Zorn Brings West Coast to Washington

After spending a total of 15 years in the Seattle Seahawks organization as a quarterback and quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn is taking what may be the biggest leap of his football life.

Zorn was named the head coach of the Washington Redskins on February 9, and while he'll be relying on his staff for a great deal of the defensive gameplan, it's safe to say that when it comes to offense, Washington is going West Coast.

Zorn will bring the Seattle version of the West Coast offense to the Redskins -- not the more recent, pass-wacky by necessity version of 2007, but the more balanced attack of 2004 and 2005, when Seattle's offensive line and running game were still working and halfback Shaun Alexander was near the top of the league. He's got a good fit as far as offensive personnel goes.

The 2007 Redskins finished the season at 9-7, with a middle-of-the-pack offense that came alive late in the season when quarterback Jason Campbell was injured and veteran Todd Collins came in and started flinging the ball around to multiple targets. No receiver caught a touchdown pass through the first half of the season as Campbell looked more to his running backs and tight end Chris Cooley as outlets. Collins understood better how to spread the field and create tension in a defense by shaking up the game plan. And while Zorn will bring a multi-faceted playbook to the Redskins, his time under Mike Holmgren in Seattle taught him that there had best be a level of simplicity under all that complexity.

"There were times when the philosophy of the play -- I might have thought the play should have go here, here and here," Zorn said when I asked him what he learned about quarterbacks that he didn’t already know. "And it began too complicated for Mike and how he wanted the quarterback to think of it. He's say, 'No. This is not why I'm calling this play. I'm calling this play to hit that guy. And if we don't hit that guy, hit this guy. That's it.' Then I would adjust my teaching, the way that I would teach that pattern, to adjust to what Mike wanted in a play. He likes simple. And now I can say, 'I like simple.' Because I've learned a lot from him in that regard."

Zorn was the Seahawks' first quarterback from 1976 through 1983 -- 1984 was a non-starter before he finished his career in Green Bay and Tampa Bay -- and he rejoined the organization in 2001 to help Mike Holmgren develop a new quarterback that Holmgren had acquired from the Packers. Fellow by the name of Matt Hasselbeck. Zorn learned a great deal from Holmgren about offensive scheme and quarterback development. At the Combine on Friday, he discussed what the post-grad education under Professor Holmgren was like.

"Mike entrusted me with a lot. When I came in, I decided, 'here's a quarterback guru,' and what I wanted to do was make sure he never had to tell me something that I wasn't doing right or I needed to change. I wanted to make sure I was open to things that he said to the quarterback that could help me understand how he was coaching. There were a lot of times he'd watch the play, and I'd watch the play, and all of a sudden it didn't happen the way we wanted it. I'd step in and Mike would be like, 'OK, let's see what he says.' He'd hear me say something and then we'd both go back and he wouldn't say a word. He knew I was right on. Then there'd be times when he'd step up and I would walk there to listen to what he had to say. I would say in my mind, 'That's exactly it.' And we'd both step back. So we were kind of on the same page there."

The on-field personnel are in place in Washington -- there is no question about that. The Redskins' offensive line is effective, though it can be worn down over time. In Collins and Campbell, Zorn has an intriguing veteran journeyman/future star dynamic. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts are textbook backs for this system, and Cooley should flourish in a system that asks the tight end to stretch the seam to keep the flats open. The receiver corps has one or two question marks, but it's almost as if Zorn has acquired a roster that was pre-built for his offensive philosophy.

"What our goal has been, ever since I've been in Seattle, is to have a balanced attack. So that when the ball is snapped, the ball is just not going to one guy. (Slot receiver) Bobby Engram in Seattle may have caught nine balls one game, but we didn't try to throw it to him nine times on that particular pattern. There were other patterns where the ball was supposed to go to somebody else and it would end up going to him. That's the beauty of what's going to happen here. We've got a strong tight end in Chris Cooley. We've got Santana Moss. And we've got Antwaan Randle El, who I kind of picture him as like a Bobby Engram - an inside receiver with some real talent. We're looking for the other side to be productive as well. That position is a little open now as far as who's going to take that role. So I see a balanced attack. That's the goal I have in mind."

Zorn said that Portis will fit right in to the new offense, and he'll do so more readily than Shaun Alexander ever did because of Alexander's liabilities as a pass-blocker. Zorn can leave Portis in on third down. "The things I've seen from Clinton Portis is that he's not only a great one-back runner, I think he can run behind our fullback. I also think he's a heckuva pass blocker. To be able to leave Clinton in there in a critical passing down, to threat with the run or draw or screen, and then be able to have him pass protect in a blitz situation, yeah, I think that kind a wholeness of offense. That's what I'm hoping for with him.

Bigger back Ladell Betts will be a key cog as well. "Ladell is going to be a complement to Clinton," Zorn said. "Ladell can come in - we had almost the exact parallel situation in Seattle with Mo Morris and Shaun Alexander. We wouldn't have them in the same backfield as well, because Clinton right now is proving he's a really strong pass protector. Shaun was a strong runner, but (displayed) limited pass protection I would say in my mind. But I think that's luxury we're going to have is to put them in the backfield at the same time. It would be all the time. Those are change-ups. Those are add-ons, attachments."

The question that lingers is how Campbell will fit in, and how much work he will require with Zorn before he's ready to take command of this offense. Matt Hasselbeck may be a Pro Bowl quarterback now, but he struggled with the exact timing and multiple reads of this offense for a few years before it became second nature and he could truly live it on the field.

"I've seen Jason Campbell at the combine here, over two years ago now. When I see him on video, I remember what I saw here. I think he's got a very good release. I think when he's got to drop the ball off he drops his arm a little bit, so there are techniques to work on there. But his release is very good. I'm surprised by how tall he is with how well he moves his feet. I think that's the think I'm going to work on the most with him, is just his mindset on moving better in the pocket. I don't want to think of himself as only a drop-back passer. I want him to think of himself as a guy who can move as well."

Mobility is key in this offense. Zorn had it in a different scheme, back when he was slinging the ball to Steve Largent. Hasselbeck's pocket presence took a quantum leap forward in the 2004 season. According to Zorn, the biggest challenge Campbell faces is just knowing that he'll be working with the same playbook for more than one year. "He has cited that he's had, what, seven offensive coordinators in the years he's played in college and the pros now. All I can just say is, 'That's the way it goes.' I can't change that. He can't change that. What we can do is not major on that. We can't use that as a reason he can't do something. I mean, he should be able to do a lot of things. That's the way I look at it. You should be able to do everything now that you've had so many offensive coordinators (laughs). It's just the way it is."

Zorn concluded his thoughts about Campbell, who he called the starting quarterback without question, with a few thoughts about the demands that young quarterbacks face in the NFL.

"The first thing they face is the different media attention that they've gotten. It's big on the college level, but it's bigger here. More demands. The next thing he's going to have to face is learning a mass of offensive football. And there's not a 20-hour limit. There are no classes he has to go to distract (him). So the concentration will be demanding of him, both in the classroom, even in the locker room getting ready to go to practice. Your wheels better be turning. Then when you get out to practice you have to execute. The demand of accuracy for a quarterback is at a premium. We don't want a ball to hit the ground. You're not just throwing a pass and going, 'Hey, that felt pretty good. I'll hit it next time.' We want the ball not only to hit the receiver, but you want to hit the correct shoulder. You want to put the ball in the exact spot you want, not just in the vicinity. So those are things that probably a rookie quarterback they're going to have to make major adjustments."

It may take a while to kick in, but this offense is a thing of beauty when it works. If Zorn is afforded enough time to make it go -- and he has a major headstart in that he doesn't have to drastically re-tool for it -- Washington's West Coast frame of mind could pay great dividends.

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