Some 30 years ago, under a beautiful blue sky on a remote lake near Seattle, then-Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn had taken his future wife, Joy, out on a boat. As Joy recalls, the moment was at the edge of "really romantic" when Zorn leaned over to say something to her.
"I'm there on the boat, no purse, nothing, and Jim says, 'Joy, I hate to tell you this, but you have really bad breath,' " Joy said. "I have no mints, nothing I can do about it. It ruined the whole evening. I'm like, 'Gee whiz, you could have given me some mints or offered me some gum or just not say anything' "
Not Zorn, it's just not in him. At a moment when most guys might have found a way to work around the breath thing and keep working the angle with the date, Zorn was about as suave as a sumo wrestler. Over the years, however, his honesty has been one of the most endearing qualities to Joy.
"That's one of the qualities that comes out all the time when people talk about Jim," Joy said. "It's like I read in the media sometimes how the reporters say that Jim is almost too honest. That's just how he is."
To a greater extent, Zorn, the first-year coach of the 3-1 Washington Redskins, is completely guileless in a job that is often filled with doubletalk, misdirection and sometimes outright deceit. He is cut from the cloth of men like Tony Dungy and Joe Gibbs – a contrast to the reputations of Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick.
"Yeah, angles," Zorn said Sunday after the Redskins' impressive 26-24 win over previously undefeated Dallas. "I'm not good with angles."
Where some coaches would be afraid to admit mistakes or weaknesses in any public way, Zorn displays no such fear. Where some coaches might have been self-conscious about not knowing quarterback Jason Campbell's passing stats after the victory over Dallas, Zorn readily admitted he hadn't looked at the numbers because he was more concerned with the quality of Campbell's play. (For the record, Campbell posted his third straight game with a rating of better than 100).
To Zorn, it's his way of not only embracing what he needs to improve, but ignoring what is unimportant. In the process, it has helped him earn the respect of the people he has to manage.
"Coach Zorn is the first guy to say, 'Hey guys, I did this wrong and I need to improve on this,' " said Washington left tackle Chris Samuels. "When you have a coach who will say that and then actually go fix what he's doing wrong, as a player you have to respect that and do the same when he tells you you're messing up."
In the process, Zorn has gone from a guy who looked lost in the season opener to a terrific tactician who not only beat the Cowboys in Dallas, but called the plays that allowed his team to hold the ball for more than 38 minutes. The victory over Dallas wasn't just stunning, it was jaw-dropping when you contrast it with the Week 1 loss to the Giants.
In that game, Washington's offense was inept for the most part, and Campbell struggled during a 16-7 defeat in front of a big Thursday-night kickoff audience. Unfortunately for Zorn, the contest was a continuation of what happened late in the exhibition season.
Worst of all, during the final minutes of the game, as the Redskins trailed by two scores, the offense didn't play with much urgency to score quickly. Time and again, the cameras panned to Zorn on the sideline, who looked a step or two behind the action. Announcers Al Michaels and John Madden did their best not to rip him too harshly, but the offense was indeed criticized.
The criticism hit the blogosphere quickly, with fans widely suggesting after only one game that Zorn, 55, wasn't qualified to be a head coach. In addition, there's already a website called Firejimzorn.com that features the explanation: "Jim Zorn has been put in a position to fail. He will ultimately fail, so why not just fire him now, and search for his permanent replacement to lead the Redskins to a Super Bowl Championship."
Instead of reacting defensively to the knee-jerk analysis, Zorn embraced it.
"Even though we struggled at the end of preseason and didn't win the first regular-season game, the hope inside myself was not to flinch," Zorn said. "You know what I mean by that? 'Oh my God, we lost, now we have to redo everything.' That was my first regular-season game, so I'm in the learning process as well. I hope I get better. I hope you haven't seen my best. … The criticism I took from that game was how I handled the last six minutes. I really messed up on a minute of the game, so I really, I didn't try to beat myself up, I just had to try to continue to do better."
A couple of areas in which Zorn has definitely gotten better, according to players, are adjusting to the speed of the game and delivering the play calls sooner. Otherwise, the Redskins have improved without abandoning schemes and Zorn drastically altering his approach.
"That's kind of a big Zorn thing," said Chris Cooley, the Pro Bowl tight end who caught only one pass in the season opener. "He says that to everyone, 'Don't flinch.' We hear that over and over again: 'Don't flinch, there's another play, there's another game. Just keep doing your job and do what you can.' That's him. He's from a quarterback standpoint. He has to be able to move on, move to the next play and, as a player, there's always more to do. … Don't get involved in a big momentum swing. Don't get too far down."
Zorn makes it sound so simple, so pure of purpose. In a league that often rewards double-dealing, Zorn sounds like a guy who'd rather sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya. Then again, maybe this is the only way it can work, given Zorn's situation.
Zorn, a devoutly Christian man, was originally hired in the offseason to be the next offensive coordinator for whomever the Redskins were going to hire as head coach. As the coaching search continued, Redskins owner Dan Snyder and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato kept coming back to Zorn as the top candidate. However, when they promoted him to head coach, Zorn had to accept the staff that had already been hired.
For men who have issues with trust, that might have been a problem. Instead, Zorn has embraced his staff. It's simply part of the circumstance. Accept it and move on.
"You never hear things from Jim about how something can't work," Cerrato said during training camp. "He'll tell you if something is a problem and he'll tell you right away, but it's immediately followed by him talking about the solution. He's amazingly forthright and positive."
Said Campbell: "Coach gets on us quarterbacks all the time. He tells you exactly what he's thinking right away and how to fix it. It's all totally straight, no games."
Zorn has just never been comfortable with playing games. After his 12-year pro career came to an end, Zorn started a 20-year run as an assistant coach. His first job was at Boise State, where he shared an office with another coach. One day he came back from the office and told Joy he wasn't sure he was cut out for the coaching business.
"The guy he shared the office with was really into working the coaching network. He would send Christmas cards to head coaches or call them after big wins to congratulate them. Jim came back one day and said, 'It all seems so fake to me, I don't know if I can do that,' " Joy said.
Perhaps that's why it took Zorn so long to get his first opportunity. If that's the case, you get the feeling Zorn doesn't really care. He arrived at this point the way he wanted to travel the path.
Will it work? Who knows? So many things must happen to produce an NFL championship that it's impossible to say that one factor is the magic answer. But if honesty and self-evaluation mean anything, Zorn seems to have that part under control.
"I don't know if it's naïveté, but part of it's choice because I want to speak the truth and live in the truth. I can't blab everything I'm feeling, but I don't want a false attitude," Zorn said. "I'm genuinely tickled pink that we won; I'm going to enjoy it. But I don't think I'm going to start strutting around and acting like I'm God's gift to coaching. We just won a game, it was a good win, but now we have to get on to the next one."
- Jim Zorn