- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

Over the years, the NFL has been exceedingly kind to the Redskins in the scheduling of season openers. So kind you have to wonder whether Dan Snyder has compromising pictures of Paul Tagliabue - or Roger Goodell - stashed in a safe somewhere.

In eight of the last nine seasons, the Redskins have played at home in Week 1, almost invariably against a down-on-its-luck opponent - the Dolphins (who would finish 1-15) last year, the Vikings (6-10) the year before, the Bucs (5-11) two years before that. Of course, you have to understand: The NFL likes to set attendance records on its opening weekends - to give the season a firm starting push - and FedEx Field’s 90,000-plus seats can be awfully helpful.

The league is also partial to story lines, and there were few bigger in recent years than the return of Joe Gibbs to the Washington sideline. So, yes, Gibbs probably got some preferential treatment from 280 Park Avenue. Nothing too outrageous, just the opportunity to begin every season 1-0. (He went 3-for-4.)

Alas, with Coach Joe skedaddling back to NASCAR and low-profile Jim Zorn taking his place, the party is over for the Redskins. Worse, it’s over not in a beer-tap-running-dry kind of way but in a police-pounding-on-the-door kind of way. Instead of lining up against the usual weakling Thursday in Week 1, Your Heroes have to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in the nationally televised league opener - on enemy turf, no less.

Still, the Redskins have a few things going for them. They have the memory of their 22-10 win at the Meadowlands last December, the second leg of their 4-0 stretch run that sneaked them into the playoffs. They also have Zorn, who, as coaches go, is the ultimate Unknown Quantity. He’s like a pitcher making his first start in the big leagues; no one - except maybe his previous employer, the Seahawks - knows much about him.

“I think there is an advantage,” he agrees. “I don’t have a history. [Foes] can’t say, ‘This is what he’ll go to in this situation.’”

With any other coach, all you have to do is look at the tape. But with Zorn, there isn’t any tape. Before getting the head job with the Redskins, he had never even been a coordinator, never called the plays. Who knows what his tendencies are, what stuff he likes to run in the red zone? We’ll find out soon enough, in the first month or so, but right now nobody has a clue, certainly not Steve Spagnuolo, the Giants’ defensive boss.

But then, there’s a flip side to being a blank slate, to being the Sarah Palin of NFL coaches. “I don’t know how the media is going to respond based on what they see out there,” he says.

It works like this, Jim: If you score points, they’ll praise you, and if you punt a lot, they’ll pan you. That’s pretty much how it’s been since Jim Thorpe was running out of the Double Wing.

Speaking of punters, the Redskins have a new one - rookie Durant Brooks, one of their sixth-round draft picks. Brooks won out over incumbent Derrick Frost, a move that was much questioned in some quarters. Well, at least one.

Here’s my take on it: In four NFL seasons, Frost never finished higher than 11th in his conference in either gross or net average. At bottom, he’s a semi-reliable, below-average mediocrity. If the club thinks it can do better with Brooks, whose net average in the preseason was 34.5 yards to Frost’s 32.3, why not give him a shot? Heck, choices like these - youthful potential over veteran ordinariness - are made every year … by every team.

The larger issue, one raised by Frost as he stormed out the door (the Packers soon signed him), is that all 10 of the Redskins’ draftees made the final 53-man roster. Now that’s unusual. Just to give you an idea, Bobby Beathard, the general manager during the glory years of the ‘80s, never came close to batting 1.000 in the draft. His best year was ‘87, when eight of 11 picks eventually played for the club.

But let’s not forget: Rosters were smaller then, 45 men rather than 53, and the Redskins’ depth chart was harder to crack. (In fact, they won the Super Bowl that season.) That said, it will be interesting to see how many of the Redskins’ rookies go on to make an impact - and how many are merely taking up space until next year’s crop comes along. The early returns aren’t terribly encouraging, but it’s usually the second season that’s most telling for a player.

And so we count down the hours until Jim Zorn calls the first play of his NFL coaching career. I asked him the other day whether he already knew what the play would be, and he nodded. “I decided it in training camp,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily based on all I’ve been seeing [defensively] from the Giants.”

Gibbs’ first play, the second time around, resulted in a 64-yard touchdown run by Clinton Portis. All things seemed possible then - though Redskins fans would soon learn otherwise. On Steve Spurrier’s first play two years earlier, many predicted a triple reverse, complete with back flips and cartwheels, but all the Redskins ran was a routine running play. So much for the Fun ‘n’ Gun.

“Don’t make me talk so much about the first play,” said Zorn, who’s generally happy to talk about anything. “It’s just a play. Besides, you can have a script, but it all depends on field position and everything.”

Here’s hoping he gets to call the play he wants. Every new coach should get to call the play he wants - on the first play of the rest of his life.

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