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Dick Heller: Zorn’s first foe: History

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Will Jim Zorn lead the Redskins onward and upward in his first season as coach?

If you look at the team's history, the odds aren't good.

Over 71 previous seasons in the nation's capital, the Redskins have had 22 head coaches (excluding interim boss Terry Robiskie and counting Joe Gibbs twice).

Exactly six began their tenures with a winning season - and that includes the first three to draw paychecks in D.C.: Ray Flaherty, Dutch Bergman and Dud DeGroot - in the NFL's Neanderthal days.

The last Redskins coach to get off on the right foot was Pro Football Hall of Famer George Allen in 1971, when his cornball speeches and slogans somehow prodded the club to its first playoff game in 26 years.

Since then seven guys have failed to win their first times around: Jack Pardee, Gibbs I, Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Gibbs II.

Pardee and Schottenheimer managed to finish at .500. So did Gibbs in 1981, though Joe did it the hard way after losing his first five games.

Should Zorn be intimidated by this dismal history? Of course not, because the past does not necessarily portend the future. Besides, Jimbo appears to be more humble and candid than most of his predecessors, though it remains to be seen if he'll stay that way.

Under Dan Snyder's untender ministrations, four head coaches in nine years have entered and exited Redskin Park. Because of those three Super Bowl victories in his first tenure, Gibbs ran the show with apparently little interference from on high. We don't know whether Zorn and Vinny Cerrato, Snyder's handpicked VP of football operations, will enjoy the same privileges.

For some years now, Snyder has reminded longtime fans of franchise founder George Preston Marshall, a certifiable hothead who changed coaches the way some men change underwear.

Flaherty, the Redskins' first coach in Washington, was successful enough to tell Marshall where to get off when the imperious owner stuck his beak into football matters. But after Ray quit to enlist in the Navy in 1942 while hugging a second NFL title in six seasons to his breast, GPM declared open season on coaches.

The Redskins had seven over the next 10 years. Marshall even fired one of them, Curly Lambeau, before the season started in 1954 - and Curly was a venerated NFL pioneer.

Other first-year bosses suffered on and off the field. A retired Navy admiral named John "Billick" Whelchel lasted just seven games in 1949. Joe Kuharich and Mike Nixon started with 3-9 seasons, although Kuharich rebounded startlingly with an 8-4 record in 1955 before escaping to Notre Dame several years later. Bill McPeak, burdened with the twin duties of coach and GM (presumably so Marshall could save a salary), checked in at 1-12-1 in 1961.

(Nixon's two-year record as coach was 4-18-2, and when Vice President Richard Nixon departed the capital after losing the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy, more than a few observers complained, "They ran the wrong Nixon out of Washington.")

There was no instant salvation, either, when Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham took over from McPeak in 1966. The ineffectual Graham, whose first name was mocked by his players as "Toot," started 7-7 and got no better.

"Graham might have been a great quarterback, but he's the dumbest coach I've ever seen," one Redskins veteran told a sportswriter posing as a fellow barfly in midsummer 1966 after knocking back a few brews.

Edward Bennett Williams, then running the team, responded by hiring arguably the smartest coach anybody had ever seen three years later, producing wild excitement in this supposedly jaded capital.

Vince Lombardi proved as good as his reputation, cajoling and cursing the long-dormant Redskins to 7-5-2 respectability in 1969. But after cancer speedily felled Lombardi the following year, it was left for Allen to fully restore the team's honor.

Throughout seven decades, the Redskins have alternated periods of glory and ghastliness. Now Jim Zorn is being asked to shepherd Washington's favorite sports team into a new era where big games and big victories once again dominate our autumns.

Can he do it? Your guess is as good as mine. The preseason presented no definitive clue, what with three early victories and then two lopsided losses. Let's put him down for a 7-9 start and hope for better.