To Jim Zorn, the moment must have seemed completely surreal.
There he was, the head coach of the Washington Redskins, responding to the public blasting he'd received a day earlier from star halfback Clinton Portis by addressing the situation at a team meeting Wednesday afternoon – and, for all intents and purposes, apologizing. Awkward.
Zorn's attempts to quell the controversy by clarifying his intentions to his players might have been sincere, or they might have been a pragmatic attempt to forge togetherness and improve his job security. However, there had to be a voice in the 55-year-old coach's head saying, "Now I'm the bad guy? What the … "
Three days earlier, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had called out halfback Marion Barber, questioning the Pro Bowl runner's toughness for having sat out the 20-13 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers with a dislocated pinkie toe. Though Jones softened his comments two days later, saying "we all know how tough Marion Barber is," the owner of the Redskins' chief rival had essentially called one of his key players a wuss and gotten away with it.
Now here was Zorn, after a much less egregious slight of Portis, assuring a bunch of guys still fighting for a playoff spot that his public comments aren't meant to be manipulative.
He might as well have added, "And if even they were, it wouldn't matter, because I now understand my place in the world."
Suffice it to say, Zorn is not as powerful as Jones. Counterintuitive as it might seem, he's not even as powerful as Dallas coach Wade Phillips.
To understand what I mean, let's go back to February, when 'Skins owner Daniel Snyder stunned the football world by hiring Zorn to replace Joe Gibbs. Zorn, initially hired to be the team's offensive coordinator, so impressed Snyder and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato during his brief time on the job that they decided to make him the head coach.
A few minutes after the news broke, a former NFL head coach told me, "This is a crazy hire. The guy has never been an offensive coordinator, has never called plays and has never been a head coach, and now he's going to do all three? Trust me, there will be issues."
Sure enough, the 'Skins, a playoff team a year ago, had a choppy preseason, with many veterans convinced from the earliest stages of training camp that Zorn was in over his head. From scheduling to big-picture issues, they feared that he was a neophyte who was unprepared for the magnitude of his new gig.
In Washington's first game, a 16-7 home defeat to the New York Giants in the season opener, Zorn seemed overwhelmed on the sidelines. But, in a testament to Zorn and his players, the 'Skins got it together quickly, rolling off four consecutive victories and ultimately improving to 6-2.
They have since lost four out of five, culminating in last Sunday night's 24-10 road defeat against the Baltimore Ravens – a game in which Zorn sat Portis for most of the second half. Afterward, the coach explained that Portis, who has battled injuries all season, had missed numerous practices as of late and thus wasn't as familiar with blocking and pass-catching assignments as the coach would have liked. Zorn felt backups Ladell Betts and Mike Sellers would give Washington a better chance to succeed in obvious passing situations, so he sat Portis down.
Certainly, Zorn had the right to make the move, and his reasoning might have been sound. But Portis, who has ranked among the league rushing leaders all season, took offense to his coach's comments. This is partly because Portis has been a true warrior all season, having battled through knee, rib and neck injuries without missing a game. He felt getting called out for having missed some practices when he was valiantly sucking it up on Sundays was a form of betrayal.
Another reason Portis took Zorn's words so hard: He's a bit of a diva, like about 50 other prominent NFL skill-position players I know.
On Tuesday, Portis went on the radio with former Georgetown coach John Thompson and bashed Zorn, sarcastically calling him a "genius" and saying "maybe I should be on" the injured reserve list. The rip session went on and on, which led to a 10-minute meeting between player and coach the following day and Zorn's attempts to smooth over the issue to his players and to the press.
There was also this from Portis when talking to reporters on Wednesday: "I love Mr. Snyder. Mr. Snyder loves me. That's my man."
That, boys and girls, Cowboys and Redskins, is the real reason Zorn felt compelled to apologize.
Say what you will about Jones, but he has three things going for him that Zorn does not: 1) He is the boss; 2) None of his players, even a franchise quarterback like Tony Romo, will ever regard him as "my man"; and 3) He is part of an organization in which the command structure may be constantly questioned but is blatantly clear to all parties, to the head coach's benefit.
I know some of your blood vessels are bursting over that last contention, and I realize that Jones has been known to hover on the sidelines or act like he grasps a bit more about evaluating personnel than some people can stomach. If you look at the man's record, however, he's hardly the nightmare boss that some purport him to be.
Yes, he and Jimmy Johnson had a nasty breakup after consecutive Super Bowl triumphs in the 1990s, but both parties were to blame for the clash of egos. Since then Jones has been largely reasonable in dealing with Cowboys coaches Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo (now back as Phillips' defensive backs assistant), Bill Parcells and Phillips. Jones has never made an in-season switch and has always gone out of his way to be publicly supportive of the man wearing the headset, particularly with Phillips as speculation cropped up about the coach's job security this season.
"There is just absolutely no – I can tell you without any hesitation – thought in my mind about him not coaching the Dallas Cowboys in the future," Jones told the Dallas Morning News in mid-November. "Past this year. There's no thought. I haven't given that one ounce of consideration."
Regardless of what actually happens after this season, that sends a pretty clear-cut message.
Phillips, in fact, felt sufficiently empowered to point out earlier this week to reporters, in Barber's defense, that the decision not to play the halfback was one made by the team's medical staff.
Certainly, there are limits to Phillips' power, and one of his virtues is that he knows his place and embraces it. More to the point, you won't find any players in the Dallas locker room who believe that their close relationship to the owner gives them the leeway to go on the radio and blast their coach.
If they're students of history, they know that Jones took on Emmitt Smith in a messy holdout that extended two games into the 1993 season and that he cut Troy Aikman eight years later. If he could do that to a couple of Hall of Famers, it's pretty clear that no one on the current roster is sacred.
Snyder, as I have written many times, is a very good owner with many virtues. To his credit, after bringing back the legendary Joe Gibbs, he smartly eased back on his interventionist tendencies and allowed the Hall of Fame coach to run the show.
Then again, Gibbs had implicit respect from his players and also had a far better grasp of how to handle strong and sensitive personalities like Portis in tense situations. Hint to Zorn: Providing the halfback with some public cover for his benching and giving him private assurances that his sacrifices were valued probably would have averted the whole mess in the first place.
The wise move for Snyder would be to assure Portis that Zorn has the player's best interests at heart, then publicly express his full support for his first-year coach and see how the rest of the season plays out. However, there are rumblings that the owner already has soured on Zorn and has a wandering eye, especially for former Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
If that's the way Snyder decides to go, that's his prerogative. It's his team, and regardless of whether you agree with his methods, he's trying to give the Redskins the best possible chance to succeed.
In the meantime, the more Snyder can do to make Zorn feel like he's not a figurehead, the better it would be for the 'Skins.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Chiefs, with Dwayne Bowe abusing Antonio Cromartie in the process, will make their season by beating the Chargers (and officially clinching the AFC West for Denver). … Brett Favre and the Jets will bounce back against the listless Bills. … Tony Romo will lead the Cowboys past the Giants in a Sunday night classic, setting up an eventual postseason rematch between the NFC East rivals.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Baltimore, where I can watch the Ravens and Steelers beat on one another for three hours until only one AFC North power is left standing. "You've got two physical teams with the same kind of makeup – tough and relentless," Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal told me Tuesday. "You're gonna see a slugfest. I'm bringing that Louisville Slugger and I'm gonna swing it until I hit glass. I can't wait for this game."
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Asked about the knee injury to Giants halfback Brandon Jacobs, Jerry Jones said, "You know, Brandon is a true warrior, and he's also very smart. You can be sure that if he decides to rest his knee on Sunday night, it's because he's mindful of the big picture. No one can question his toughness."
2. It would be great if we could keep hearing about Joe the Plumber's views on a variety of topics, because the man speaks for America.
3. After learning that John Daly had smashed a spectator's camera during the Australian Open, Tiger Woods called to offer Daly a job as his caddie.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Rap legend Luke Campbell completed a fifth successful week by taking the Cardinals to defeat the Rams, and he's feeling mighty good about his chances of securing a pick-six: "Indy's gonna crush Detroit," Campbell says. "I love the Colts, because they've got my favorite coach, Tony Dungy, a man who I met when he was an assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I'll never forget it: It was a preseason game at RFK Stadium, and Mel Bratton was playing for the Redskins and Tolbert Bain was a free agent trying to make the Steelers, so I went to go see them. After the game Tolbert introduced me to Tony, who was [the defensive coordinator] for Chuck Noll. It was the first time I'd ever met an NFL coach, and he was the nicest guy in the world. And, of course, he was a big 2 Live Crew fan, on the down-low."
Having known Dungy for a long time, I'm pretty sure Campbell's embellishing that last point – but I did enjoy the references to '80s Hurricanes standouts Bratton (the first NFL player ever to give me a pager with an 888 prefix, which I was certain was a blowoff) and Baines. And given that Campbell remains the world's most notorious Miami booster, and it was recently announced that his school will battle my illustrious alma mater Dec. 27 in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, we've decided to conjure up a friendly little wager: If Cal wins, Campbell will choose a day during Super Bowl week to make me honorary chairman of his latest commercial venture, Uncle Luke's VIP Gentleman's Club, which has its grand opening in Palm Beach, Fla., next Thursday. He'll also wear a Cal hat and T-shirt onstage at one of his upcoming concerts and will "outfit my girls accordingly." If the 'Canes win, as per Campbell's request, he wants Golden Bears basketball star Ashley Walker and 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin of Cal swimming fame to send autographed photos of themselves in Miami attire. "And," Campbell says, "I want you to organize a naked protest. Tell everyone to take off their clothes on campus and demand that I come out there and perform at graduation."
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
On a day when Lindsay Gottlieb's strategic moves paid off in brilliant fashion, as the first-year UCSB coach guided the Gauchos to a 59-47 upset of Gonzaga (thanks partly to surprise starter Margaret Johnson's 13 points and game-high eight rebounds), the lineup-tinkering designed to sneak Gaucho Madness into the playoffs of the Fantasy Freaks league backfired in a big way. Our decision to start Gus Frerotte over Aaron Rodgers turned ugly last Sunday when the Vikings quarterback went down with a back injury against the Lions, as he and top target Bernard Berrian produced a combined two points. Starting Willie Parker and Justin Fargas over Jonathan Stewart was another regrettable call, as was going with Ted Ginn Jr. Even with 23 points from the Cardinals' defense, Gaucho Madness suffered a resounding defeat to Tiggers, finishing 6-8 and out of the postseason on points differential. It's the first time Gottlieb has ever finished out of the playoffs in her career as a fantasy GM, and yes, I feel very responsible. About the only help I gave her this fall was in skittishness: She finished tied for second in the league with 32 total roster moves. Looking back, however, we had some obstacles to overcome, beginning with the fact that our No. 1 draft pick blew out his knee in Week 1. Says Gottlieb: "Here's the thing: How many coaches across the board, in any sport – real or fantasy – can say, 'We lost our No. 1 draft pick right away, and our No. 3 pick [Willie Parker] was out for the majority of the time, and we still won'?" It didn't help that picks No. 2 (Braylon Edwards) and No. 4 (Torry Holt) were flat-out busts. "I felt like the rest of the guys battled," Gottlieb says. "We had role players. I don't blame you, because you helped come up with the moves that kept us afloat, like the whole Vikings thing [Frerotte, Berrian and Ryan Longwell]. We rode that horse too long in the end, but it's what kept us in the mix. And we're definitely coming back next year with a vengeance."
The news was much better for my buddy Malibu, whose team, Hand of Doom, rolled to a 155-116.4 first-round playoff victory over Cleveland Steamers – avenging a defeat in the first round last year – to move into the semifinals of the Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league. Solid efforts by Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson and monster days by Matt Ryan and the Indy defense were more than enough to offset the DeAngelo Williams Monday night explosion. "The Indy defense was the key with 30 points," Malibu says. "And the great thing is they play the Lions this week." After contemplating some moves (playing Darren McFadden instead of Tim Hightower, who faces the Vikings and their still-eligible run-stuffers Pat Williams and Kevin Williams; playing Falcons rookie Harry Douglas for the banged-up Steve Breaston), we decided to stand pat for this week's semifinal showdown with Gravity Rebels (Donovan McNabb, Joseph Addai, Maurice Jones-Drew, Dwayne Bowe, Eddie Royal and the now heavily exposed Visanthe Shiancoe), confident that Hand of Doom has what it takes to reverse the outcome from the two teams' meeting in the regular-season finale. "I think we've gotta dance with who brung ya," Malibu declared, spewing the kind of cliché that drove him from the sportswriting business back in the late '80s. "And it'd sure be nice to get a few points out of Antonio Gates for a change. Who would've thought he'd end up being the weak link on my team?"
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Is it just me, or do you kind of hate the fade pattern? It seems like teams are increasingly relying on this play near the goal line, and unless it's Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson matched up against a diminutive corner, it seems like the success rate isn't high enough to warrant the popularity. Run inside, run outside, call a quarterback draw, send him sprinting outside for a run-pass option or find a receiver slipping underneath or through the middle of the end zone, and I'll try very hard not to complain. But the fade is overplayed.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
The great Jennifer (JT) Thomas, who helped establish Cal soccer as a national power in the mid-'80s and returned to become the heart and soul of the program as a tireless, passionate and genial assistant coach. After more than a decade's worth of molding grateful young women, JT is retiring in January to become a college advisor – and our advice at The Gameface to anyone with a motivated high school kid is to seek her wisdom. While we're talking college soccer, congratulations to North Carolina freshman Courtney Jones, who helped the Tar Heels to their 20th national title in a dramatic, 2-1 triumph over Notre Dame last weekend. She's still two championships shy of her father, Brent, who won three Super Bowls as a 49ers tight end, but the kid might well catch up by her senior year.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Who's your Draddy? Why, it's Cal center Alex Mack, the future first-round draft pick who was honored Tuesday night in New York City as college football's top scholar athlete. In winning the Draddy Trophy, Mack joined previous winners like Peyton Manning, Chad Pennington and Kyle Vanden Bosch, players he'll be competing against (or with) in the NFL come '09. Already having earned his bachelor's degree in legal studies with a 3.61 GPA, Mack returned for his senior season and began working toward a master's in education while helping Jahvid Best reach the top of the Pac-10 rushing charts. In addition to honoring the world's finest academic institution by kicking butt on the football field and in the classroom, Mack has shared victory celebrations with my large, unwieldy and age-inappropriate crew over the years without throwing anyone through a window. Meanwhile, another awesome Alex, continues to tear it up for the U.S. women's under-20 national team. Check out this killer goal by the Cal sophomore from the U.S.A.'s 2-1 victory over Korea in the gold medal game.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading scrapped its way to a pair of 1-0 victories, winning at Barnsley last Saturday and defeating Blackpool at Madejski Stadium three days later. Tuesday's triumph, which featured a 27th-minute score from defender Ivar Ingimarsson following a James Henry free kick, carried a steep price, however – American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann suffered a calf injury while preparing to kick downfield in the 70th minute, and manager Steve Coppell speculated that injury could keep him out for a few weeks. That means Australian Adam Federici will have to get it done for the Royals, who remain third in the Football League Championship table with 43 points (four behind second-place Birmingham), with a showdown between the two clubs looming Dec. 20. (Reading hosts Norwich City this Saturday.) The Royals were especially resourceful in the Barnsley match, which was delayed 15 minutes after their bus broke down on the M1. Forced to play a man down when midfielder Jimmy Kebe was sent off in the 36th minute for lashing out at a defender, Reading prevailed on a second-half goal by sub Brynjar Gunnarsson that was set up nicely by leading scorer Kevin Doyle.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"You just listed about 12 or 13 coaches more deserving than [Bill] Belichick this year for coach of the year. Are you crazy? I'm not going to say he should win but seriously, the job he's done with a quarterback who hasn't played since high school, no running game, the worst secondary in football, a bunch of 45-year-old linebackers, and an overrated offensive line (not to mention injuries), he has to be in the Top 5."
You just read an article in which I listed Belichick as the sixth-most deserving coach of the year candidate and praised him for fielding a team that is focused, well-prepared and disciplined, and you sent in the email in question? Are you crazy? Or have you just been spending too much time with Evelyn Wood?
"Re: Maple Leaves The story goes that the team was named after a WWI Canadian Army regiment 'the Maple Leaf', and since that was a proper noun, to pluralize it you simply add an 's.' Regardless, the same grammatical rule can be applied to a team, since the team name is also a proper noun. A single player would be a 'Maple Leaf,' therefore two or more 'Maple Leaf' would be Maple Leafs. More importantly though, grammar has no place in sports, and the Toronto Maple Leaves would both look and sound stupid."
Thanks for clearing that up. I'll be sure to remember that the next time I write about the Minnesota Timberwolfs.
"Michael, Michael, Michael! What were you thinking? While I think you wrote an excellent, humorous human interest story that just happened to be about a football player, what will happen if the goofs who think you are an underachieving journalistic idiot get ahold of this story? If you visit your mother's house and find your editor sitting in her kitchen, you will have no one to blame but the author of your story about Atlanta's stud receiver, Roddy White. It's clear to me that these desperately ill-mannered readers might try anything to get their boot in the general vicinity of your arse. If it's not too late, your mom can come stay at our place for a few months, until the season is over at least."
Now that I think about it, my parents and my editor do live awfully close to one another. That's kind of scary, and it reminds me: Have I mentioned that my editor is, like, totally awesome? (Though, of course, my mom is the most awesome.)
"Michael, I'm a diehard 49ers fan since '88 and I have been enjoying work for years now. … Even though, you and Matt Maiocco are very high on my favorite football writers list, no one comes close to my appreciation to Dr. Z's work. … Therefore, I want to thank you very much indeed for setting aside a space on this week column to express feelings/gratitude for Paul´s work. Yours sincerely, Felipe. PS: Is there any chance your book "Rice" will get a new edition? I can't seem to find it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and I really don't like buying used books from Ebay users …"
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thank you for the kind words, and your regard for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Maiocco and his terrific 49ers blog is highly justified. Dr. Z is a tough, tough hombre, and I know he appreciates the kind wishes from all over the globe. As far as "Rice," I'm afraid that another printing is about as likely as Plaxico Burress shattering his receiving records. The good news is that you can find them new on Amazon for less than the price of a caipirinha.
"I don't want to waste too much time with you because you are not worth it. You try to save face by saying you don't care about predictions but had it come true, you would have asked us all to applaud you. Turns out for the Packers your Cal colleague did not perform to the level you thought he would. [Zero and five] in the games decided by [four points or less], and Rodgers is also 0-5 in comeback from behind victories. The Pack took the heart out of Green Bay and once your Cal boy was taken off the suckling, the season went to hell. There is something to say about the leadership and heart guys like [Brett] Favre and Romo bring to teams. They raise all facets of the game to another level. You were so caught up rooting for Rodgers because of your college affilitation for him, you forgot what makes a team tick. Take the heart from a team and you won't go to the playoffs. Your terrible judgement all season long does not surprise me because you are a reporter, not a player. Although you know how to spell and have grammar skills, you don't know anything about what it takes to be a winner. See you loser!"
First of all, Aaron Rodgers is not my colleague. (And he won't be anytime soon, unless I can greatly improve my speed and athleticism. When I say run a 4.4 40, I'm talking about feet.) He and I do share an alma mater, but if you think that's the reason behind my regard for his abilities – and my belief before the season that the Packers would reach the Super Bowl – you haven't been paying attention. Have you seen me rip DeSean Jackson on this site? Check. Have you seen me heap praise upon alums of Cal's archrivals like John Elway of Stanford and Ronnie Lott of USC? Check. Do you realize that I have written more glowing portrayals of Brett Favre than most? Look, I obviously love Cal, but once these guys get to the NFL, my job is to evaluate them as professionals – end of story. I believe that Rodgers is a very good player who'll get even better, and I stand by that assessment based on what I've seen this year. I was obviously wrong about the Packers – unless they can pull off a truly amazing "comeback from behind" – and that happens. Fortunately, guessing right 100 percent of the time is not part of my job description. And however much you believe I might care about my predictions, I can promise you that I never, ever get emotional about them.
"More of a comment than a question. I have to say your writing and coverage are both superb. I work mornings at a fitness club, which is dead at 5 a.m. (EST), and check yahoo hourly for morning rush on Mondays and 32 questions on Tuesdays. Sometimes I miss your main article, like this one on Roddy White, and have to try and find it later. I'm writing this because like the recent emailer, I have problems finding your pieces. The link you posted to your archive was dead. I need my Silver fix on these cold, dark, lonely mornings! Where can I find my [drug] of NFL musings?"
Consider me your connection, for this link is very much alive.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Thanks to my man Brian Murphy, the marvelous morning host at San Francisco's KNBR-AM and a Y! Sports contributor, I was able to take my wife to a rocking Pretenders show in Oakland Thursday night. What she didn't hear, however, was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, around the time he handed out his latest suspension (to the Jags' Matt Jones on Tuesday), belting out the band's 1981 hit "Bad Boys Get Spanked" in his Park Avenue office. At least, we could have sworn that was the commish swinging his microphone and moaning like Chrissie Hynde.
You're not supposed to do that
You know you're not allowed to
But you seem to get some kind of kick
Out of riding 'round with blow in your car
You deliberately defy the rules
Do you take me for a fool?
Spit on that
Bad boys get spanked – huh
The QB you can't touch
But Jared can't resist
Don't you even think about rippin' the refs
Ask Jerry Jones, it's true
Or ask Matt Jones what he thinks I'm made out of
Or Pacman Jones what he thinks I'm made out of
Spit on that
Bad boys get spanked
Bad boys get spanked
You don't listen do you Odell?
Don't be a punk all your life
Someone's gonna sort you out
What you think I'm Paul Tagliabue?
Bend the rules, bend over
"Thank you sir may I have another"
Spit on that
Bad boys get spanked – huh
Bad boys get spanked
Oooh, oh, oh, get spanked, get spanked
Come here, get spanked
Oooh, oh, get spanked
Bad boys get spanked
Ooooh, oh, come here
- Jim Zorn
- Daniel Snyder