- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jim Zorn has fooled them before. As a little-known quarterback from little-known Cal Poly-Pomona, he was ignored through all 17 rounds of the 1975 NFL draft. After two teams gave up on him as a free agent, he signed with the expansion Seattle Seahawks and became one of the greatest players in franchise history.

Now Zorn will try to fool them again - not everyone, but still a sizable portion of observers (read: skeptics) who believe the Washington Redskins are taking a huge risk by hiring a head coach whose resume, while lengthy, lacks an important element.

Namely, Zorn has never before been a head coach at any level, nor has he worked in the NFL as an offensive or defensive coordinator. Few rookie head coaches have lacked such a pedigree. In what often is called a copycat league, Zorn is a different breed of cat.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said of the doubts, “because every head coach, every draft choice, every player you put on the field, every time you line up, there are risks. There’s a story of how it should go, there’s an opinion of how it should be. All I know is what I’m capable of, and that’s what I’m hoping comes out strong.

“Veteran coaches are going to error. Rookie coaches are going to error. That’s that. The thing is, I know where we want to be. I know the ideal we’re looking for. [Redskins owner Dan Snyder], he knows the ideal we’re looking for. We’re looking for the same thing. But we also know where we sit, where we’re at. My charge is to close the gap.”

Zorn’s close friend and Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said, “Everyone’s been a head coach for the first time, so it’s always a risk. But that’s how it happens. There’s a first time for everything. There’s no proven formula for a first-time head coach. Heck, we as Americans, we’ve got a guy who’s gonna be president of the United States for the first time. I’m not nervous about that.”

And after all, Smith noted, it’s not as if Zorn is a football neophyte. “If he’d been working for Procter & Gamble selling cereal, then I’d really be concerned,” he said.

After Joe Gibbs resigned as head coach in January, the Redskins hired Zorn as the new offensive coordinator even before Gibbs was replaced. Few quibbled with that. He was respected as a teacher and a motivator and had put in his time. Zorn started out as an NFL coach with Seattle as a low-paid assistant for a year before working the next 10 years as a quarterbacks coach - three with Detroit and the last seven with the Seahawks. Before that, he was a college assistant at Boise State, Utah State and Minnesota.

Lacking the head coach/coordinator cachet, however, Zorn was not among the list of likely choices to succeed Gibbs. All sorts of names were circulated, some credible candidates, some not. Among them were former NFL head coaches Bill Cowher, Pete Carroll, Steve Mariucci and Jim Fassel, Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (also a former head coach), Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator of the world champion New York Giants.

Fassel and Spagnuolo were the favorites. But an avalanche of negative fan sentiment seemed to steer Snyder from Fassel, and Spagnuolo was tied up helping the Giants win the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Zorn, the new guy, got a spur-of-the moment interview. He wowed Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the newly promoted executive vice president/football operations, so much that they realized their man already was on the premises.

“Through the interview process, he was probably more prepared, and probably had less time, than anybody else,” Cerrato said. “He had a plan. His ideas were much more planned out than anybody else we interviewed. I think he’d been preparing to be a head coach for a long time.”

Cerrato said it also helped that Zorn worked in Seattle under Mike Holmgren, a successful head coach who has spawned other successful head coaches, including Mariucci, Jon Gruden, Mike McCarthy and Andy Reid. “It wasn’t as much a gamble to us because of that,” Cerrato said.

Zorn is frequently compared with Reid, whose Philadelphia Eagles teams have a 96-62 record since he was hired in 1999 - also without prior head coach or NFL coordinator experience.

“He’s been incredibly successful with essentially the same resume Jim has,” said Redskins guard Pete Kendall. “And that’s the type of success we hope to have here.”

So far, at least, the players seem to have accepted Zorn, citing his openness and honesty most of all. “You wouldn’t think he’s a first-year coach,” fullback Mike Sellers said. “He doesn’t get flustered, and he’s straight up with you. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. He’ll tell you, hey, this is this and that is that. We respect him for that.”

Kendall said he appreciated how Zorn took responsibility for what he thought was a big mistake during practice - ordering a full-contact drill in game situations even though the players were not wearing pads. Zorn apologized to the squad and fessed up to the media, saying, “I put the team a bad situation.”

“Privately, maybe a lot of coaches would have felt the same way,” said Kendall, a 13-year veteran. “But how many would have just said it to the team, without saying anything to the media? I don’t even think a lot of them would even have said anything to the team. I think the guys really respected that.”

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played for Zorn in Seattle, said Zorn’s approach will help both the younger players “who need a nurturing, father figure,” and battle-scarred veterans who have become somewhat hardened, if not outright jaded by the game.

“They’ve been lied to and deceived, they’ve been cheated,” said Dilfer, an ESPN commentator. “They’ve become callous to the game. When you have a Jim Zorn, a guy who’s honest with you and who’s not gonna try to manipulate you, a veteran player will thrive in that atmosphere because he’s gonna be a breath of fresh air.”

And, Zorn “doesn’t need be out front all the time, pounding his chest and demanding leadership,” Dilfer said. “He’ll earn it. He treats people with respect, and he won’t let his ego get in the way. He’ll do what is in the best interest of the football team.”

But the Redskins are still 0-0 and questions persist. Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said he believes Zorn “will be a fine head coach” but is somewhat wary of the experience issue, especially in the areas of decision-making and dealing with issues that extend beyond coaching.

“The business is becoming less tolerant of learning-on-the-run type things,” Reese said. “In my world, I’d just as soon eliminate that learning curve as much as I could.”

Dealing with “players knocking on your door that need your help,” along with the media, “is major,” said Reese, an ESPN commentator. “As an assistant coach, you don’t have to deal with all of that. All of that detracts from football.”

Coordinator experience is important in making “game-time decisions,” Reese said. “Lining up and just calling a play doesn’t take a lot of talent. You’ve got a chart. Pick out a play you like and go with it. But it’s the understanding of the game, understanding who you’re playing, understanding who you have on the field, the intangibles.”

But Zorn, who already has shown a knack for dealing with players and non-football responsibilities (he is, so far, accessible to the media and seems to enjoy the give-and-take), points out that he called plays for several years at Utah State as an offensive coordinator. He will do the same thing with the Redskins.

“I called plays for three years as a college coach, every game, every situation,” he said. “Never was I nervous or anxious about it. I loved it. That’s where people see my competitiveness, my willingness to compete, and I hope I’m smart about it.”

He isn’t the only one.

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