Commentary

Zorn doesn't play by conventional rules

Updated: July 14, 2009, 2:10 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Jason campbell, Jim ZornGreg Trott/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Zorn says he's been brutally honest with quarterback Jason Campbell, who he says has responded by working even harder.

ASHBURN, Va. -- Jim Zorn is sitting in the office that Joe Gibbs built, next to a leather couch that the legendary coach used to fold out and sleep on between Super Bowl strategy sessions. Zorn is talking about flattops. Not just any old flattop, a 3½-inch, did-you-see-that-guy's-hair kind of 'do. Zorn reaches in his desk and pulls out a trading card of a cartoon character to show what his hair used to look like 20 years ago, when he went to his first coaching convention.

His head coach had begged him to get a haircut before the convention, but Zorn was young and stubborn. So the hair stayed high, and Zorn topped his ensemble off with a pair of purple-and-green hiking shoes.

Needless to say, he stood out in a room full of polo shirts and penny loafers. Zorn laughs as he's telling the story, then his face grows serious. He says he learned a lesson that day, about individuality and conformity, and leans in a little as if he's sharing a secret.

"I'm no different today than I was then," Zorn says. "I still try to be myself, and my drum beats a little differently in some of my interests. But I don't think it takes me away from knowing, deep down inside, what I have to get done. I just like to have fun along the way."

He was a left-handed quarterback in his NFL playing days, and is, by all accounts, a left-handed coach. When he became head coach of the Washington Redskins 17 months ago, he raised eyebrows with his unconventional teaching methods, from throwing Pilates balls at his quarterbacks to using a Slip 'n Slide in a drill.

His candor is even more out of the norm. In an era when coaches are buttoning up into Bill Belichick mode, revealing as little as possible, Zorn lets people in, just enough to leave them guessing. He has climbed Mount Rainier, tooled around Seattle in a gaudy, yellow Volkswagen Bug and taken his mountain bike on rides so treacherous that when he reached the summits all Zorn could do was laugh because he'd tested himself and made it.

His most dangerous ride starts in a few weeks, when training camp opens in what is no doubt the most pivotal year of his career. He'll do it under the eyes of a very involved owner, a rabid fan base and in possibly the toughest division in the NFL.

"I don't feel the hot seat," Zorn says.

"There's a method to what I'm doing. I'm not just kind of bouncing down the stream here like a pebble. I do have a plan. We've got things in place in an organizational standpoint where we're going hard and fast."

'It all happened so fast'

The start was unconventional. On Jan. 25, 2008, Zorn was hired as the Redskins' offensive coordinator, one of the first pieces of a staff that did not yet have a head coach. Less than two weeks later, his wife Joy was back in Seattle, waiting for their son, Isaac, to finish band practice, fiddling with the radio.

[+] EnlargeJim Zorn
James Lang/US PresswireEntering just his second season, Zorn says he doesn't feel as if he's on the hot seat with owner Dan Snyder.

She wanted to know how the coaching search was going, and figured she'd just call and ask Jim. The voice on the other end was serious and rushed.

"I am in my car going back to my apartment to put a suit on," he said, "because Mr. Snyder has asked me to interview."

Joy had so many questions, but no time to ask. She couldn't say anything, not even when the family boarded a plane for Washington a couple of days later for a news conference announcing Zorn's hiring as head coach.

She worried that the man so obsessed with details would drive himself crazy. Of course, she thought, Jim would be out there every day with the field crew, trying to help them mow the lawn or adjust the sprinklers. And what about his hands-on teaching? Would he find the time to work with Jason Campbell like he molded Matt Hasselbeck and Seneca Wallace in his days as the quarterbacks coach in Seattle?

He'd be replacing Gibbs, a retiring coach who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles and 10 playoff appearances. He'd do it with little time to think.

"It all happened so fast," Joy says, "I felt like it was difficult to process. I did think to myself that if I had planned this scenario, I might've had his first head-coaching job kind of in the boonies a little bit. But it didn't surprise me that that thought didn't go through Jim's mind at all. He likes to risk it all, and I don't."

From his days as the starting quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks from 1976 to '83, scrambling out of the pocket as a young man, dodging time with a plate and six screws in his foot toward the end, there was never time to hesitate. He climbed 14,400 feet up Mount Rainier years ago, then Joy decided to do the same thing. During base training, she told him she was worried about possibly having to save somebody on her rope. Jim told her that was one of the best parts about the climb, the possible opportunity to save someone's life.

Before his name got bigger in the coaching ranks, and the demands got larger, he loved to kayak, through treacherous currents, and climb rocks. In the spare hours he has now before camp starts, he goes on 30-mile bike rides with Joy.

They were seemingly opposites when they met three decades ago; the England-born girl whose family thought football was "a stupid American game," the young charmer who was the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Joy was working as a waitress to help pay for college when Zorn came into the restaurant one day with a date.

He happened to plop down at her station again six months later, then called her manager to ask if she was single. God sent him there that second time, Joy believes, and they've been together through thick and very thin times in Seattle, Green Bay, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, through coaching stops in Idaho, Utah, Minnesota and then back to the NFL in Seattle.

He is interested in so many things that if a stranger sat down with Zorn and talked to him, Joy says, they probably wouldn't know he was an NFL coach. He'd go on about a book he'd just read, or a piece of art that made him stop and stare. Zorn once went to a career-counseling center to figure out his next path. One of the suggestions was museum curator.

"You cannot put him into a box," she says. "He just won't fit in. He squishes out all over the sides."

Lessons for a quarterback

A few months into the offseason, after the Redskins' offense sputtered in an 8-8 year, Zorn sat Campbell down in his office. He told Campbell that the front office was looking into the possibility of obtaining Jay Cutler, who was disgruntled in Denver.

The conversation lasted about 10 minutes. Near the end of it, Zorn encouraged Campbell to stay focused and everything would work out. Zorn knows he could've lost his quarterback there, or in the following weeks when the Redskins mulled over Mark Sanchez, who was eventually drafted by the New York Jets.

[+] EnlargeJim Zorn
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty ImagesZorn isn't all football all the time. One Sunday morning last September, he went mountain biking with then-President George W. Bush.

"I tried to be as upfront with him as I could," Zorn says. "I just think with myself … it's easier for me if I'm dealt with up front than sort of this circumventing, and then on the back end of this thing you finally find out what the truth really was."

Zorn was in a similar spot years ago with the Seahawks, when he felt his starting job slipping away. It was midway through the 1983 season, under new coach Chuck Knox, who was nicknamed "Ground Chuck" because of his affinity for the running game. Zorn badly misfired on a pass to Curt Warner, saw Knox fling his hat and clipboard, knew the end was coming. He was replaced at halftime, then Knox called him into his office Monday to deliver the news: The Seahawks were going with Dave Krieg permanently.

Losing his starting job, Zorn says, was far tougher than getting cut. For 7½ years, it was his team, his locker room. And then he had to face those same teammates every day, relegated to the role of a handoff man in practice. Those first few days after the demotion, Joy could hear it the moment he walked in the door at night, that his step just didn't have the same bounce.

Within a week or so, Zorn had a new purpose, to do whatever he could to make Krieg the best quarterback in the NFL. Zorn knows those pride-swallowing days helped him become a better coach, to understand what Todd Collins and Trent Dilfer were thinking.

But when he sat Campbell down, he spared him the "back in my day …" speeches.

"I don't try to beg for things," Zorn says. "I think players are more attracted to coaches who aren't phony, coaches who are real, who are truly giving you what they are."

To this day, Zorn lists Knox as one of his bigger coaching influences, even though he demoted him and wasn't exactly helpful on the way out. Zorn once asked Knox if he'd hire him as an assistant, and the coach said no, that he didn't know if he'd be committed enough.

Zorn was angry, but now appreciates the climb he had to take. He says he admires Knox's toughness. "Just the grit he had, and how he wanted to see football," Zorn says. "He wanted to just run, run, over people. I love that about him."

An NFL cheer?

The chant was, by most accounts, strange. The Redskins went to Dallas in Week 4 last season and pulled out a surprise victory, and Zorn huddled the men together in the locker room and implored them to break out three rounds of "Hip hip hooray!"

At first, veteran linebacker London Fletcher didn't think Zorn was serious. They'd watched their new coach go against the grain, grab a hose and a Slip 'n Slide so his quarterbacks could hone their dive moves at the end of scrambles. They'd heard his mantra that will soon be found in the 2009 media guide: If you do what you've always done, you will be what you've always been.

But "Hip hip hooray" sounded a bit too cheesy.

[+] EnlargeJimZorn
NFL/Getty ImagesZorn, seen in 1979 with receiver Steve Largent, is now in his second season as a head coach in the NFL. "There's a method to what I'm doing," he says. "I'm not just kind of bouncing down the stream here like a pebble. I do have a plan."

"Everybody kind of got caught up in the moment," Fletcher says, "and we did it. We had fun with it. It was something different, and you can appreciate that."

His enthusiasm, almost childlike, along with his slightly spiked hair, makes him seem much younger than his 56 years. Zorn has been known on occasion, Fletcher says, to break up the monotony of an illustration to the team by doing a little dance. He calls Zorn's moves "awful."

They know, Fletcher says, that "he's a little bit different," and that's not a bad thing. One of his favorite mottos is "stay medium," never get too high or low, and many of Zorn's ex-players have said the coach is a calming influence in a violent and unpredictable sport.

"I think initially, you may be a bit taken aback, so to speak," Fletcher says. "You're kind of like, 'Oh my goodness, who is this guy?' Then you realize that's his personality, and you kind of just appreciate it. He's not trying to be somebody else. He's very comfortable within his own skin. It's refreshing."

On the clock

Zorn hates the taste of coffee. He is fueled by three parts adrenaline, one part caffeinated vitamin drink, and appears to have a great bounce on this mid-summer day, a couple of weeks after the team has finished offseason workouts. This is really the only time NFL coaches have to recharge, and in past years Zorn would be hiking or biking or spending time with his kids. But Zorn has work to do.

His West Coast offense has been in place for a year now, and he's confident that Campbell has a new resolve. He loves the quarterback's mettle. When Campbell met with Zorn and Dan Snyder, who was unavailable for comment for this story, the owner apparently told him to prove he was a franchise quarterback, and Snyder would pay him accordingly. Campbell didn't get angry or sulk. He just worked harder.

Sherman Smith, the team's offensive coordinator, looks out a window at Redskins Park and points to Campbell. He is firing footballs down the practice field in the late-morning sun.

The coaches will not say if this is a make-or-break year for Campbell, or for themselves. Last winter, when the Redskins lost six of their last eight games and the speculation swirled, Zorn, according to Smith, said that whatever happened, if Snyder brought somebody else in, a Bill Cowher or a Mike Shanahan, it didn't mean they were bad coaches. Or that they were all that different.

"I always look at the patience of the NFL game," Zorn says. "We have sort of the patience of instant coffee, you know? You pour hot water over instant coffee, and poof, we've got coffee here. But the best coffee is the coffee that's brewed."

Even if it's a caffeinated vitamin drink, served in the heat.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.