Mirror, mirror

In their first season as NFL head coaches, the Redskins' Jim Zorn and the Ravens' John Harbaugh have taken parallel paths, each hoping his route leads to the playoffs

December 03, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Jim Zorn and John Harbaugh had a lot in common early in their rookie seasons as NFL head coaches in Washington and Baltimore.

Both were somewhat surprising choices to lead the respective franchises. Neither had been an offensive or defensive coordinator in the NFL, although Zorn was originally hired by the Redskins to be their offensive coordinator.

Both came to veteran teams set in their ways and had to change the culture that existed under predecessors Joe Gibbs and Brian Billick.

Both had young quarterbacks learning new offenses.

Going into Sunday night's game at M&T Bank Stadium, the teams are fighting for playoff spots. The Redskins are 7-5 and trail the New York Giants (11-1) in the NFC East but are in decent shape for a wild-card berth. A win over the Ravens would go a long way toward shoring up their playoff position.

The Ravens are 8-4, a game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North but tied with the Indianapolis Colts for the wild-card lead. The Ravens have won six of their past seven games.

The Redskins are struggling after a strong 4-1 start. Sunday's 23-7 loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants at FedEx Field was the team's third in its past four games, with all the defeats coming at home.

"I think it's showing us that we haven't reached that elite status," Zorn said at his weekly news conference Monday. "It doesn't mean we're not good; it just means we are one of the teams that didn't separate [from the rest]. We're battling. We haven't lost heart, and we haven't lost hope of putting a good game together."

What the Redskins have lost is any semblance of an offense.

Having the NFL's second-leading rusher in Clinton Portis and the sixth-best defense hasn't been enough to overcome an offense that has scored just five touchdowns in the past five games. The Redskins are 28th in points scored (17.3 a game).

"A lot of it has to do with big plays. We really haven't had any big plays to put more points on the board or to keep the crowd pumped," Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell said Sunday. "We haven't had the big plays that can just separate a game."

It has turned the team's 6-2 start into a memory and made Zorn a target for Redskins fans as frustrated with the 55-year-old rookie coach as they were for most of Hall of Famer Gibbs' second stint in Washington.

Asked what the problem has been with the offense, Portis said, "If we could figure that out, we would have more points."

Much of the blame has been directed at the West Coast offense Zorn brought with him from his days as the quarterbacks coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Except for a couple of games early in the season, it appears to be a bad fit for Campbell, who has a big arm but has made mistakes under pressure.

After not committing a turnover in the first seven games and not being intercepted in the first eight while throwing eight touchdown passes, Campbell has thrown four interceptions and has just two scoring passes in the past four games. He has been sacked 16 times during that stretch.

"He had a couple of mental errors early in the game, and those mental errors cost a play," Zorn said Sunday. "When he costs a play on a mental error, he takes it to heart. It bothers him, and what I've got to do is get him to move on to the next play."

Zorn is not ready to bench the fourth-year quarterback, but he said he is considering scaling back the offense when it meets the league's second-best defense Sunday.

"Each week, as we try to grow in our game plan, I'm always torn between that fine line of pushing the envelope a little bit, or should we back off and not work so much on the things that I'd like to do, but work on those things that we have to do." Zorn said Monday.

"I continue to try to push us to say: 'Well, we can do this. Well, we can do that.' But it's obvious, I think, in these last several games, we can't do it all. So we might have to take a step back before we can take another forward."

Former Redskin Brian Mitchell, who does radio and television commentary in the Washington area, said the team's early success camouflaged the same problems it is having now.

"They were winning while they were learning, but they were playing against some teams that weren't capitalizing on all the mistakes they [the Redskins] were making," Mitchell said. "When you're winning and people try to correct it, it's hard for you think you're doing something wrong."

Mitchell also said it's a matter of teams figuring out Zorn's game plan.

"He was able to catch people off guard," Mitchell said. "There's a four-week turnaround in the NFL when your stuff starts going around. Teams started to react better against him. In the NFL, you always see someone come in and do something great, but people catch up. It's how you adjust to it. It's a chess match, and he hasn't been winning the chess match of late."

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