ASHBURN, Va. — Given a chance to brag, Jim Zorn was asked whether coaching has something to do with the startling early success of the Washington Redskins.
“Absolutely,” Zorn said.
The room erupted in laughter, but Zorn was actually trying to give a serious answer.
“It’s really true,” he continued. “Coaching has something to do with it, but let me tell you this: In my assistant coaching career, I felt like we were about 30 percent of the success of what was going on on the field. That’s a large percentage, if you think about it, because players are the ones who truly have to win. It’s just their talent, and you get them in the right spot.”
Then his voice trailed off a bit: “I don’t know about head coaching.”
Zorn apparently hasn’t been a head coach long enough to realize his own impact, but those around him sure do. Maybe the players should get 70 percent of the credit once the ball is snapped, but Zorn deserves a full 100 percent for the attitude adjustment that has the Redskins (4-1) on a four-game winning streak.
“We’ve rocked and rolled,” defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. “He’s got a team believing in themselves. … I think the guy’s done everything that could be asked of a head coach. You wouldn’t ask anymore from a veteran head coach, let alone a first-year head coach.”
In instilling a positive, attack, go-for-it philosophy, Zorn has put the second Joe Gibbs era firmly in the rear view mirror. The Redskins are no longer a team that plays close to the vest.
Give Zorn a second-and-19, and he’ll relish finding a way out of it. Give him a 14-0 first-quarter deficit — as he had in the Redskins’ win against Philadelphia — and he won’t flinch. Make him look like an overwhelmed rookie in his first game — as happened in the season-opening loss to the New York Giants — and he won’t retreat into a shell. He’s the kind of man who would spot you love-40 in tennis, just to see if he can win the next five points to take the game.
No wonder receiver Santana Moss summed up the four-game winning streak this way: “We haven’t been playing scared football. … (Zorn) knows the game, and he talks to us as if he knows what we’re going through, and he knows what he wants.”
One of Zorn’s favorite words is “medium” — it’s a takeoff on the familiar “don’t get too high or too low” cliche — but it’s a concept that seems strange coming from a bouncing-up-and-down, heart-on-his-sleeve Christian coach who doesn’t swear. Asked this week about the apparent contradiction, Zorn explained “medium” comes into play when others might panic.
“It’s second-and-19, but we still have a chance,” Zorn said. “I think that’s the acting medium — because you can’t flinch.”
Of course, there are more tangible reasons for the Redskins’ success, but even those are attributable to Zorn.
His offense doesn’t have a turnover. His relationship with quarterback Jason Campbell — crucial to the team’s success — persevered through the struggles of the preseason and that horrible Giants game. Zorn has found more running room for Clinton Portis, who is off to the best five-game start (514 yards) of his career. Moss already has a pair of 100-yard receiving games, and tight end Chris Cooley has one.
Zorn also knew enough to leave the defense in the hands of capable veteran Blache, and the special teams in the purview of longtime assistant Danny Smith.
The Redskins would love to say they cleverly planned all along to hire someone who would provide the perfect, fresh contrast to Gibbs, who mixed two playoff appearances with two poor seasons in his second stint in Washington. That, of course, wasn’t the case. Zorn was the accidental hire, promoted to the job by owner Dan Snyder after a month of interviews with many other candidates who just didn’t pan out.
Snyder gets credit, though, for spotting Zorn’s potential. When Zorn speaks, he is engaging, upbeat and confident — a surefire combination for winning over a millionaire owner in a job interview or a diverse roster of 53 athletes. And, unlike other star athletes who have struggled to make the move to coaching, Zorn feels his long path from undrafted castoff to Seattle Seahawks icon helps him identify with those in his charge.
“I always felt like I had to overachieve and just play relentless if I wanted to keep up with the good players,” Zorn said. “I never looked at myself as one of these elite, top players. I felt like everything I was going to get, I had to earn. That’s why I want my players, whether they’re elite or not, I want them to fight to earn everything they can possibly get. That’s the attitude I’m trying to bring to this team.”
The Redskins can’t get enough of that attitude. Twice, they’ve cemented victories with audacious fourth-down plays late in the fourth quarter. Several times the coach has called a play at the suggestion of a player who’s spotted an opening somewhere on the field. Such goodwill allows him to get away with corny cheers such as the “Hip, hip, hooray!” that is quickly becoming the team’s rallying cry.
“That’s the coach just having fun, man,” Portis said. “Sometimes you don’t need the norm.”
The norm? So far, at least, Zorn is anything but.