- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

For all the ups and downs of Washington’s season, Redskins coach Jim Zorn has done something that many of the best in his profession failed to do.

Zorn avoided a losing record in his first season as an NFL coach. Consider that legendary Bill Walsh finished 2-14 in his debut with the San Francisco 49ers and that reclamation king Bill Parcells posted a 3-12-1 record in his first season in command of the New York Giants, and the task of winning right from the start looms even larger.

“The biggest challenge for the new head coach is making sure that he’s able to get his program established the way he wants it established,” Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “It looks like that’s what Jim’s done.”

That seemed to be the case when Zorn’s Redskins jumped out to a 4-1 start that ended with road victories over the Dallas Cowboys and the Eagles. But when Washington limped into Sunday’s rematch with the Eagles at 7-7, Zorn’s job security was in question. However, the 10-3 victory ensured at least a .500 season and probably ensured Zorn’s return.

On Wednesday, Zorn responded to Monday’s published report in which vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato said Zorn’s job is not in jeopardy.

“There was no vote of confidence that I needed to feel like I was gonna be back,” he said. “I always planned on being back.”

While Sunday’s game at 6-9 San Francisco won’t be easy for Zorn or the Redskins, who already have lost to the St. Louis Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, the coach can take pride in already being in fairly rarified air.

Of the 114 men who debuted as NFL coaches at the start of a season since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, only 46 avoided losing records in their first seasons. Of course, that 46-man list includes all four of this season’s newcomers. The Atlanta Falcons’ Mike Smith, the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh and the Miami Dolphins’ Tony Sparano are all 10-5, with Smith having clinched a playoff berth.

The turnarounds by those teams make Zorn’s 8-7 record look less sterling because the Redskins were a 9-7 playoff team last year under Joe Gibbs. But in the context of the previous 30 years, Zorn has been a success.

If the Redskins beat the 49ers, Zorn will be Washington’s winningest first-year coach since George Allen in 1971. Not even Hall of Famer Gibbs had a winning season in his debut. In fact, Gibbs had to win seven of his final nine games just to reach .500.

Gibbs likes to tell the story of being summoned to see Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke with the team sitting at 0-5 and wondering whether he would be fired before even winning a game. Of course, Cooke didn’t can him and Gibbs finished his second season by winning Washington’s first Super Bowl.

Of the 45 coaches before Zorn to avoid losing debuts, Gibbs was one of 12 to finish .500. Jon Gruden and Brian Billick joined Gibbs in going on to win a championship. But others, such as Ray Handley (two seasons) and Scott Linehan (three), didn’t last long.

The group of 10 coaches that Zorn is hoping to match by debuting at 9-7 includes his mentor Mike Holmgren, who has coached in three Super Bowls, winning one.

And of the 28 men who began 2008 as coaches with at least a year on the job, only Holmgren, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Sean Payton, Wade Phillips and Mike Tomlin had winning debut seasons. That’s the quality group Zorn will join by winning Sunday.

cStaff writer Bob Cohn contributed to this article.

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