Jim Zorn has yet to make his regular-season debut as an NFL head coach, but he already has shown he won’t hesitate to bench a proven veteran if a lack of performance warrants it.
The new coach of the Washington Redskins informed longtime right tackle Jon Jansen on Saturday that he had lost his starting job on the offensive line to second-year player Stephon Heyer.
Zorn said the switch is not a one-game move. He cited Jansen’s sprained left foot, his struggles in pass protection and Heyer’s play in two-plus preseason games as reasons for the change.
“It was very tough because both players are capable,” Zorn said after practice Sunday at Redskin Park. “We wanted to give Stephon an opportunity. I think he has really showed in his pass protection that he can anchor, and that’s kind of how we’re going to go now.”
Jansen, 32, has started 112 games for the Redskins and ranks as the longest-tenured player on the club. However, Jansen has missed two of the last four seasons because of injury, and he will not be in the lineup Thursday when the Redskins take the field against the New York Giants in the season opener.
“I’m disappointed that I won’t be out there,” Jansen said. “I still believe myself to be the right tackle here. It’s not going to be that way on Thursday, and that’s what I have to deal with.”
Heyer played in 12 games and started five last year. He missed two preseason games this year because of a sprained medial collateral ligament.
“I’ve had last season to get a lot of reps playing right tackle, and I do feel comfortable there,” he said. “The more practice I get, the more experience I get and the better it becomes for me.”
Jansen struggled in the Redskins’ dreadful 47-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers in which quarterback Jason Campbell was sacked four times in 14 dropbacks. Jansen was pushed back by defensive end Tyler Brayton on the first play of the game, was beaten on a quick outside move by linebacker Thomas Davis a series later and gave up a sack when he lost leverage against Charles Johnson.
The foot sprain kept Jansen out of last week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jansen’s pass blocking problems and inability to fend off bull rushes consistently ultimately forced Zorn to act.
“There were some reasons thrown around - nothing I felt was reason enough. But they’re the coaches, and I’m the player,” Jansen said.
According to a team source, Jansen was disappointed with the way the demotion was handled. Zorn said Friday that Jansen and Heyer were in competition for the job. That was news to Jansen, who immediately called Zorn.
Zorn said he was pleased with Jansen’s practice Sunday.
“For me, when I got demoted from a starting position to a backup position, I felt it was harder because you have to come in and face your teammates,” Zorn said. “I thought Jon did an excellent job today working through those issues because it is very emotional and it is trying.”
Zorn apparently didn’t believe the veteran deserved at least a couple regular-season games to round into form - a shift from the philosophy of Zorn’s predecessor, Joe Gibbs. Gibbs loathed making significant lineup changes that involved benching veterans and inserting unproven performers.
Zorn and his staff already have cut veteran punter Derrick Frost in favor of rookie Durant Brooks and safety Vernon Fox in favor of draft picks Kareem Moore and Chris Horton.
If Heyer performs well and keeps the job, the Redskins will have in Jansen a reserve with a $7.7 million salary cap number, third highest on the team.
“The business we’re in isn’t really about equity. It’s about what can you do for me now,” Jansen said. “I don’t really believe in the equity. … It really doesn’t matter how I grade myself. They graded me as not the starting right tackle, so that’s the way it is.”
Until then, former Redskins and current Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce expects Jansen to help Heyer with the new assignment.
“When I was there, he was one of the leaders on that team, a guy who’s been one of the most steady right tackles in the league,” Pierce said. “Knowing Jon, he’s going to fight to get that job back, and if not, he’s going to help out the young guy because he’s a team player.”