel somewhat positive about the team’s outlook.

Rather, it was just the opposite. Zorn spent most of his post-game press conference apologizing after a victory, explaining why the offense could not score in the red zone and why he benched Jason Campbell.

Zorn was changing right before my eyes. I saw it in his demeanor and the way he approached the media. He knew something we didn’t know. No longer excited or positive when he responded to questions after a victory, his retorts were short and to the point.

Following a heartbreaking loss on the road to Carolina, the Redskins attempted to get back on track with a home game against the winless Kansas City Chiefs—this marked the sixth straight game the Redskins played a winless team. 

It was the worst performance I have witnessed (stay tuned) by a Redskins team in my 30 years following the organization. How a professional team could digress during the season amazed me. The only explanation I had was that the players stopped performing for Zorn. 

Zorn tried to stay positive as he addressed the media following the game. His words were direct and relevant. His tone was somber and bleak. He knew there would be consequences.

What was the end result of the Kansas City loss at home? We may never know what transpired behind the doors of Snyder’s office. We do know that Zorn was stripped of his play calling duties and Sherman Lewis was brought in as an offensive consultant. 

Taking away Zorn’s power as the coach went beyond seeing the writing on the wall.  The answer to Zorn’s future was evident. Unless he won out and took the Redskins to the NFC Championship, he wasn’t going to be retained as the coach.

When Zorn addressed the Washington media following each practice, he was able to hide his dismay as best he could with words. But his eyes couldn’t lie. I had this sense he was hurting inside and losing confidence in his abilities to manage.

He became fidgety, often cuffing his hands together when he spoke. The tougher the questions, the tighter he clamped his hands together. I don’t know this for a fact, but he appeared to be losing weight. He was a dead man walking and physically, it was starting to take a toll.

Life as a the face of a billion-dollar franchise would get worse following a Monday night debacle against the Philadelphia Eagles. Tight end Chris Cooley fractured his ankle and would miss the remainder of the season. 

Despite the incompetent persona that followed Zorn, he stayed loyal to his players.  Refusing to throw them under the bus or blame them for the team’s performance, remaining true to his character. He even took the time to attend and observe Cooley’s surgery to repair his injured ankle.

The season hit rock bottom in Atlanta the following week as players showed signs of mailing in the season with a lethargic first half performance.  Zorn and some of his assistants finally laid into the players, challenging their professionalism and manhood.

The players would respond with solid second half performance, but the hole was too deep to dig out of. A 31-17 loss to the Falcons left the Redskins at 2-6, and the season was on life support at the halfway mark.

But whatever the coaching staff said during the halftime break in Atlanta spilled over to the following week. The Redskins defeated the 6-2 Denver Broncos 27-17, finally giving the hometown fans something to cheer about. We caught a glimpse of what could have been had this team played with passion and purpose all season.

The Redskins would go on to play well enough to lose their next three games, all against three playoff-bound teams. They outplayed Dallas for 57 minutes, only to lose 7-6.  They had the Eagles by eight points in the fourth quarter, but allowed victory to slip through their grasps yet again. And they took the undefeated New Orleans Saints to the brink only to lose in overtime, 33-30, in the most exciting NFL game of the season.   

Still, Zorn had no answers when he addressed the media following each loss. His eyes glazed over more and more with every post-game press conference and his responses sounded like repeated dialogue.

After decisively defeating the Oakland Raiders 34-13, and a fifth straight highly competitive game, hope was still alive for Zorn. Perhaps if he could win three straight games to close the season, spoiling the Giants and Cowboys playoff hopes, the embattled Redskins coach would have a chance to stay.

But there was no rallying around the coach in Washington. The Redskins had two ugly home performances on national television. There was a blowout loss to the Giants (45-12) and the Cowboys (17-0) dominated the Redskins frigid cold of FedEx Field.

In the week leading up to the final game of the season, rumors were circulating that defensive back coach Jerry Gray interviewed for Zorn's job, but Zorn refused to discuss the matter. 

Time and time again, he had plenty of chances to lash out against his players, coaches, and even his boss. He never took shots at them. 

With the end just days away, Zorn invited his son and a friend out to practice. He knew it would be the last time they would have this opportunity. He started his dialogue with the media each day with phrases like, "This is our last Wednesday practice" and "I can’t believe this is it."

Almost appropriately, the Redskins lost the last game of the season to the San Diego Chargers, 23-20, in the waning seconds.

Zorn flew back on team charter to Dulles airport. When the plane landed around 4:00 AM, he was informed he was being relieved of his duties.

There were no good-byes or one last farewell speech for the Redskins’ fans.  He was gone from Washington as fast as he came in.    


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