Commentary

Familiar direction for D.C.'s lost tribe

Jim Zorn seems to be the fall guy for Washington owner Daniel Snyder's latest folly

Originally Published: April 24, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

ASHBURN, Va. -- Under Wednesday's ugly leaden clouds, the media dragged the Washington Redskins through an extended postmortem of their devastating Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions. Speaking in subdued tones at Redskins Park, the players dutifully explained how the Lions' 19-game losing streak came to an end.

They pledged to do the small things better. They spoke of reclaiming their identity. The balky running game was deconstructed, along with the uneven performance of quarterback Jason Campbell and the pass rush that has been missing in action. Coach Jim Zorn patiently explained how the Lions effectively blocked the Redskins' front four with a seven-man wall. He did not clarify why Washington didn't counter by bringing more pressure, or how the Lions' remaining four players consistently beat seven Redskins' defenders.

Zorn, under whom the Redskins have lost eight of their last 11 games, was asked by this humble correspondent if -- based on the team's track record -- he was worried about his job security.

"Uh, none," said Zorn, suddenly less patient. "Why would I worry about my job security here? We're three games into the season."

The chippy -- and, ultimately, na´ve -- answer was replayed often around the nation's capital.

Why? The reason, of course, is the history of Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder. During his 11-year tenure, the Redskins have employed six head coaches: Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs and now Zorn. Why? With that alarming lack of continuity, it would seem to be a valid question.

"That's a lot," conceded offensive lineman Randy Thomas, who is in his seventh season with the Redskins. "It is hard to have different directions in different years."

It would be premature to write off Washington, 1-2 for the 2009 season, but at the same time an undeniable pattern has developed in the decade that Snyder has owned the franchise.

The growing perception here -- based on conversations with people who watch the Redskins for a living and folks on the street, calls to talk radio and comments found on fan sites -- is that Snyder, who grew up adoring this franchise, is ruining it.

"Daniel Snyder has made an utter mess of the team," Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote on Thursday, "and yet he seldom, if ever, takes responsibility for it."

"It's not too early," Jenkins continued, "to reach a verdict on the joyriding amateur interference that passes for his management. What's ultimately wrong with the Redskins, the reason they annually fight to be merely average, is not the fault of Jim Zorn, Jason Campbell or any other employee, it's the fault of Snyder."

The Redskins' beleaguered public relations staff declined to make Snyder and other team front-office personnel available for an interview this week for either ESPN or the Washington Post.

Snyder, who purchased the team in 1999 for $800 million, is reportedly worth $1.3 billion. He has assembled a formidable communications and entertainment empire and the Redskins' franchise is reportedly the NFL's second-most-profitable after the Dallas Cowboys. But on the field, the bottom line has been less robust. The Redskins, who won three Super Bowls during Joe Gibbs' first tenure from 1981 to '92, have won two playoff games with Snyder in charge and own a cumulative record of 77-86 (.472).

"No other coach he's had has had the credibility to stand up and say, `The buck stops here,'" said a caller this week to ESPN's 980 radio -- owned by Snyder, by the way. "The buck does not stop with the head coach and never will under Dan Snyder. Until he changes that, until they get hold of a general manager that really knows what he's doing and Snyder can turn the whole team over to him, he's never going to change because he still manages to make money in Washington."

One post on the Hogs Haven site (the self-professed No. 1 source for Redskins stories, not swine flu) lamented, "We're becoming the Raiders of the East."

And while it hasn't quite come to that, Snyder is seen as more of a fan than an owner with the detached view of a beancounter or someone burdened with an enduring public trust. Snyder seems more than happy to be chatting on the sideline before the Lions' game with his friend Tom Cruise.

"Snyder's a hands-on guy, but he loves his players," Thomas said. "I've seen it since I've been here."

But, does he love them too much?

"It's like your kids," Thomas responded. "Do you love them too much? Love is a sign of commitment, he committed to you and he's committed to win."

When Snyder bought the team from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke, he installed Vinny Cerrato, who is the team's executive vice president of football operations. Unlike the Gibbs glory days, when general manager Bobby Beathard decided who came in the door and Gibbs decided who left, there seems to be no creative tension here. The Redskins have attacked the free agent market during the Cerrato reign, often with little success, the most recent example being defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He was thought to be the most impactful free agent in the offseason, but was he worth the record contract of $100 million -- $20 million more than any defender in history? Hard to say, because Haynesworth has been struggling with a pulled, uh, rear end.

Zorn was hired to be the Redskins' offensive coordinator before the 2008 season -- the first time he had held that title in 11 years as an NFL assistant coach -- but Snyder liked him so much that he gave him the head job. There have been times when Zorn has seemed overmatched in that lead role, in and out of games. His play-calling against Detroit was the object of scorn in press reports, and man-on-the-street interviews as well.

On Monday, apprised that cornerback DeAngelo Hall said he had yet to see the fight in the Redskins that had been present the year before, Zorn shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't need to yell at a bunch of men to say, 'Come on guys, let's really go now,'" he said. "I don't need to try to play a psychological game with them, either."

Really? Bill Parcells raised that to an art form and today his disciple, Bill Belichick, has mastered the vagaries of the bully pulpit and its influence on the unconscious mind. Perhaps, the Redskins could use a blast of whoop-ass.

The reality is that the Redskins have won one game in three, thanks to a 9-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams that left fans at FedEx Field booing. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, they meet their match, at least in terms of offense. While the Redskins have scored all of three points in the first 15 minutes of their games, the Buccaneers have scored none. Still, if Washington struggles against a team they should beat, watch out.

The previous five coaches in Snyder's reign averaged 29 games on the sideline -- less than two full seasons. Be advised that Zorn is at 19.

"You can blame the Redskins players and coaches for what happens on Sundays, but not for what's wrong with the franchise," Jenkins wrote. "The owner should have known the winning cure a long time ago: hire a competent, professional general manager. Yet he refuses to do it because it wouldn't be as much fun for him.

"I've said it before, and I say it again more than ever: It looks to me like Snyder would rather be the center of power on a losing team than a peripheral figure on a winning one."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.