- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It’s a lot harder to get a pro offense functioning smoothly - with all its working parts - than it is to get, say, the drive-through window staff at Wendy’s working as one.

The playbook Al Saunders fork-lifted to Redskins Park in 2006 was so thick, it supposedly took a year just to read the table of contents - and at least two to master the center snap. I’m not sure Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell ever really grasped the system, though Todd Collins did, basically because he’d spent almost a decade of his life studying the thing - with near-monastic devotion.

So it’s a revelation to see the Snydermen, in their new West Coast offense, moving the ball up and down the field and going four weeks without a turnover. Indeed, it makes you wonder what on earth was going on during Joe Gibbs‘ second term, when the “O” often looked like it had two left cleats and never came close to achieving the smoothness and efficiency of his Super Bowl winners.

Yes, Jim Zorn has been the Redskins coach for only four games, and yes, opponents are still trying to get a feel for his habits and tendencies, but the sense of order he has brought to the offense in such a short time is impressive, to say the least. Even when the team was going to the playoffs under Gibbs, the unit seemed like a souped-up ‘85 Omni; it had all these expensive components - Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Samuels - and yet it continued to chug along, burning oil as it went.

Zorn’s West Coast attack, on the other hand, has taken most of the same personnel and gotten much more mileage out of them, gotten them operating with an assurance Gibbs’ and Saunders’ X’s and O’s never did. Better still, each week Jason Campbell and Co. have shown improvement - to the point where, Sunday at Texas Stadium, they beat the club many considered the best in the league and controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes. That, my friends, is a first-class … well, I’ll let you decide which Cowboys body part they kicked.

For Redskins fans, it has been a long time coming - all the longer because Gibbs’ offenses during the glory years spoiled them so. Except for the ‘99 playoff season under Norv Turner, when the team rolled up 443 points behind Brad Johnson and Stephen Davis, the Washington offense has failed to generate much excitement … and frequently generated much nausea.

But that certainly hasn’t been the case with Zorn’s attack. After looking lost in the opener against the Giants - so lost a Global Positioning System couldn’t have saved them - the offense has strung together three strong performances. How strong? Strong enough that the Redskins now boast the NFL’s No. 2 receiver for yardage (Moss, 421), the No. 4 passer (Campbell, 102.2) and the No. 5 rusher (Portis, 369).

“I think he’s getting to know our players a lot better,” Campbell said Monday. “And he’s doing an outstanding job of keeping us balanced.”

Zorn is also doing a nice job, according to Portis, “of keeping us fresh so that late in the game we can pound it.” The 26-24 win over the Cowboys ended with Campbell taking a knee - for the third straight week - and it ended that way because Clinton and Ladell Betts were able to keep the chains moving in the fourth quarter and keep Dallas’ potent offense off the field.

One last thing: Zorn’s system has been especially good at getting the ball to the people it should be getting the ball to, Moss first and foremost. Let’s face it, there have been too many times the past three seasons when Santana hasn’t been much of a factor, too many games in which he caught three passes for 20- or 30-some yards. Zorn isn’t just targeting him, he’s finding ways to get him open deep - as he did on one 53-yard play Sunday by switching him from split end to flanker.

As for Campbell, his progress has been startling in its swiftness. That happens sometimes with young quarterbacks - a light suddenly goes on, and away they go. But it also suggests Zorn knows a little something about developing QBs (and his work with rookie Colt Brennan offers more evidence). A franchise can go a long way with a coach who’s a clever play caller and nurturer of quarterbacks. Look at how far the Packers and Seahawks went with Mike Holmgren, one of Zorn’s mentors. Heck, look at how far the Redskins went with Gibbs the first time around.

What a phenomenon this West Coast offense is. It has spread, in some form, to every division in the NFL - and shows no signs of abating. Unlike other systems, says Zorn, it isn’t installed piecemeal, “you just put it in [all at once]. It’s kind of a different philosophy. Fortunately, we had a lot of guys here getting a head start on it in the offseason.

“As the young guys - I’m talking about Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly - build their confidence and begin to understand it more, we have a chance to be even more effective.”

They’ll understand it soon enough, you figure. And here’s why: Because their coach isn’t trying to put a man on the moon, like some offensive “geniuses,” he’s just trying to put a man in the end zone.