Redskins

Shanahan, Zorn Eras Not All That Different

by David Elfin
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Redskins head coaches Mike Shanahan and Jim Zorn. (credit: Justin K. Aller/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Redskins head coaches Mike Shanahan and Jim Zorn. (credit: Justin K. Aller/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Five years can be an eternity in sports.

Consider that five years ago, the last summer before this one in which the Redskins were coming off a playoff season, Jim Zorn was their rookie head coach and a freshman quarterback from Copperas Cove, Tex. named Robert Griffin III had yet to play a down for Baylor.

Washington’s 2008 offense featured quarterback Jason Campbell, running back Clinton Portis, fullback Mike Sellers, tight end Chris Cooley, receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El. Tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, guards Pete Kendall and Randy Thomas and center Casey Rabach formed the line.

Moss remains a Redskin, but is a backup at 34. Campbell is a reserve in Cleveland. The rest are out of the NFL.

The story isn’t much different for the 2008 defense for which Demetric Evans and Andre Carter were the ends with Cornelius Griffin and Kedric Golston manning the tackles. Marcus Washington, London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh were the linebackers. Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Fred Smoot and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton formed the secondary.

The seemingly ageless Fletcher remains a Redskins starter at 38. Golston is a backup. McIntosh (St. Louis), Rogers (San Francisco) and Landry (New York Jets) were starters elsewhere in 2012. McIntosh is currently unsigned, but Carter is with Oakland.

That’s 15 of 22 regulars who won’t be going to a training camp next week and only three – Fletcher, Rogers and Landry – who are expected to be NFL starters this season.

Aside from Fletcher, Moss and Golston, only three other players who convened for Zorn’s first training camp in command remain in Washington. Tight end Fred Davis (second round) and outside linebacker Rob Jackson (seventh) were rookies while third-year safety Reed Doughty had replaced the injured and subsequently slain Sean Taylor in November 2007. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall and center Will Montgomery arrived during the 2008 season.

Life at Redskins Park was also more loosey-goosey five years ago despite Dan Snyder’s ever-tense ownership style and the pall cast by Taylor’s stunning death at 24. Zorn was honest to a fault, earnest in employing creative practice tools such as a slip and slide and large spheres that resembled medicine balls, and amazingly friendly and down to earth in a league full of tight-lipped, paranoid head coaches.

Zorn’s successor, unsmiling disciplinarian Mike Shanahan, arrived in 2010 from Denver with a pedigree highlighted by two Super Bowl victories, achieved back to back a dozen years earlier with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and NFL MVP Terrell Davis at running back. However, Shanahan actually posted a worse record (11-21) in his first two seasons in Washington than the 12-20 mark that got the coach of a thousand faces fired.

But now, as the Redskins prepare to open camp next Thursday in the wake of last year’s Griffin-led NFC East-winning season, Shanahan’s struggles in 2010 and 2011 seem like a hazy memory.

And yet, the apparent chasm between the lighthearted Zorn era and the militaristic Shanahan regime might not be quite as gaping at it seems.

Consider the bottom line which is all that ultimately matters in the NFL. When Zorn had a healthy Portis as a counterpoint to Campbell through Week 6 of 2009, the Redskins were 10-12. When Shanahan had Alfred Morris, who broke Portis’ franchise rushing record as a rookie last year, as a counterpoint to a healthy Griffin for all but the Atlanta, Baltimore and Cleveland games, the Redskins were 8-5. A 10-12 record is mediocre. An 8-5 mark is one victory turned defeat from the same.

And consider that Zorn (3-9 vs. the NFC East, 10-12 in games decided by one score) and Shanahan (4-8, 9-12 in 2010-11) were just about as unsuccessful in the games that mattered the most and/or were the tightest until Griffin (5-1, 6-5) arrived in Washington.

It’s the rare talent and the special magic of the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner that has restored Shanahan’s reputation, turned around the Redskins and made the proven coach’s ugly first two years in Washington as forgotten as Zorn’s now largely unremembered tenure.

Zorn, 60, is out of football this summer for the first time since he was a little kid in Southern California, having lost jobs with Baltimore and Kansas City (the latter in a staff purge) since being fired by Washington.

Meanwhile, Shanahan, who’s just nine months older than Zorn, is on the verge of cracking the NFL’s top 10 in career victories. Six of the nine retired coaches ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, a spot where he’ll likely ensure his place if he can win a third Super Bowl with the Redskins.

It’s a thin line between being out of work and headed for glory in today’s parity-driven NFL.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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