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For Zorn, Play Calling Remains a Balancing Act


Brilliant when it works. Predictable when it doesn't.

That's the simple take on play calling in the NFL. There's a bit more to it, though. It's not just about the concepts invoked. It's about getting all the moving parts to handle their roles in this brutal ballet.

Call it what it is -- execution. Yeah, execution. The hoary old cliché. As in, "The play was there for us. We just didn't execute." Or go back to John McKay's great deadpan when asked about his winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1970s. Reporters asked about his team's execution and McKay replied: "I'm all for it."

The greatest play calls fail if players line up improperly, run the wrong routes, miss their blocks. A well-made decision by the coach to spring a play designed exactly for this defensive look, for this place on the field and for this time in the game, folds up on itself without the 11 moving parts handling their responsibilities.

We're not here to god up Jim Zorn and excoriate the players for breakdowns and boo-boos in the 23-17 to the New York Giants. There's blame enough to go around.

How much do we hang it on the coaches when the players screw up? How much do we nail the players for not making plays work, even if they don't agree with the calls? Why can't people with four preseason games and about 50 practices behind them handle their business?

Offensive players wondered why the Redskins didn't attack a denuded Giants secondary more in the vulnerable areas underneath. Three healthy cornerbacks? Hey, spread 'em out and pick away.

Fans wanted to know why the Redskins did not throw the ball down the field. Some coaches wanted more runs.

None of this is abnormal. Everybody knows why things went wrong. They always do -- after the fact.

The question for Zorn in this corner was more about philosophy in the second half of the opening-day loss to the Giants. Until their final drive, which produced their only offensive touchdown, the Redskins would see eight first-down calls in the final two quarters. They ran on seven of them. Their gross yardage on those seven mad dashes: four yards.

Sequentially, the runs went this way: 2, 1, 1, 3, 3, -6, 0. That doesn't leave the play-caller with the options he'd like on second down. Or third down.

So why the emphasis on the run on first down, with so little success to justify it?

"I didn't want to go away from the run," Zorn said. "Our problem was we only got one yard on a lot of the runs. I think you'd be really excited if we got seven or eight yards a pop and started grinding it out. But we only got one yard."

Really excited? Hey, dinner's on me. The caveat -- the Redskins get seven or eight yards a pop. With some regularity. We'll go to the finest steakhouse. Bring your pop. And mom as well. We'll party like it's $19.99 for surf and turf.

No question Zorn wanted to keep the Giants' pass rush under control by making the linemen honor the run. There's also the concurrent idea of honoring Clinton Portis, who likes and needs his touches. So Zorn stayed with the run.

"It was something I have to do because we're going to be a really good run team and yet we had some softness at the point of attack. Some guys were really blocking well. We were playing a really good defense but we can block those guys," Zorn said. "I would have liked to have gotten more than to go into the next play at second and eight or second and nine."

The Redskins maintained balance. They had run the ball 19 times and thrown it 19 going into that last drive, which lasted seven plays, all of them sent in as passes, though Campbell scrambled out of danger beautifully on one of them. But Zorn didn't really call a lot of runs in the grand scheme of things.


Deduct Cambell's scamper, Hunter Smith's 8-yard sprint for a touchdown on a fake field goal and a play on which Campbell checked to a run that got buried. Zorn called 18 runs in total.

Three of those, remember, were down in the shadow of the Redskins' goal posts in the second quarter after the defense stopped the Giants on fourth and three from the three. To that point the Redskins had run four plays, just one of them a pass.

"I got hurt in the first quarter being on (our) 3-yard line. I didn't want Jason throwing at that particular time in the game from the end zone. He would have had to drop into the end zone. So I ran the ball three times there. We were looking for a first down," Zorn said.

He didn't get it. Smith's 38-yard punt put the Giants at the Redskins' 38-yard line and Eli Manning's 30-yard scoring pass to Mario Manningham, who eluded three tacklers, gave the home side a 10-0 lead.

Campbell hadn't done much, in this typist's warped view, to inspire rampant confidence in dialing up pass plays. Sure, he finished the game with respectable numbers and a passer rating of 93.6, fractionally higher than Manning's.

But that's misleading and blown up by the final drive, on which he completed five of six for 56 yards and a touchdown.

To that point, he had been sacked twice, lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, thrown an interception and had a passer rating of 71.9, built on 14 of 20 passing for 155 yards. The scoring drive put some helium in a flaccid balloon.

If Zorn wants to establish the run -- and it did not get established in preseason nor against the Giants -- maybe the St. Louis Rams are the appropriate target. They yielded 167 rushing yards to the Seattle Seahawks and complemented that leaky effort by allowing 279 passing yards, sacking Matt Hasselbeck not once, though the Seahags were missing two starting offensive linemen.

The Redskins gained 85 rushing yards against the Giants but Clinton Portis got 34 on the first play and Campbell 16 on his late scramble. Other than that: 19 carries for 35 yards. Not quite two yards a yard carry. No good unless the NFL starts allowing a fifth and possibly sixth down.

Sometimes play calling and execution find the perfect place to meet and settle their differences. That needs to be FedExField on Sunday, where the Rams turn into sacrificial lambs, offered as tribute to the lord of the ground game.

Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. Go to for the Redskins Blitz column and NFL Blitz on Friday. Larry also appears on The Jim Zorn Show on WRC-TV on Saturday night, on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his blog at and follow him on

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