- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jim Zorn was asked the other day about Clinton Portis and socks. A man of assorted quirks and fashion statements, the Washington Redskins running back has a thing for socks, the color, style and how he wears them, often in violation of the NFL uniform code. He has received several fines.

For Zorn, the Redskins’ first-year coach, this is not a matter of utmost concern.

“I have to pick my battles,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘Do I want to go over there and rip him for just that?’ It’s just socks.”

But Zorn confronts players about “blatant” infractions. They usually comply “because I’ll fine ‘em, too,” he said. “It’s one of the things I want to make sure I do. But I don’t get mad. I just say, ‘You are fined,’ and we go about our business. There’s enough agony in a lot of situations.”

Zorn’s measured response reflects his persona. So far, he has been favorably received.

“One thing he does is treat you like a man,” veteran defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. “We’re accountable for our actions.”

Just about all who have been around Zorn, who replaced Joe Gibbs in February, praise his candor and directness. Admirable traits, to be sure, along with Zorn’s accessibility to the media, his innovative coaching methods and an array of interests like mountain biking, kayaking and model ship-building that mean he has a life beyond football.

But to Redskins fans aching for a consistent winner, the only relevant topic is what happens on the field. Zorn, who never has been a head coach at any level, knows he will be swiftly judged on that basis starting Thursday when the Redskins open the season against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

Zorn, 55, knew exactly what was expected when he accepted Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s surprise offer to succeed the iconic Gibbs. As with Portis’ socks, Zorn doesn’t lie awake thinking about it. When his eyes pop open at 4 a.m., it’s not because of nerves or a queasy stomach. He’s thinking about what plays to call in the red zone or in short-yardage situations.

“I’m thinking about preparation,” he said. “Have we given thought to the details? Have we given our players a plan they can execute?”

Which isn’t to say Zorn won’t be nervous and excited throughout the day until the game’s kickoff shortly after 7 p.m.

“You think, ‘Gosh, we have the first game. What does that feel like?’ ” he said. “Thank you, [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell. And I smile when I think about the planning stages of our season, and then I think, ‘New York Giants. A Super Bowl team.’ And that’s an ominous thought. And then I think about just how excited I am that I get to help lead a team.”

It took a while. The first quarterback of the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976 after going undrafted and cut by two other teams, Zorn had an outstanding career that put him in Seattle’s Ring of Honor. After he retired, he embarked on a long coaching journey that took him to various college stops, Seattle for a year, Detroit for three years and back to Seattle in 2001.

As a quarterbacks coach (a job he kept with the Redskins), Zorn’s teaching arsenal includes unconventional drills like dodge ball and a cerebral, yet enthusiastic approach. He worked under Mike Holmgren with the Seahawks, and after Gibbs retired, Snyder and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato hired Zorn as the new offensive coordinator. Then Zorn was invited to interview for the head coaching job. He made such a big impression that, despite his lack of experience at top coaching levels, he was selected over several more experienced candidates.

“He’s a smart guy,” said Cerrato, who added that Zorn was the “most prepared” of any of those who were interviewed.

Bubba Tyer, the Redskins’ director of sports medicine since 1971, said of Zorn, “He’s very open. He’s extremely straightforward and tough-minded. He’s a very observant person and a great communicator.”

Added defensive end Andre Carter: “The one thing I like about him is he’s still the same guy no matter how successful or unsuccessful we are. Every coach has a different personality. He treats us like men. He’ll call us out as a team, as far as when practice isn’t going well or the game’s not going well.”

Carter previously played for four coaches, all of whom were more experienced than Zorn.

“But he’s played the game, so he has an understanding of the level of intensity on the field, off the field, just life in general,” Carter said. “He can relate to us as far as the mental preparation for each opponent. There’s really no signs that he’s quote-unquote a rookie coach. We admire his assertiveness.”

Zorn brings from Seattle the influence of Holmgren, who has spawned several successful NFL coaches. He also took along his version of the West Coast offense, a complex passing system that takes time to learn, as evidenced by the Redskins’ struggles during the preseason. Zorn isn’t thrilled with that, but he is isn’t panicking, either.

“I feel very confident we’re gonna have the best group out there that gives us the best chances to win,” he said. “I feel like we’re at the beginning stages of putting our best group forward.”

Whether it’s good enough for Redskins fans remains to be seen.

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