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Adventurous Zorn prepares for first training camp with Redskins

LEESBURG, Va. -- There were already streaks of mud on Jim Zorn's white socks and silver cycling shoes when he rounded a curve on his Dean Titanium mountain bike and called out a warning: "More water ahead."

The Washington Redskins coach plowed through the large puddle without slowing down a bit, and the unspoken challenge was to keep up with him. The 55-year-old father of four who routinely tackles double-black diamond trails at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia wasn't about to be intimidated by a simple first ride near his new home in northern Virginia, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter.

"That was fun," he said with a huff and a puff as he exited the bumpy trail and turned onto a paved path. "Really fun."

Dive right in and plow through the mud? You bet. That's how it's always been for the adventurous, flaky left-hander who unexpectedly landed the job as on-field leader of one of the NFL's most storied franchises. He's a longtime position coach following a Hall of Famer, a candidate so obscure he wasn't even on owner Dan Snyder's original list after Joe Gibbs resigned in January.

Yet he's the one who will be in charge Sunday when the Redskins open training camp.

"We both laughed about it. 'Can you believe it, man? I'm a head coach,"' said longtime friend and new Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, recalling their phone conversation when Zorn was hired. "I said, 'Yes, it's funny. But it's not unbelievable that you are a head coach. It's just great that it happened this way."'

So, yes, the former Seattle Seahawks star took the plunge, as he has so many times before.

Burn the mold, because Zorn doesn't quite fit it. He makes his quarterbacks play Slip 'n Slide and dodgeball. He once took up boxing to kill time while playing third string. He's already told Chris Cooley to stop wearing short shorts to practice and Clinton Portis to stop playing coach by taking himself out of games.

He's told reporters to stop interviewing players in the parking lot and the rookies that they'll have to earn the Redskins logo on their helmets. He'd love to pedal to work every day but can't because he opted for a house in a bike-unfriendly area, where he's closer to best friend Steve Largent. In some ways, he is Gibbs' polar opposite: a perpetual optimist instead of a worrywart, an early bird who doesn't believe in spending the night on a couch in the office.

"I won't be here until 2 o'clock in the morning," Zorn said. "I guarantee you that. Unless the floor drops out."

Three-word definition of Zorn: fun with boundaries.

"Jim fits that description well," said Largent, the Hall of Fame receiver and former congressman. "And unlike a lot of flaky left-handers that I can think of, Jim has been able to organize his life and his thoughts in a way that's really constructive, and yet it's still kind of on the edge."

Sometimes, diving right in has its consequences. At Zorn's introductory news conference on Feb. 10, he infamously recited the Redskins' colors as "maroon and black" instead of burgundy and gold, and mistakenly credited Gibbs when discussing a Sean Taylor tribute. It was part of an overall nervous first impression that fed the fans' worst fear: This guy is in over his head.

Zorn has since used humor to get over the color gaffe, but he's heard about the doubters. The intense media glare of the nation's capital captures all miscues and magnifies them, and Largent was quick to warn his friend that the fans back in Seattle "don't turn negative on you like they do here" in Washington.

"What Steve doesn't remember," Zorn said as he picked up speed along the path, "is that I was booed in Seattle at the end of my career."

Zorn says he does not feel overwhelmed. The first few months were extremely busy, but he felt prepared because he had been envisioning himself as a head coach for several years.

"The thing that really stimulates me is that things do change about every 45 minutes," Zorn said. "I like that."

As for the lower expectations he might face as Gibbs' successor? He doesn't buy it.

"He's won three Super Bowls; that's a feat in itself," Zorn said. "So I'm not going to create the pressure of 'As fast as I can, get to three Super Bowls.' There's enough expectations of winning a football game, getting a division championship, getting into the playoffs, making it to one Super Bowl. Believe me, my expectations aren't lower, knowing what Joe has done. It's just a different time, and it's a time when I've got to do my job."

It's hard not to give Zorn the benefit of the doubt, given his history of overcoming odds. The Cal Poly-Ponoma quarterback wasn't chosen in any of the 17 rounds of the 1975 draft and went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys. Motivated by Roger Staubach -- who would run wind sprints with him every day after practice -- the long shot survived a camp with more than 120 players to move up to third string.

But the Cowboys decided to keep only two quarterbacks. It being the '70s, however, they kept Zorn in town by getting a fan to give him a job on the side.

"One of my jobs," Zorn said, "was to help his 14-year-old son at that time learn how to throw."

A month or so later, Chuck Knox lured Zorn to the Los Angeles Rams. Once again, Zorn wasn't officially on the roster, so he took up boxing to strengthen his weaker right hand and had a memorable sparring match.

"I'm tagging him. He can't figure out my right-hand lead," Zorn said. "He goes 'Boom!' Over the top. He caught me and spun me around and I saw stars, I heard whistles, and, fortunately, I heard a 'ding.' The round was over."

The following year, when Seattle was awarded an expansion franchise, Zorn went north and won the starting job -- his offbeat personality and pass-at-will attitude meshing perfectly with a team that had nothing to lose and always seemed to go for it on fourth down. He became a local icon, holding the No. 1 job for 7½ seasons until Knox, who by then had become Seahawks coach, replaced him with Dave Krieg during the 1983 season.

"That was one of the most difficult times in my playing career," Zorn said. "It wasn't getting cut by the SeahawksSeahawks; it was getting demoted and having to go back in the next day, and all the things that I practiced every single day, now I had to take a step back. That's humiliating.

"I always professed to be a Christian as a player, and when I became a backup, that was in my mind, God giving me an opportunity to live out what I had professed. I thought of all kinds of stuff: not supporting, demanding to be traded, giving him a punch or whatever. But I tried to come back and support him as much as I could. That was really the start of my idea of becoming a football coach."

Still, Knox dealt Zorn one more setback. After Zorn retired as a player in 1987, his place in Seattle's Ring of Honor well secured, he went to his old coach and asked for a job as an assistant.

"He sat behind his desk and he said, 'I'm not going to hire you, no,"' Zorn said. "I was tiffed."

Knox told Zorn he didn't have room on his staff for an inexperienced, maybe/wannabe coach. Zorn instead toiled for eight seasons in the college ranks before a different Seahawks regime hired him as an offensive assistant in 1997. Then came two seasons with the Detroit Lions before returning to become quarterbacks coach in Seattle, where Zorn spent the last seven years molding Matt Hasselbeck into a Pro Bowl player.

Zorn was expecting a better job to come along eventually, but not like this. When Snyder ran out of candidates to succeed Gibbs, he turned to the person he hired two weeks earlier as an offensive coordinator.

Dive right in, Mr. Zorn.

"A lot of people don't know if we made the right decision, but I think we did," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Everything Jim tells us is positive. I like the way he thinks. I like the way he says that if we get it in the red zone, we're going to score every time. We don't want to be conservative and kick field goals. He's totally different in that aspect."

The task is daunting, even on a team that made the playoffs last year. Zorn's players, particularly quarterback Jason Campbell, have to master a new West Coast passing scheme, and Zorn himself must survive the inevitable trials and losing streaks that will test his optimism and leadership.

Life was so hectic for Zorn after he was hired that three months passed before he could find time to accept the invitation for the bike ride. But he plans to indulge other passions such as kayaking and hiking in the Washington area. After jumping a curb and climbing a steep hill on the bike, he was asked how his adventurous love of the outdoors compares to his upcoming adventures with the Redskins.

"I always want to be good at everything," Zorn said. "But nobody has expectations for me to be a great bike rider or a kayaker. In football, there are players, assistant coaches, owners, media, fans. ... There's a lot of people that expect me to be great at my job."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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