- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

For a soft-spoken type, Jim Zorn sure doesn’t pull many punches. I refer to his day-after comments following the 47-3 preseason loss at Carolina, the first Certified Debacle of his head coaching career.

Joe Gibbs, his famed predecessor, would have served us heaping bowls of mush in such circumstances - the kind Coach Joe faced all too often in recent years.

“It all begins with me,” he would have said.

“You win as a team, you lose as a team.”

“We’ve just got to work harder - and get back to playing Redskins football” … and blah, blah, blah.

Interestingly, Zorn said none of those things. In fact, rarely if ever has a Redskins coach been so candid about his club’s shortcomings. His players had embarrassed themselves, and for him, at least, there was no running away from it. And so, one after another, these utterances sprang from his lips:

The offensive line was “very soft in pass protection.”

In the running game, blockers had trouble “sustaining one-on-one blocks.”

As far as the play calling was concerned, “It was very challenging. I was [worried] about … putting our quarterback in a situation where he had to hold on to the ball for a very long time. That would have gotten [us] into an even bigger mess.”

More on the same subject: “It was hard [for the quarterback] to trust [his blockers]. You have to feel solid in that pocket, feel they’re going to be able to hold ‘em off.

“You almost feel like putting one of those [offensive linemen] back there and say[ing], ‘OK, try to throw with somebody getting walked back in your face. It’s not easy.’”

Anybody got some smelling salts? After four years of Coach Joe’s bend-over-backward diplomacy, Zorn’s bluntness is like a jolt of cappuccino. And long overdue, if you ask me.

Gibbs, after all, had a tendency to baby his players, to take too much of the blame, to run too much interference. Did he ever, for example, call out Brandon Lloyd - or any other underachiever, for that matter? After the 36-0 no-show against the Giants in ‘05, did he say anything particularly stirring?

But then, that was his style (though it seemed to get more extreme over the years). Coach Joe was all about individual responsibility, about looking in the mirror; finger-pointing, he was convinced, was counterproductive, divisive.

And so, after defeats like the 52-7 humiliation at New England last season, Gibbs looked like The Cat Who Swallowed the Size-8 Helmet. His expression might have been pained, but he never verbalized his true feelings. No, he saved those for team meetings … and late-night talks with the Lord.

You could make the argument, though, that Gibbs never connected with his players the second time around the way he did in the first. Indeed, his Redskins played to their potential, it seemed, only when backed into a corner - when they were 5-6 with five games to go or 5-7 with four left. Utter desperation, not Coach Joe’s pep talks, was what appeared to inspire them.

Zorn, we learned this week, is wired differently. He needs to vent a bit when his club stinks it up, though he does it in a very calm, almost professorial way. (I’m reminded of the secretary who once said of a coach, “He has quietest yell I’ve ever heard.”)

Anyway, while Zorn might come across as a laid-back Californian, he clearly isn’t averse to calling a player on the carpet - publicly. The player this time happened to be one of the most visible Redskins: the club’s five-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle.

After critiquing the O-line as a group, the coach said, “I hate to say it … Chris Samuels wasn’t ready for the explosion he had with Julius Peppers [on the opening play, when Peppers backed Samuels into Jason Campbell]. … You’ve gotta be ready from Play 1.”

Hear, hear. Look, we all know Samuels is a fine player, but the Redskins need more from him than that; they need him to be a leader. And you don’t lead by not showing up for the first play of the game, preseason or not.

Besides, as Zorn noted, this was no ordinary preseason game. It was the final serious tune-up for both clubs, a night when the starters figured to play more than a half. All week long his staff had reminded the players of this, reminded them the game would be a test, a measuring stick. And for the Redskins to come out so “soft,” well, it raises a whole bunch of uncomfortable questions.

Such as: Is the offensive line, the Thirtysomething Brigade, in decline?

And: Are the Redskins worse off now than they were a year ago?

Monday they returned to the practice field and began fixing everything that needed fixing in preparation for the regular-season opener against the Giants. Needless to say, it was a lengthy list. But Zorn was pleased to see “the veteran players come out and try to make a difference, [be] ready to fight again” as if their jobs were at stake.

“The thing they have to learn is that I’m with them,” he said. “I feel just as bad as they do.”

It’s just that, unlike his predecessor, he’s a believer in tough love. And sometimes, the truth hurts - which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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