Picture This: Zorn Has Redskins in Playoff Hunt

Coach's energy and optimism welcome in locker room

When the Washington Redskins win, coach Jim Zorn commissions a large photographic montage to commemorate the event. It is 111 inches long and 51 inches high, and it hangs on the wall to the right of the swinging door that marks the entrance to the locker room.

The montage, an idea Zorn brought with him from the Seattle Seahawks, features the score of the game and many colorful, expressive highlights captured by a team photographer. Further along the wall are three more photographs, one each of the team's choice for offensive, defensive and special teams player of the game.

"It kind of shows us a storyboard of our wins," Zorn said. "We only do it for wins. I think it's a good motivator."

Through nine weeks, the coach has already ordered six montages. Few would have expected the photographer to be that busy.

What a waste of a honeymoon, huh? Zorn was supposed to need a long grace period, given that he had never been so much as a coordinator in the NFL before he was hired by owner Dan Snyder in February. The first-year coach would take his blows, sitting at the bottom of the toughest division in the league, while slowly molding the Redskins into his vision for a team.

Not only are the Redskins poised for a playoff run at 6-3, but Zorn has emerged as one of the feel-good stories of the year. His affable nature and go-get-'em optimism are almost impossible to dislike. He's a welcome relief from the stern-looking, say-nothing, round-the-clock coaching style so prevalent in the NFL. He's always bouncing with enthusiasm. He always has a story to tell. He's on his way home by 10 o'clock every night, with no use whatsoever for the makeshift office bed used by his predecessor, Joe Gibbs.

And the players have bought into it, helping the Redskins make for a disadvantage in a division in which the other three teams began the year with established coaches, quarterbacks and schemes.

"With all of the factors involved, it's very exciting to be where we're sitting," Zorn said, "because we had to come a long way.

"We had to improve in a lot of areas and keep a better pace than maybe others have had to -- other teams that have played together for a long time with the same coach, the same group. I think it just shows how hard the coaching staff has worked, how hard the players have worked. The added element is how well the players have been willing to just believe in what we've doing, trust in what we're doing."

But even Zorn, as well as prepared as he was, has been thrown for a loop by his team's path to success. He couldn't have imagined that he would spend months installing the pass-first West Coast offense, only to have it produce the league's leading rusher (Clinton Portis with 995 yards). His attack was supposed to get a jolt from three pass-catchers taken in the second round of the draft, but those presents from the front office have been more headache than help, with a combined total of 10 catches for 75 yards.

Jason Campbell waited until the ninth game of the season to throw his first interception, something even Zorn admits was a bit of a fluke. The defense has only nine takeaways, but the offense has just eight giveaways. The defense is ranked in the top 10 despite minimal contributions from end Jason Taylor and cornerback Shawn Springs.

Zorn is giving his players a five-day vacation during the bye, and the coach also took some time off himself to explore some local mountain biking trails for the first time. First, however, he huddled with his assistants on Tuesday to perform an inquest on the first nine games, including the sobering 23-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the night before.

"We talked a lot about all the little areas," Zorn said. "We talked about our schemes, we talked about where we started and where we've come to. 'Are we on the right track with playing defense the way we play defense? Where our pitfalls are, where we've been surprised that we've done so well.' And then we talked about our tendencies, what we need to stay at, what we need to change, where we need to head."

Whatever changes are made won't be known until the players return on Monday to begin preparing for next week's showdown with the rival Dallas Cowboys. And, yes, it's the Redskins who will go into that game with the better record.

"I guess we've been better than expected," guard Pete Kendall said. "But now I think we've raised the expectations to the point that performances like (Monday) night have been a little bit disappointing from the outside. But we're still 6-3, which is a pretty good record in this league. It's not a great record. It's not a perfect record, but it's better than average."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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