- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Every week, it seems, there’s a point in the Redskins game where Jim Zorn goes a little nutty. Call it “Z-Man’s Fourth-Down Follies.”

In Sunday’s 20-17 loss at Carolina, Zorn’s bout of temporary insanity came with 2:32 left in the third quarter. His team, leading 17-9, had a fourth-and-3 at the Carolina 37 - an almost automatic punting situation. But the Redskins’ risk-taking coach decided to go for it, and the resulting pass was deflected wildly off course.

Eight plays later, Carolina’s John Kasay booted a 43-yard field goal to make it 17-12. Without those points, points made possible because the Panthers took possession at their 37 - instead of being pinned much deeper in their own end - the game might well have gone into overtime.

I’m not second-guessing here, by the way. I’m first-guessing. I’m repeating what I said out loud in the press box when I saw the Redskins’ offense stay on the field. If the Redskins had been behind at the time - and if their offensive line hadn’t been dismembered by injury - Zorn’s move would have been more defensible. But at that juncture, it was a needless gamble.

Punt the ball, Coach, and turn the game over to your defense - your strongest suit on a day when, because of injuries, two of your O-linemen are being forced to play unfamiliar positions.

But that’s not how Zorn viewed it. No, this is how he viewed it:

“It was in that area where I didn’t want to kick a 57-yard field goal. We really felt we were holding our own on defense, and we were moving the ball well…”

He’ll get no argument about the Field Goal Option. Trying one from that distance would have been sheer lunacy. He’ll also get no argument about the stoutness of his defense, which held the home team under 250 yards and played well enough to win.

It’s this “moving the ball well” business that puzzles me. Yes, the Redskins had just picked up a few first downs, but at no time after their first possession - when Chris Samuels walked off with a stinger and was replaced by D’Anthony Batiste - did the offense look smooth. Indeed, it wound up gaining just 198 yards, its lowest total in Zorn’s 21 games as coach.

All the more reason not to ask Jason Campbell and Co. to pick up 3 difficult yards on fourth down - particularly when a punt, with a lucky bounce or two, might have put the Panthers back on their own goal line.

Who knows? Had Hunter Smith, a reliable pooch punter, not been sidelined with a pulled groin - journeyman Glenn Pakulak did the booting in his stead - Zorn might have been more inclined to kick. Then, too, the Z-Man may have wondered whether this was the last chance his offense would get to score. (As it turned out, it was. That was the only time in the second half the Redskins crossed midfield.)

Still, it was a highly debatable decision - the latest, really, in a lengthening line. After all, the week before against the Bucs, Zorn went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 37 - and Campbell threw an interception. The week before that, the Redskins passed up a field goal on their opening drive and gambled on fourth-and-goal from the Detroit 1. Clinton Portis proceeded to get buried beneath 1,000 pounds of Lions stink (as Dan Jenkins might put it).

Portis also got stuffed on fourth-and-goal seven days earlier by the Rams. Say this for Zorn: He loves to live dangerously.

There are too many times, though, when he allows his boundless optimism to interfere with the processes of logic. Maybe it’s because he thinks too much like a former quarterback and not enough like a coach.

The QB has to be able to step into the huddle, in even the direst of circumstances, and tell his mates, “We can make this first down. This play is going to work.” The QB is all about “Yes we can.”

The coach, on the other hand, is paid to be pragmatic, to resist his own competitiveness when the occasion warrants it. Sometimes the coach has to say, “Perhaps we shouldn’t.”

That fourth-and-3 at the Carolina 37 was one of those times, one of those “Yes we can”/”Perhaps we shouldn’t” moments of truth. On such calls are games - and jobs - won and lost.

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