A Zorn in the Side of the NFC East?
by Ryan Patterson
on February 15, 2008 @ 07:05:58
Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs decided to call it a career (for the second time) after losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. This created a subsequent domino effect of bizarre coaching changes that included the firing of long-time projected Gibbs successor, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (Jacksonville Jaguars) as well as offensive coordinator Al Saunders (St. Louis Rams). Ala the Dallas Cowboys with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the Redskins hired as their offensive coordinator former Seattle Seahawks player and coach, Jim Zorn, before they have hired a head coach. This drew many skeptical glances and raised eyebrows because, for a period of time, one could argue Redskins owner Daniel Snyder didn't know what he was doing. Snyder, however, had not yet revealed his greater master plan. Within a couple weeks of becoming offensive coordinator, Zorn was promoted to head coach and signed a five-year contract (he must've been that impressive). Now the Snyder skeptics are laughing out the other end (or maybe they're still just laughing).
Even though Zorn spent the past seven seasons as the Seahawks quarterback coach, in the Pacific Northwest he is still fondly known as the franchise's first-ever quarterback. Zorn ranked second in team history for total passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns (behind quarterback Dave Kreig) until within the past two years, when current quarterback Matt Hasselbeck passed him in all those categories. Since 2001, Zorn has worked closely under head coach Mike Holmgren to develop Hasselbeck who, as a member of the Seahawks, has thrown 145 touchdowns and 84 interceptions with a 60.8 completion percentage. He has been named to three Pro Bowls.
Before Zorn re-joined the Seahawks as the quarterbacks coach, he spent three years (1998-2000) as the Detroit Lions quarterback coach, working primarily under former head coach Bobby Ross. While in Detroit, Zorn helped coach quarterback Charlie Batch (Pittsburgh Steelers). Even though Batch had decent numbers for playing in Detroit, he certainly didn't work out as well as Hasselbeck (i.e., mediocre) ... but such is the Lions.
Zorn's first professional football coaching job was with the Seahawks as an offensive assistant in 1997. Prior to his professional coaching positions, Zorn spent two years - from 1995-96 - with the University of Minnesota as the quarterbacks coach. He was the offensive coordinator for Utah State from 1992-94, and his first coaching job was with Boise State as an offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach from 1989-1991.
What Will Zorn Bring to D.C.?
It's pointless to try to figure out exactly what the considerations are in Washington regarding their future direction and recent decisions. Chances are they don't know themselves. Therefore, the best place to begin analysis is Zorn's offensive affiliation, which is the West Coast offense. Not only has Zorn worked under Holmgren for seven years but under Seattle offensive coordinator Gil Haskell, as well (who is himself a Holmgren disciple and also worked under former Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert). In a nutshell, this should mean more high-percentage/short passes, spreading the ball around, utilizing outside running lanes and targeting the defense's weak spots, wherever they may be. Drive management is emphasized, and players are expected to get the bulk of their yards after the catch. A clear example is during the 2007 season, as the Seahawks finally ditched trying to be a running team due to running back Shaun Alexander's ineffectiveness and went back to their roots. As a result, Hasselbeck finished with career highs in attempts (562), completions (352), yards (3,966) and touchdowns (28). Alexander, running back Maurice Morris and fullback Leonard Weaver combined for 72 receptions.
A complete offensive overhaul, however, may not be the primary reason Zorn was initially brought in to D.C. as offensive coordinator. Former coordinator Saunders was already pushing the offense towards a West Coast feel, primarily in the form of expanding run plays to the outside and spreading passes around. For example, in 2007 running backs Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts had a combined 68 receptions, and tight end Chris Cooley was the team's leading receiver (66 receptions); this is indicative of a West Coast scheme. Nevertheless, Zorn could push the play-calling balance farther to the passing end of the spectrum, and attempting to get players the ball in space so they have a chance to make defenders miss. On the other hand, offensive assistant Joe Bugel is still on the staff. He is a long-time Gibbs disciple. Bugel's primary charge is the offensive line, but he has more head-coaching experience than Zorn as well as more success as an assistant (he has coached in three Superbowls and six conference championships). Add this to the fact that Gibbs is still a 'special advisor' to Snyder and it could mean Zorn will be under pressure to run things a certain way. We may not even notice an offensive difference in 2008.
There exists the possibility that the Redskins were initially just as interested Zorn's rumored quarterback-developing skills as his offensive approach. The Redskins have a potential franchise quarterback in Jason Campbell, who last year finished his third NFL season. There have been flashes, although the consensus is that he hasn't yet played to expectations. Campbell excelled in a West Coast-style offense at Auburn University, so perhaps it's Zorn's developmental abilities, combined with his offensive philosophy, which made him most attractive to Snyder and the Redskins. Developing Campbell to be an effective West Coast quarterback is easier said than done, however. Piloting the offense means that Campbell, among many other things, will have to make accurate defensive reads to find the weak points as well as quickly scan the field to find the open players when the first option isn't there.
Zorn has little to no experience coaching defense. Chances are he will have his hands full with the offense as it is, and new defensive coordinator Greg Blanche has already spent four years working under Williams as the team's defensive line coach. Blanche is already familiar with the players and should have significant control.
Impact on the Players
The Redskins are already set up with personnel well-suited for a West Coast system. They have fast players on the outside and running backs that can catch the ball. One of the team's most important talents, Cooley, is already a model tight end for a West Coast system. His numbers and utilization likely won't change much. Zorn also has a set of receivers that could flourish in his system in wideouts Antwaan Randle El and Santana Moss. Both have speed and the ability to gain yards after the catch. If anything, they may need to work on precise route running and creating separation early. This system tends not to focus on a single player, so their production (especially Moss who has been utilized as a primary receiver and deep threat in the past) will likely remain similar to what they did in 2007.
Ideally, Campbell should only slightly increase his pass attempts from 2007 (32 per game), but will look to increase last year's passer rating (77.6) by improving his touchdown/interception ratio (12/11) and completion percentage (60.0). By getting rid of the ball faster, Campbell should also be able to avoid a few more sacks (21 in 2007) going forward.
Last year, Portis averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, which is below his capability. Since Portis left the Denver Broncos for Washington, his workload (specifically up the middle) has increased while his production has decreased. Portis has power, and he is better in the open field than he is trying to bowl through the middle. It's feasible that Zorn will want to decrease his number of carries, hoping to get greater production out of fewer attempts. This does not necessarily mean that Portis will end up with fewer yards, however. In addition, Portis' receptions could increase slightly.
The one position where Zorn may look to revamp is at fullback. Mike Sellers is more of a blocking back who is useful in assignment-blocking schemes for pass protection and powering running backs through the middle. Unless Portis and Betts can bring in more than 100 combined catches per season, Zorn might want someone who has the ability to pass protect and drop out for short checkdown routes, as well as be effective for short-yardage gain. It's possible that Betts will help fill this role as well.
Settling into a new offensive scheme often takes at least a year. It is unclear whether or not Campbell will develop into an effective quarterback, and any shortcomings will likely have an effect on the whole team. The Redskins have come close in recent years; perhaps Zorn will find more productive ways of using the players. As with most teams, however, the clock is ticking and some of Washington's more premier talent (i.e. Portis) is getting up there in years. Unfortunately, Zorn has been placed in a very difficult situation. Snyder seems to be grasping at straws and has shown very little patience in the past. Perhaps Zorn should consult Oakland Raiders' head coach Lane Kiffin on what he can expect from Snyder-like owners after the 2008 season. The jury is out on whether Zorn will be the next great offensive mind or just another failed experiment in the revolving door that has been the Washington coaching staff under Snyder.
About Ryan Patterson
Ryan has been a KFFL contributor since 2004.
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