From the moment the Washington Redskins hired Jim Zorn as head coach last year -- after a circuitous process that took more than a month and included interviews with about a dozen candidates -- many wondered if he would last more than two years with owner Daniel Snyder. All coaches are hired to be fired, but this particular hire, of a man who had never been a coordinator much less interviewed for a head coaching job, shocked even Zorn himself.
Sure enough, late into his rookie coaching season, Zorn was already answering questions about his job security.
After Sunday's loss to Detroit, snapping the Lions' 19-game losing slide, Zorn is now the posterboy for coaches on the hot seat, as Snyder has never been shy about changing coaches, or spending big bucks to chase high-profile candidates. With Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher among the Super Bowl-winning coaches out of the NFL at the moment, there is no shortage of potential suitors for his position and, as expected, the specter of who will be the next coach of the Washington Redskins will hang over the team this entire season.
Zorn has made mistakes. Zorn's offense has yet to take hold. Even with time, he might never be a winning NFL coach. It may prove to be the stretch many thought it was. But Zorn has been on the job just 19 games, and he didn't hire himself.
He didn't ever proclaim himself to be the answer to this franchise's many problems, and firing him won't do a thing to begin to rectify what ails the Redskins. The coach is merely a symptom of a larger failure -- in personnel, player evaluation and decision making -- that has impeded the progress of this team for the better part of a decade now, despite Snyder's desire to win and willingness to dig deep into his pockets to do so.
If things are ever going to improve in Washington, the team will have to drastically improve its results in terms of trades, drafting and free-agent efficiency. None of that is Zorn's domain. Snyder's first move after Joe Gibbs retired following the 2007 season was to promote Vinny Cerrato, again, this time to the position of vice president of football operations, leaving him in charge of virtually all maintenance of the organization. Cerrato has been with Snyder since he bought the team in 1999 -- save for 2001, when Marty Schottenheimer had full control and relieved Cerrato of his duties.
Snyder and Cerrato fully control management of the club; they pick the players and Zorn coaches them. The hiring of Zorn was one of several unusual moves made in Washington, many of which have compromised the ability of any coach to succeed.
Zorn was hired away from Seattle, where he was a quarterbacks coach, to be Washington's offensive coordinator -- before a head coach had been hired. By hiring Zorn, from the West Coast family tree, Cerrato had ensured that quarterback Jason Campbell -- who was traded up for in the first round in 2005 to be a big drop-back, play-action, vertical quarterback in Gibbs' system -- would be thrust into another new system. And it would be a West Coast scheme based on quick drops, quick delivery and short- to medium-length passes. That Campbell has not flourished under these circumstances is not a shock.
The Redskins did nothing in free agency in 2008 -- a first -- and instead Cerrato said they would become a team that no longer tosses away draft picks, instead rebuilding through the draft (a few months later they would trade a second-round pick for aging Jason Taylor, who failed in one season in Washington then returned to Miami at a bargain-basement salary). The team stockpiled 10 picks in 2008, and despite it being a year loaded with quality tackles (which Washington badly needed) and short on receiver depth (none went in the first round), Cerrato used three second-round picks on pass catchers.
The Redskins lacked size and any vertical threat to complement an aging Santana Moss, and these three picks would be the biggest prizes awarded to Zorn as he tried to implement the switch to a West Coast system. These were the only real upgrades made to a middling roster. This was it.
They moved up to get Malcolm Kelly, despite the medical team raising significant concerns about his knees. Devin Thomas and tight end Fred Davis were sliding down many draft boards because of issues of maturity and worries about their ability to adjust to the pro game. All three players, to this point, have combined for no receiving touchdowns and 30 total catches. They have given the Redskins nothing in terms of production, and thus opposing coordinators do as they long have done, putting a safety over Moss, doubling tight end Chris Cooley in the red zone, forcing anyone else to beat them ... and no one does. The same issues that dogged Gibbs' passing game remain, just as the same issues of lack of size and a true starting wide receiver to play opposite Moss linger.
Cerrtato finally addressed his biggest need, along the offensive line, with his fourth pick in the '08 draft, after letting so many quality prospects pass. They gambled on Chad Rinehart out of Nothern Iowa, and he has been active for one of the 19 games played since then. The entire draft -- save for the final pick, safety Chris Horton -- has been a complete bust, though that and the Taylor trade amounted to the only significant roster moves made that entire season (the desperation for Taylor was created by ignoring the defensive line in the upper regions of the draft during the entire Snyder regime, again long predating Zorn's arrival).
In 2009, despite there being obvious reasons for revamping the offensive line, the Redskins added only guard Derrick Dockery, who has been adequate at best. Instead, they gave $22.5 million guaranteed to DeAngelo Hall, despite his history of issues, his coverage problems, and the fact that he had been released by Oakland just a few months earlier. They gave Albert Haynesworth $42 million guaranteed even though he's never starting more than 12 games or played even 70 percent of the snaps in a season. Both wasted little time in showing why there were so many red flags attached to them (Haynesworth's knee issues took about two preseason practices to flare up).
The lack of quality depth at receiver remains glaring, and again personnel failed them. The Redskins had free agent Kelley Washington at a minicamp, but failed to sign him; he went to the Ravens minicamp a week later, was signed, and has been a vital third-down threat for that undefeated team just down the I-95. And so it continues.
Many executives have commented to me over the years about running back Clinton Portis' steady decline, with the injuries and 300-carry seasons mounting and sapping his explosiveness, but the Redskins rewarded Portis (a long-time favorite of Snyder's) with a hefty new extension in 2007. His $9 million-per-season average salary tops all running backs. And in 2010, when most teams will be looking to jettison slowing players with the likelihood of an uncapped year (and thus no salary cap ramifications), most of Portis' $7.2 million salary in 2010 is guaranteed. The Redskins currently rank 24th in yards per carry.
And the defense has been unable to get off the field this season -- that's solely the domain of coordinator Greg Blache -- ranking last in third-downs with Blache playing a passive style. Blache, to his credit, took blame for the unsuccessful approach this week, vowing to be more of a "maverick" with his blitzing, but after Matthew Stafford marched 99 yards on his unit last week, converting on third-and-impossible along the way, the damage had been done.
None of this should exonerate Zorn. Losing to the Lions will turn up the heat on anyone, and rightfully so. He has everything to prove still as a head coach, and it might never work out. But firing him offers no solution, especially with no rising young coach on staff to take over on an interim basis.
After 19 games he's 9-10, identical to Gibbs' record after 19 games in his stint with Snyder. Both clubs had inept offenses and incomplete rosters, with long-time starting right tackle Jon Jansen commenting at one point that Gibbs' scheme was stuck in 1991. It's nothing new. And without major changes to the way the club is operated, it will continue to occur.
I'm still not giving up on the Tennessee Titans, even though they make me look silly every week. I never thought they would be the same team that tore through the AFC last season, but a 10-win season certainly seemed possible. They still have powerful backs, plenty of talent on defense and a strong coach.
Here's one reason for hope, Titans fans. Tennessee leads the NFL by forcing a three-and-out 37.2 percent of the time on defense. The other three teams over 32 percent -- the Giants, Saints and Jets -- are a combined 9-0. If the Titans eradicate their special teams mistakes and boneheaded turnovers, they can get back in this thing and it has to start against Jacksonville this weekend.
Best game this weekend
Who isn't intrigued by the Baltimore at New England game? It could be the best this weekend has to offer. And while a lot of people are getting carried away with Air Flacco in Baltimore (I did a sitdown interview with Flacco this week that will air on GameDay Morning Sunday on NFL Network; he's as down-to-earth a dude as you will find QBing in this league), I see this one looking like the Ravens of old on offense.
Jerod Mayo is out for the Pats, and he is at the core of the interior of that defense. With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork very iffy to play with an ankle injury, I would not be surprised to see Baltimore go more with that three-headed rushing attack, set up play action, and try to steamroll the Patriots in that fashion. New England is giving up a rush of four yards or more 49 percent of the time, they don't want Tom Brady on the field, and ball control makes a lot of sense for this road game.
I like Baltimore's chances. Brady has a modest 64.95 rating against the blitz this season (more on that in the next item), and while the Ravens have not been as aggressive since Rex Ryan left, they still have the capacity to bring pressure from all angles.
A passer's magic number
There are two factors that have been pretty remarkable indicators of success this season, and both hinge on the number 60. Yes, 60, is the magic number (and I'm just a Bill, just a lonely old Bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill).
There are six teams in the NFL who have passer ratings below 60 this season: Tampa Bay, Cleveland, St. Louis, Carolina, Oakland and Miami. Guess what they all have in common? Five of them have yet to win a game, and Oakland managed to win one, despite quarterback JaMarcus Russell being incompetent for all but one drive. That group is 1-17 folks. I'm not saying it's all because of this factor, but it's also probably not a coincidence, either.
There are also nine teams that have thrown the ball 60 percent of the time or more this season: Pittsburgh, Washington, Cleveland, Carolina, San Diego, Houston, New England, Tampa Bay and Arizona. Of that group, only the Patriots and Chargers have a winning record, and they sport a collective record of 8-19.
This and that
» I can't see this quarterback roulette ending well in Cleveland. Going to Derek Anderson on the road against a tough Baltimore defense in what was already an unwinnable game? No surprise he failed, and now you're left to go back to him this week coming off a poor performance. I don't get it. It could get pretty ugly in Cleveland. ...
» I like the Saints to snap the Jets' winning streak (though I also liked the Titans, and the Patriots before that, so that shows what I know). Drew Brees has 20 touchdowns to 5 interceptions against the blitz the past three seasons, so Rex Ryan's uber-aggression might not work (though he did batter the Saints a few years back when he was in Baltimore). And New York will continue to run the ball more than anyone and max protect a ton to ease Mark Sanchez along, but I look for the Saints to find ways to create one-on-one matchups to attack the passer despite that. Could be a big game for veteran safety Darren Sharper trying to read and anticipate the rookie quarterback, and if the Saints get a lead and Sanchez has to start throwing it more than he has been accustomed to, and the Jets go to more spread formations, I could see the Saints bringing heavy overloads.
Week 4 picks
Slipped to 9-7 last week in my picks, dropping me to 29-16 on the season. This week, I like the Packers over Vikings as my upset special (I loved the Bears over Steelers, and Lions over Skins, so I'm on a roll with the underdog-of-the-week picks). I figure the Redskins, Ravens, Bears, Titans, Texans, Bengals, Colts, Giants, Bills, Saints, 49ers, Cowboys and Steelers also win this week.