- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

Long ago, a famous NFL coach had a brainstorm: Why not watch the game from the press box instead of the sideline? It would offer a much better view of the action, and instructions could easily be phoned to the bench.

The first time the coach did it, his team intercepted nine passes to set a league record. But not long after that, in New York, he ran into a problem. Walking down to the locker room at halftime, he got caught up in the crowd and arrived too late to talk to his players.

So much for that experiment (noble though it was).

I mention this because Jim Zorn, the Redskins’ new coach, sounds like the kind of guy who would do something like that. In fact, Zorn seems like the kind of guy who would do almost anything. Remember Tom House, the pitching coach/iconoclast who used to have his staff warm up by throwing footballs? Maybe Zorn will have Jason Campbell get loose by tossing around a baseball. Or a Frisbee.

Words like “wacky” and “goofy” and “quirky” are often summoned to describe Zorn’s approach. He has been known, for example, to use a Slip ‘n Slide to teach his QBs to hit the ground after scrambling. His new bosses, Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, are said to love this side of him. They see their out of-the-box hire as an out-of-the-box coach, a man of ideas. (Translation: He might even be open to some of their cockamamie, Nintendo notions. Indeed, there could very well be a clause in Zorn’s contract that says, “The owner reserves the right to diagram one play a game.”)

There’s a certain romance about a coach who’s an unknown quantity, a blank slate. And they don’t get much more unknown, much blanker, than Zorn. The man has never been a coordinator in the NFL, never had to install an offense, never stood on the sideline with the play sheet in his hands, whispering sweet nothings into his quarterback’s ear. Who knows what he’ll do now that he suddenly has all this power?

He has, after all, no track record — unlike his more illustrious predecessors (Joe Gibbs, Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer). With them, you pretty much knew what you were getting (though Gibbs surprised us by turning the offensive reins over to Al Saunders). It’s an invitation for Zorn to let out his Inner Child, to loose the Great Improviser who quarterbacked, back in the day, the expansion Seattle Seahawks.

And make no mistake, playing QB for those early Seahawks teams, shaky as their offensive line was, required a certain imagination, an ability to be creative on the fly. It also required an unsinkable optimism, the kind that responds to a 2-6 start — as Zorn once did — with a cheery, “We don’t really have a bad team, except in the won-lost column.”

It should be remembered, though, that you don’t win in the NFL by tricking people — at least, not for long. The head-coach-in-the-press-box didn’t last, and most of the other hocus-pocus eventually falls by the wayside, too.

In the ‘60s, for instance, the 49ers had some fleeting success with a shotgun offense. But then defenses adjusted to it — and the Niners’ quarterbacks started getting carried off on stretchers. The ‘70s saw the Falcons’ all-or-nothing “Gritz Blitz,” the brainchild of mad scientist Jerry Glanville. After working spectacularly for a season, however, it offered diminishing returns.

Gimmicks are great if you need a first down — or even a touchdown — but they’re nothing to hang your helmet on. Football is and always has been a game of blocking and tackling, not of pulling rabbits out of hats.

So Zorn might have his fun for a while, especially with a gadget-play pro like Antwaan Randle El on the roster. For that matter, wait until he sees Clinton Portis, the Elway of running backs, whip the ol’ pigskin around. And Chris Samuels, well, he’s always struck me as a natural for the tackle-eligible play.

At the end of the day, though, Zorn won’t be reinventing the wheel in Washington. How many coaches ever do? No, he’ll be running Mike Holmgren’s version of the West Coast offense, the one he learned as an assistant in Seattle — while adding a few flourishes of his own. But it’s doubtful any of those flourishes will involve him sitting in the press box and watching the game from on high … unless, of course, he needs a place to hide.


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