By Ronald Guy
And then there was the Z-man. The ascension of Jim Zorn from Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach to head coach of the Washington Redskins must have a special place in the annals of Human Resource lore. Somewhere, a young business major is studying Zorn’s story and learning how not to hire a Chief Operating Officer.
After Joe Gibbs and much of his staff walked away following the 2007 season, the Redskins’ first hire was Zorn as the new offensive coordinator. That would be trouble sign No. 1: who hires a coordinator before the head coach?
With Zorn in place, the Redskins began flirting with head coaching candidates. They failed to woo any of them to D.C. Gee, I wonder why? What with a roster patched together by Gibbs, a short-timer coach, and with such a (ahem) proven commodity like Zorn on the staff, who wouldn’t want the ‘Skins job? Well, you mean besides everyone who could find any other NFL gig?
The awkwardness of the glaring vacancy at head coach swelled after several weeks and a few failed overtures leaked to the press. Eventually, the Redskins decided to promote Zorn, who basically had just hung out for a few weeks waiting for a boss, to the leading role. It proved to be as bad of a decision as it immediately seemed to be.
During Zorn’s first press conference, he referred to the Redskins as the “maroon and black”: a butchered reference to the team’s legendary “burgundy and gold” colors. For those keeping notes at home, that would be trouble sign No. 2. I was driving to the grocery store when it happened. Where were you? Surely you haven’t forgotten any details from the day Jim Zorn was hired (again).
By the time the season began, Zorn had disarmed the venom from his hiring with his quirky, folksy mannerisms. Zorn became all the rage after leading the team to a 6-2 start, buoyed by his aggressive play calling that displayed the nerve of a pickpocket.
Perhaps Zorn was more Joe Gibbs than Steve Spurrier? Or perhaps not.
Zorn lost his fastball, so to speak, in the second half of the season, and the team finished 8-8. It’s almost as if Zorn took the mound and started mowing down hitters for the first few innings. Then someone plugged in a radar gun, tapped him on the shoulder and told him his fastball was clocked at 85 miles per hour. Once his fastball got knocked out of the park a few times, Zorn lost his edge, failed to adjust and was never the same.
Zorn’s second year was an abject disaster. Halfway through the 2009 season, he was a dead coach walking. But this wasn’t a marriage that would end amicably. Snyder didn’t want to pay Zorn the personal and professional courtesy of firing him because it would have triggered a handsome settlement. On the other hand, Zorn wasn’t about to re-sign and let Snyder off the financial hook. So the situation got messy — bingo caller and swinging gate messy.
The team needled Zorn by hiring Sherman Lewis, whose previous job was calling bingo games at a senior center, to call plays. Zorn bit his lip masterfully, and was careful not to say or do anything that could used to void his contract. Zorn ended up lasting all season, but he didn’t go in complete silence.
Before halftime of a late-season blowout loss to the Giants on Monday Night Football, Zorn delivered a cold dish of revenge to the owner’s box. As the Redskins lined up for a token field goal at the end of the first half, everyone but the center, holder and kicker ran toward one side of the field. It caught the Giants off-guard and they called timeout. Undeterred by the enemy’s obvious knowledge of the trick play, the ‘Skins ran it again after the timeout. It was organized and executed as flawlessly as any play you drew up in the dirt in the fifth grade. The ball was snapped to the holder, Hunter Smith, who launched a fluttering duck down the sideline. The Giants intercepted the pass and the half ended to a chorus of boos from the FedEx field crowd and the bellowing laughs from a National T.V. audience. It was ridiculous, hilarious, shameful and fitting. The play, we learned, is called The Swinging Gate. It is the signature moment of Jim Zorn’s tenure in D.C., regardless of position held.