Jim Zorn was dealing with numerous problems the day after his ugly NFL head coaching debut against the New York Giants when Fred Davis knocked on his door.
Davis, one of the Washington Redskins’ three second-round picks in 2008, was inactive and wanted to know why. Since Chris Cooley is a franchise tight end, Davis didn’t expect major playing time but was confident he had done enough in training camp to earn a spot in formations that used two tight ends.
“He asked, ‘What do I have to do to not be inactive?’ ” Zorn said. “I laid it out for him.”
Zorn told the rookie from Southern Cal that he needed to immerse himself in the playbook and stop making mistakes in practice. He needed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. He needed to become a professional.
A year later, Zorn called that meeting a “significant thing.” And as Monday’s practice at Redskin Park showed, he plans on making Davis a big part of the passing game.
“I really like what he’s doing, and he’s doing a lot of things,” Zorn said. “One of the things we talked about last year was ‘Make us put you on the field.’ That’s what he’s done.”
As it was for Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, Davis’ rookie year - three catches for 27 yards and no touchdowns - was largely forgettable, bottoming out in November when Zorn said Davis wasn’t playing because the coaches couldn’t rely on him. With that message received, Davis carried his strong offseason into training camp. He hasn’t missed a practice and is working at myriad positions.
“It’s like anything you do - do it more than once and you feel comfortable,” Davis said. “That’s how I feel about this system. I feel better about what I’m doing, knowing what to do and learning different positions. I’ll feel even more confident when I finish camp.”
Davis is expected to get the bulk of playing time in the preseason. It will be his chance to confirm what the coaches are seeing in practice: His grasp of the offense is to the point that the Redskins can use two tight ends in several situations, which would free Cooley from some of his responsibilities in pass protection and let him get downfield. Cooley was on the field for 113 of Davis’ 122 snaps last year.
Cooley’s team-high 83 catches were the most for a tight end in team history. If Davis can provide additional production - like Dallas rookie Martellus Bennett (20 catches) did for Jason Witten (81) - Cooley should catch more than one touchdown this year.
Although Davis’ production was subpar, it wasn’t terrible compared to the other rookie tight ends. Of the 16 drafted, only Bennett and starters John Carlson (55 catches for Seattle) and Dustin Keller (48 for the New York Jets) had more than 11 catches.
Davis said his season began to derail when he overslept and missed a minicamp practice a week after the draft. He said the mistake paralleled a missed flight to California his freshman year of college, resulting in a suspension for the national championship game win over Oklahoma.
“Between the coaches and you, you need to be reliable,” he said. “The oversleeping mistake carried on and the coaches are trying to keep their jobs, so they don’t really want to put a guy on the field they don’t know what he can do. But now I think I’ve proved myself by being around here every day and working hard.”
Davis said he doesn’t mind that his unexcused absence remains a topic; he even brought it up to illustrate how he hopes he has matured.
“You always fight it,” he said. “You can’t have the mindset that people have forgotten about it. I had to make sure I wasn’t a joke to them and that I was here to play football.”
Davis’ transformation began in the final three games of last season, when he played 82 snaps. It continued this winter when he worked to drop from 260 pounds to 252. Last week, Davis texted Cooley to promise he wouldn’t make any errors during practice.
“I thought that was very cool because he wants other guys on the team to hold him accountable,” Cooley said.
Said new tight ends coach Scott Wachenheim: “Fred knows where to line up. He’s playing fast, and he’s making plays. I watched every play he played last year, and where Fred has grown the most is he’s learned what to do. When you know what to do, you play fast and aggressive. When you don’t know what to do, you play hesitant.”
Where Davis was most effective Monday was finding a pocket of open space 10 to 12 yards downfield. He would catch, quickly turn and head up the field.
The Redskins are desperately seeking a third receiving option to help Cooley and Santana Moss. If injuries prevent Thomas and Kelly from filling that role, Davis could develop into an option.
“He wants to be a great player,” Zorn said. “He’s worked hard to get himself to where he is today, and I imagine as he continues through this preseason we’re going to find him more ways to get him on the field and get him the ball.”