Jim Zorn, we hardly knew thee

zornIf you have ever lived in, or near, Washington, D.C., you know that there are only two things that our nation's capital talks about in the fall and early winter. In election years, Washington talks about national politics and then the Redskins.

In non-election years, Washington talks about the Redskins and then national politics.

So this year, the trials and tribulations of the city's professional football team have been the stuff of A1 headlines just as much, if not more, than health-care reform.

The plot line has been poignant, pitting the nice-guy coach Jim Zorn against Daniel Snyder, the all-powerful, in his own mind, billionaire who owns and runs the Redskins.

As you can tell, I don't think much of Snyder, which is understandable since (a) I grew up in Texas cheering for the Dallas Cowboys and (b) I now live in greater Baltimore. However, you also need to know that I now cheer against the Cowboys, in large part because I detest the owner of that franchise even more than I dislike Snyder (and for many of the same reasons). The bottom line: There are owners who think they can buy championships by throwing money at players and coaches, in that order. This rarely seems to work these days, even in the Bronx.

Anyway, the Washington Post has just printed a mega-feature that ran under the headline "The rise and fall of Jim Zorn," which tells you just about everything that you need to know about how Snyder has been roasting Zorn over hot coals for many weeks, just waiting for him to resign and, thus, save the franchise the cost of firing him. Zorn hung in there, earning a lot of NFL respect for his class, even if he was in over his head serving as the head coach of such a rich, powerful, but underachieving, franchise. Snyder drew waves of criticism for, once again, doing that mini-Machiavelli thing that he does. This pivotal passage in the story jumped out at me.

In the months after he was hired, Zorn said, "I think Dan Snyder takes a lot of pride in being fair."

Sunday evening, in the hours before he was fired, Zorn was asked about the fairness of the conditions under which he worked. "You got to understand," he said. "In my world, nothing has to be fair. It's not up to me."

What does any of this have to do with religion coverage? I don't know, but hang on.

The feature begins at the beginning, when Zorn arrived in town as the new offensive coordinator of the Redskins, a move up for him, but one the experts thought was appropriate. But Snyder, you see, was out hiring assistant coaches for a new regime -- even though no one had agreed to be his head coach. You see, it was going to be the owner's coaching staff.

Truth is, Snyder was having trouble finding a man who would serve as his head coach. Thus, he eventually turned to the very inexperienced Zorn. Why?

When Snyder met with the media to introduce Zorn, his optimism matched the level it reached when he hired Marty Schottenheimer in 2001, Steve Spurrier in 2002 and Joe Gibbs in 2004. He said Redskins officials -- including those who had met with Zorn during that first luncheon, minority owner Dwight Schar and Snyder's sister, Michelle -- had discussed, above all else, the character of the candidates.

"We also talked about leadership, great leadership, but it starts with character," Snyder said. "It starts with a person's character, their integrity, their smarts, their drive, their energy, their passion. We ended up with the right guy. We ended with a person that has all of those plus much, much more."

So what does "character" mean? I don't know, but by the end of the story I was wondering why Zorn had handled himself with so much dignity and class throughout this ordeal, while his boss kept adding one cruel twist after another to his life and work.

Then, right at the end, the Post team wove a completely new theme into the story.

We're talking right at the very end, paragraphs away from the close of a 3,000-word report. You need to know that a crucial player in the drama is Steve Largent, a Hall of Fame wide receiver and a former U.S. congressman, a strong political and cultural conservative. During their playing days, Zorn was Largent's quarterback in Seattle. The two men are also devout Christians, another source of their tight bond.

What did Largent think of the Redskins front office floating the option of firing Zorn only six games into his second season, a move that many interpreted as an effort to shame him into resigning? He called that, "the most obscene, ridiculous thing that they could have ever done."

The soap opera continued, building up to the resignation of Vinny Cerrato, a close Snyder friend who had been running the business side of the team. Then there was the team's on-again, off-again commitment to starting quarterback Jason Campbell.

Finally, readers learn this:

Cerrato had helped hire Zorn as the offensive coordinator, had helped elevate him to the head job. But as the relationship deteriorated, Zorn bit his lip. "He really hasn't outbursted about anything," Campbell said late in the year. A devout Christian, Zorn's closest friends believe his faith had the most direct impact on how he responded to situations, both internally and externally.

"I think Jim wrestles with all these things," Largent said. "I don't think it's natural the way he's responded. I think it's super-natural. I think Jim's faith is very much a part of the way he reacts, the way he responds, the way he leads. I think that's why, even in this tumultuous situation, Jim can have a sense of peace about himself, about his future."

DanSnyderRedskinsThen there is this intriguing quote from offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, one of the only assistant coaches Zorn was allowed to hire. In the final weeks, the lame duck head coach held private talks with his closest associates.

"I told him all the reasons why people were telling me not to come here all came true," Smith said prior to the Redskins' final game. "But I still don't' regret it because I thought it was a step of faith."

Zorn suffered on, but he never complained in public or blamed others.

Finally, the story ends like this.

On the Friday before the team departed for San Diego for Zorn's last game, the coach conducted his final practice. He said afterward that he wanted to win "the fifth game," though it would be meaningless, because the Redskins finished last either way. But he also reflected on his approach, the approach that guided him through his tenure in Washington.

"Believe me: I err," Zorn said. "Believe me: I fail. Miserably. But here's what I don't do: I don't look at the season and count our win-loss [record] as: 'Gosh, that's just God's will. Isn't this great? Isn't this lovely?' I have pain in our record. I have pain in failing the fans and failing the Redskin organization in the win-loss record."

I don't know about you, but I have all kinds of questions.

What motivates Snyder? Why does he treat people the way that he does? What sobering information did NFL insiders offer to Sherman Smith -- a frequent speaker at Fellowship of Christian Athletes events -- that made him conclude it would be a "step of faith" to work for Snyder and the Redskins organization? Was Zorn, on several levels, simply a man who could not do business with Snyder? While the owner is Jewish, this has, in the past, had little or nothing to do with his public life or persona. And the previous Redskins head coach, the legendary Joe Gibbs, was also an outspoken Christian who maintained a professional, if somewhat distant, relationship with the owner.

So what role does religion play in this painful, bitter story, if any?

Truth is, I don't know. It does not appear that the Post reporters and editors know either, but you have to wonder if they dared to ask this very loaded question, in light of the content of the article as it was published.

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