- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

When the subject finally shifted to the Washington Redskins‘ offensive swoon instead of his return to Seattle - whether he will be booed or cheered, what it will be like matching wits with his former boss and how he would help his defense defeat the quarterback he helped fashion into a premier performer - Jim Zorn went back 29 years.

“I’m really ashamed to tell you this,” he said.

Zorn did anyway.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Seattle lost 24-0 to the Los Angeles Rams. The Seahawks’ output of minus 7 yards of offense remains an NFL record for single-game futility. Zorn finished 2-for-17 passing, and Seattle had one first down.

“That whole game, when I walked up to the line of scrimmage, they gave us a nine-man front,” he said. “If we turned the center one way, a guy would hit me. If we turned the center the other way, another guy would hit me. That was a scheme [problem].

“Our coaches that week created new rules, new protections and new ways to get things done. We played Cleveland [the] next week. … On the very first third down, they showed a blitz they had never shown on video. We went to our new scheme and hammered them.”

Seattle gained 427 yards against the Browns, and Zorn was 16-for-28. Current Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith scored three touchdowns in a 29-24 win.

As for the Redskins’ offensive issues the past five games - they’re averaging seven fewer points and 30 fewer yards than they did in the first five - Zorn said the issue is execution, not scheme.

“It’s not a crime to have a scheme out there that you can’t protect because you’ve never seen it before,” he said. “The crime is, you don’t have good enough coaches that can make those adjustments. We had good coaches [in 1979] in Seattle. I think we have good coaches here. It wasn’t the scheme that failed us last week.”

Translation: During Sunday’s game at Seattle (2-8), the onus is on the Redskins (6-4) to execute better offensively. If not, they could be staring at 6-6 because next up are the 9-1 New York Giants.

“The biggest thing is, we have to stay after it and get back to what we did in the first four to five weeks and just really [play] ball,” receiver Antwaan Randle El said.

Seven weeks ago, the Redskins’ offense was flying high, scoring 23 or more points and controlling possession for at least 33 minutes a game during a four-game winning streak. Reality set in for the past five games - a 2-3 record low-lighted by home losses to Pittsburgh and Dallas in which the Redskins were limited to a combined 16 points and 449 yards of offense.

“The last few games have been rough,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “But we had a nice winning streak going, and now we have to get back to that.”

Returning to Zorn’s point, he would be worried if Pittsburgh and Dallas had won because the Redskins were missing their blocks.

“We would be in meetings burning the midnight oil asking, ‘Are we not communicating?’” he said. “It would be a revamping of the scheme. … It hasn’t been the scheme that’s been our nemesis; it’s been the battle.”

Using more players in protection doesn’t appear to be an option. Zorn’s protection calls for six and occasionally five pass blockers.

“That’s good and bad,” left guard Pete Kendall said. “Some of our best games in pass protection came when we were in five-wide and Jason was in the shotgun.”

Last week, the Redskins gained 50 yards against Dallas when using an empty-back formation.

When Joe Gibbs called the plays in 2004 and 2005, keeping the quarterback upright was paramount and seven-man protections were the norm. In 2006 and 2007, Al Saunders desired four options for Campbell: Randle El, Santana Moss, Chris Cooley and Clinton Portis after he chipped a rusher.

“If you max-protect and they max-rush, then you’ve made the right call and have a chance to get Santana with the entire field to run away from a guy in single coverage,” Kendall said. “That’s a good call, and Jim would take that anytime. But if you max-protect and they rush three and we’re using eight blockers and they put eight into coverage, that will make for a long afternoon for the quarterback to push the ball down the field.”

The past two games, Campbell has been unable to stretch the field. Against Pittsburgh, only seven of Campbell’s 43 passes traveled 10 or more yards (and only one longer than 20). Last week, only one of his 34 attempts went more than 13 yards.

As a byproduct, the passing staple of the West Coast - the quick throw - was contained when opponents played press man coverage because they knew Campbell would be pressured. According to statistics compiled by the Steelers’ defensive coaches, Campbell was hit 12 times in addition to being sacked on seven plays. Last week, the Cowboys recorded nine pressures and three sacks.

If he feels the offense needs tweaking, Zorn has options: an extra pass protector; introducing Malcolm Kelly to give the Redskins a threat at No. 3 receiver; implementing a healthy Ladell Betts; or devising ways to create a better tempo for Campbell. But - unprompted - Kendall brought up another issue.

“The real obvious story is the pass protection was spotty,” he said. “The less obvious story is, why do we need 7 1/2 yards on third down? You get to third-and-7, and the defense knows you’re passing.”

Against Dallas, the Redskins needed an average of 7.6 yards on third down and they converted only five of 14 opportunities. When needing 6 or fewer yards this year on third down, the Redskins have converted 44.1 percent of the time; the rate drops to 29.2 percent at 7 or more yards.

To get back on track during first and second down, the Redskins, as Zorn reiterated and the players confirmed, simply need to do what they do - but better.

“People might be frustrated because we had success early and now we’ve stalled of late - because the more natural thing would have been to stall early and progress,” Kendall said. “But there are six games left.

“There’s time, but we’ve got to make a move.”

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