Jim Zorn is Back on the Sidelines

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By Dan Steinberg
The Washington Post

Zorn220_0116Fans flipping through their sports channels Saturday afternoon might see a familiar, and yet unexpected sight: Jim Zorn, head coach. The former Redskins boss will be leading the West team in the East-West Shrine Game, a college all-star exhibition that airs Saturday, Jan. 17,  at 1:00 pm PT on NFL Network. Zorn’s opposition will be led by Mike Singletary, another former NFL head coach who has taken a recent break from the profession.

For Zorn, the preparation for this game – the practices, the drills, Saturday’s opportunity to call the shots – are more than a one-week lark in St. Petersburg, Florida. He wants to get back in the game.

Zorn350_0116“I haven’t stopped wanting to do it, but I haven’t been able to get on a staff,” Zorn said during a brief telephone conversation this week. “I would do something non-football maybe when I get older. But I think I’m too young and too football-conscious right now.”

Indeed, Zorn, 61, has stayed around the sport since his Redskins tenure ended in 2009. He was the quarterbacks coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 2010, and for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 and 2012. He was a candidate for the Montreal Alouettes’ head coaching position in 2013, after Marc Trestman left for the NFL. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll has opened the team’s facility to Zorn, so he has been a frequent visitor the past two years, watching practices and video and occasionally working with young quarterbacks.

He was around during last year’s Super Bowl run – raising the 12th Man flag before a playoff game, and watching the team’s victory over the Broncos live at MetLife Stadium. But he said there’s no substitute for actually being part of a staff.

Zorn works with his players during practice.

Jim Zorn works with QB Dylan Thompson (Univ. of S. Carolina) during practice.

“The only way to replicate it is to be a player, or maybe do some whitewater kayaking or something,” Zorn joked. “The rewards of being on a staff and being part of a mission, if you will, and a vision of a franchise … that’s really a tremendous experience, and there are a lot of rewards. It’s not for everybody. It takes a certain type of person or family to be able to do it. As you can see from the movement [among coaches], the scramble around, there’s a lot of good candidates out there, and there’s a lot of good candidates that won’t get a shot to be a head coach. So that’s okay. I’m willing to be a part of a staff, and understand what my position would be, and just get after it.”

Zorn220_02_0116Some Redskins fans have — rather unfairly — used Zorn as a punchline since his departure. So have others in the business, often in an unseemly way. Jim Fassel, a candidate for the Redskins job before Zorn was hired, recently said that Zorn “was no more ready for that job than the Man in the Moon.” Former Redskins GM Vinny Cerrato bizarrely claimed that Zorn “wanted to become a celebrity instead of being a football coach.” Owner Dan Snyder told author Gary Myers that he eventually fired Cerrato for not stopping him from hiring “a not-qualified coach” in Zorn.

“It’s a terrible experience when you know you got the wrong guy to lead the franchise,” Snyder told Myers.

But despite virtually no support from a front office that seemed intent on identifying his successor, and that openly undercut him by bringing in a playcaller from a bingo parlor, Zorn went 8-8 his first year, and 12-20 over his tenure. That’s admittedly not great, but it’s the same winning percentage Mike Shanahan and Steve Spurrier recorded in Washington, and it’s ahead of Jay Gruden’s pace.

“It seems like it never ends well for head coaches of the Washington Redskins; he’s not the only one,” said former player Andre Carter, Zorn’s defensive ends coach at the East-West Shrine Game. “In this business, especially in Washington, if you don’t win, you’re out. But overall, I felt like Jim Zorn was a great person, despite the situation. One thing I admired about him was he didn’t quit. I’m sure people were telling him, ‘Hey man, you should just walk away from this,’ but the reason why he didn’t quit was because of us. And I’m sure that takes a lot of courage.”

Zorn, not surprisingly, has little interest in revisiting his Redskins tenure. He said he has enjoyed watching Robert Griffin III play, calling him “such a tremendous athlete,” and said he “absolutely enjoyed” his time in Washington. But he declined to discuss the franchise’s course since his departure.

“I don’t do that,” he said. “I would feel like that would not be a smart judgment, without knowing what the day-to-day process is. I would try not to judge that if I [wasn’t] there every day.”

Despite ample opportunity, Zorn has never gone after his former Redskins colleagues, even in the hours after he was fired. “Nothing has to be fair,” he said then. He and Carter haven’t talked about their time in Washington this week; “we just kind of laughed at how time flies,” Carter said.


Zorn signs a football at an appearance prior to the East-West Shrine Game.

After decades of constant involvement in the NFL, Zorn said he’s enjoyed spending extra time with his family the past two seasons, while also trying to stay busy. He and former teammate Steve Largent recently joined a small group that traveled to a remote Mayan village in Guatemala and helped install three latrines, part of their work with Medical Teams International.

Zorn’s varied interests are well-known – he’s had more unique experiences than any coach I’ve ever interviewed, in any sport. But he said he’s focused on just one thing now: coaching football.

“Most of the things that I’ve done [the past two years], it’s been pretty purposeful,” Zorn said from a field in Florida, before cutting the conversation short. “But I do have to go now. I’ve got some centers standing right in front of me, and they’re ready to practice.”