Commentary

About time: Embattled Zorn adjusts

Second-half aggressiveness paves way for ugly comeback win over Bucs

Originally Published: October 4, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LANDOVER, Md. -- In the wake of his team's embarrassing loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 3, Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn spent much of the past week in preparation for the Tampa Bay Bucs admonishing his entire staff to be more aggressive in its play-calling.

It took nearly three quarters of Sunday's 16-13 comeback victory over the Bucs, but the Redskins' embattled head coach finally heeded his own advice.

The game-winning play, a 59-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jason Campbell to wide receiver Santana Moss, came after nearly 44 minutes of offensive frustration. Almost as important, it came on first down, with Campbell executing a fake-draw handoff to tailback Clinton Portis, drawing in the free safety, then throwing deep down the right sideline to Moss, who had easily beaten cornerback Aqib Talib.

Ironically, before surrendering the touchdown pass, Talib had arguably the best game of his two-year career. The former first-rounder snatched three interceptions.

"I said in the huddle, to the offensive line, 'This is going to be a touchdown,'" said Campbell in recreating the play. "We had set it up so well."

Almost too well, in fact.

[+] EnlargeSantana Moss
James Lang/US PresswireSantana Moss' 59-yard touchdown catch gave the Redskins the lead for good.

Zorn, who had been under fire after a 1-2 start, and for some dubious play-calling, claimed after the contest it "was frustrating" not being able to get into any "kind of rhythm." Not quite true. The Redskins got into a monotonous sequence by running the ball on 16 of their 22 first-and-10 snaps before Moss' score. And on 15 of the 16 first-down running plays, Portis was the ball carrier.

Although the eight-year veteran did an exemplary impersonation of a battering ram against the feisty Tampa Bay defense, the first-down runs netted only 47 yards, or 2.94 yards per rush. The cumulative effect of so many body blows probably somewhat eroded the speed and strength of the Tampa Bay front seven. But it also rendered the Washington offense terribly predictable and maddeningly one-dimensional.

Hardly the kind of offensive wizardry for which Zorn had been noted during his 11-year career as an assistant before he was surprisingly hired as the Washington coach last year. And not very aggressive, either, until Zorn opted in the third quarter to open things up considerably and begin throwing the ball on first down.

Zorn conceded that -- after a first half in which the Redskins trailed 10-0, and during which a scattershot Campbell had thrown two of his three interceptions and lost a fumble -- he "questioned" the game plan with which Washington entered the game. Fortunately for the Redskins, and for Zorn as well, the coach stumbled upon the right answers at the most opportune time.

During one third-quarter sequence in which Washington went from a 10-3 deficit to a 16-10 lead, Campbell threw three straight passes on first-and-10. The results: an incompletion, a 17-yard touchdown pass down the middle to tight end Chris Cooley, and the 59-yarder to Moss.

In all, Campbell was 4-of-6 on first down, for 104 of his 170 passing yards, the two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 149.3.

After the game, Campbell appeared to be the most relieved person in Washington's locker room.

"If we had lost this game," he said, "I might have gone into hibernation. You wouldn't have seen me for about a week."

There is winning ugly and then there is winning grotesque, and Sunday's victory over the now-0-4 Bucs -- who went with second-year quarterback Josh Johnson in the first regular-season start of his career -- qualified as the latter.

Still, it was a win, and the Redskins, who heard loud jeers during a sloppy first half and as they left the field at intermission, badly needed a win. Ugly, grotesque or otherwise.

"Sometimes you've got to take baby steps," allowed Redskins center Casey Rabach.

Washington certainly resembled a toddler, merely attempting to stay upright, for much of the game. The third-quarter heroics aside, the Redskins managed only 14 first downs, 277 total yards, four (of 14) third-down conversions and 28:56 in possession time. Only one Washington drive, which ended with Cooley's touchdown catch, lasted for more than eight plays. The Redskins had seven possessions of five snaps or less.

Until the 59-yard touchdown to Moss, Campbell didn't have a completion of more than 17 yards.

Luckily for the Redskins, they were facing a foe whose offense might be as shoddy as their own, and with a young quarterback who seemed to make maybe two reads before pulling the ball down and scrambling. Johnson, who this week replaced Byron Leftwich atop the Tampa Bay depth chart, completed 13 of 22 passes for only 106 yards, with a long completion of 27 yards.

"I thought our defense was incredible," said Zorn of a unit that permitted only 229 yards and dialed up more blitzes. "They hung tough and kept us in the game when [the offense] was having trouble."

Zorn noted that, the victory aside, he is "not satisfied" with this offense. And he shouldn't be. The Redskins have yet to score 30 points during his 20-game tenure. Sunday marked the 13th time in 20 outings under Zorn that Washington scored 17 points or fewer.

The youthful right side of the offensive line, guard Chad Rinehart and tackle Stephon Heyer, is shaky. The three pass-catchers selected by the Redskins in the 2008 draft (wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis), and who were supposed to be a playmaking complement to Moss, totaled three catches for minus-1 yard Sunday.

Campbell, who is not without talent, seems to have regressed, and Sunday was overly careless with the football.

Even though Redskins sources indicate a loss would not have cost Zorn his job, and insist historically impatient owner Dan Snyder won't even consider a change until the season is over, the troubled coach gets another week to live.

Mostly because he finally decided to throw the ball on first down.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.