ASHBURN, Va. - Saying he feels "like the worst coach in America," Jim Zorn began a 2-day self-evaluation yesterday into the meltdown that has plummeted his Washington Redskins out of the playoff race and prompted questions about his future.
Looking worn out and at least 10 years older than he did at training camp, Zorn had sweat on his brow at his weekly news conference. He reversed course from his seasonlong theme that his schemes were solid but the players' execution was lacking.
Instead, after the Redskins' fifth loss in six games - a truly embarrassing, 20-13 defeat at lowly Cincinnati on Sunday - Zorn seemed to channel predecessor Joe Gibbs when he uttered the Hall of Fame coach's overworn phrase: "It starts with me."
"I need to check my plan of attack," the first-year coach said. "And all of our staff, we need to re-evaluate what we're doing to see if we're going in the right direction. I really believe we're building a good foundation, but certainly when these things get strung across the board I certainly have to take - and do take - the responsibility for some of these games that just are not turning out like we have planned."
Zorn gave his players the day off so that he could take yesterday and today to examine, as he put it, "all of the above." The easy-to-like coach's ebullient optimism - a natural fit when the team was 6-2 - is undergoing quite a test now that the record is 7-7.
The Redskins host the Eagles on Sunday.
"Where do I need to improve?" Zorn asked. "Not only on Sunday, but on Wednesday, on Monday, all the days, all the game-planning, all the paying attention to detail. I need to make good use of this time and I will - because it hurts. I just feel like the worst coach in America, to have to lose the way we're losing . . . I feel sick to my stomach even thinking about having to go and do this kind of evaluation."
Around Halloween, Zorn was being touted as a possible NFL coach of the year. Now, given owner Dan Snyder's heavy turnover rate with coaches, there's open doubt as to whether Zorn will make it to New Year's.
For his part, Zorn spoke positively of his conversations with Snyder and front office chief Vinny Cerrato.
"I feel we have tremendous support from both those guys, I really do," Zorn said. "They are very passionate about this football team and want the best for it. I can say that emphatically. I can tell you that honestly."
While there's plenty for Zorn to examine, he is in part a victim of his own early success. The Redskins are where most people predicted they would be - around .500, in last place in the tough NFC East. But blowing a 6-2 start creates an undeniable sense of a wasted opportunity to have a special season.
It all seemed to go wrong against a 1-11-1 team on Sunday, when, as linebacker London Fletcher put it, "The energy was terrible to start the game." Reliable tight end Chris Cooley fumbled. The Redskins fell behind 17-0. The defense again couldn't get pressure on the quarterback.
Santana Moss, a veteran who should know better, had the audacity to make a spectacle of scoring a touchdown, drawing a 15-yard penalty. With the ball at the 1-yard-line, Zorn decided to give the ball on back-to-back plays not to Clinton Portis but to fullback Mike Sellers, who fumbled the second time. Cornerback Carlos Rogers was surprised to learn shortly before kickoff that he wasn't starting, a sign of lack of communication between coaching staff and player. *