The Washington Washington Football Team fired Coach Jim Zorn Monday morning, ending Zorn’s two-year stint that began with his surprising elevation from an obscure quarterbacks coach and finished with a dismissal that seemed inevitable after the Washington Football Team's four-win season.
Zorn, 56, didn’t comment after he returned from his team’s trip to San Diego, where it lost the season finale 23-20 to finish 4-12, the team’s worst record in 15 years. He finished his tenure 12-20, and had one year left on his contract.
“The status quo is not acceptable,” General Manager Bruce Allen said in a statement. “I felt it was necessary to not waste a moment of time to begin building this team into a winner.”
The team will hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m., when Allen will discuss the decision. The Washington Football Team could be preparing to name Zorn’s replacement soon. In December, Washington forced out longtime front office executive Vinny Cerrato and announced the hiring of Allen within two hours, putting in motion the overhaul of the franchise’s infrastructure after a 10-year period that featured just two playoff appearances.
Former Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and the Broncos, has been Zorn’s presumed replacement for weeks. Several NFL sources have said over the past month that they believe Shanahan has long been the choice of Washington Football Team owner Daniel M. Snyder, who now must hire his seventh head coach since he took control of the team in 1999.
Zorn arrived at Washington Football Team Park in his own car at roughly 2:15 a.m., about 15 minute ahead of three team buses. Zorn headed into the office building through a side door, but many players and assistants — including defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive coordinator Greg Blache — went straight to their cars. Players and assistants were not immediately aware of Zorn’s fate, and Blache, as he walked to his car, told media members to “let the dude go.”
At about 2:45 a.m., Washington Football Team's security asked all media to leave the parking lot, a move made, according to one security official, so that Zorn wouldn’t be bothered when he departed. Over the next two hours, players and coaches filtered from the facility.
At 4:30 a.m., running backs coach Stump Mitchell left the building and got into his car. Zorn followed at 4:43 a.m., talking on his cell phone as he drove out of the parking lot.
The Washington Football Team are cleared to make a swift hire. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which oversees the NFL’s Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and top-level front office positions, said last month that current secondary coach Jerry Gray, an African American, has already interviewed for Zorn’s job. The alliance, therefore, believes the Washington Football Team have complied with the rule, and no further interviews would be necessary.
Whether a new coach is named later Monday, later this week or even after the Super Bowl, the firing of Zorn is the first significant move of Allen’s tenure, and the next coach will serve as his signature hire — though Shanahan could hold the title of team president, too, just as Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs did during his second run with the team from 2004-2007.
The move ends the head coaching career of Zorn, who was first hired as the Washington Football Team's offensive coordinator in the weeks after Gibbs retired. Zorn, 12-20, had served as the quarterbacks coach with the Seattle Seahawks, who ran the West Coast offense as devised by then-coach Mike Holmgren, and Cerrato wanted to move the Washington Football Team to a similar system.
The Washington Football Team considered several defensive-minded head coaches, including incumbent defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Steve Spagnuolo, then the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Longtime NFL assistant and head coach Jim Fassel was also strongly considered.
But when Spagnuolo pulled out and the Washington Football Team bypassed Williams — and a pursuit of Fassel received a poor reaction from fans — they surprisingly elevated Zorn. The blueprint for such a move was provided by their NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, who in 1999 hired Andy Reid — like Zorn, then a quarterbacks coach under Holmgren. Reid has coached the Eagles to five NFC championship games in his decade in Philadelphia.
Zorn, a former quarterback with Seattle, had never called plays in the NFL or run a pro offense before taking over the Washington Football Team, but his tenure began in promising fashion. He proved to be a quirky, multi-faceted renaissance man who didn’t hesitate to share his divergent interests — from mountain biking to wood carving to an eclectic taste in music. With Zorn calling the plays and punctuating victories by chanting “Hip, hip, hooray!” in the locker room, the Washington Football Team finished the first half of the 2008 season 6-2, including road wins over division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas.
But the Washington Football Team collapsed over the second half of the season, finishing 8-8 and failing to make the playoffs as Zorn’s offense struggled mightily.
That collapse colored the offseason and scarred Zorn in the early part of the 2009 season. Though quarterback Jason Campbell was in the same offensive system for the second straight year, the Washington Football Team seemed to get worse, not better. When they failed to score a touchdown in a 9-7 victory over hapless St. Louis in Week 2, they were booed off their home field, and the scrutiny on Zorn heightened. It only intensified the next week, when the Washington Football Team were beaten by the Detroit Lions, who had lost 19 games in a row. A narrow victory over Tampa Bay followed, but ensuing losses to Carolina and Kansas City — neither of which had won a game when the Washington Football Team faced them — meant the Washington Football Team had no satisfying results in the first half of the season, and the campaign had an unstable feeling from early on.
That instability turned to league-wide ridicule when Cerrato, frustrated by the team’s poor offensive production, first hired a retired assistant coach, Sherman Lewis, to serve as an “offensive consultant” on Oct. 6; Lewis had been calling “Bingo” games at a retirement center in Michigan in the days before he took the job. Cerrato then handed Lewis the play-calling duties for the offense — duties that had been Zorn’s since his arrival — prior to an Oct. 26 game against Philadelphia. The resulting system, in which Lewis determined whether the Washington Football Team would run or pass and then relayed the call to offensive coordinator Sherman Smith — who would call the specific run play if that’s what Lewis had selected — before Smith then passed the call in to Campbell, became a symbol of a franchise that appeared to be in disarray.
Zorn was clearly uncomfortable with the system, even as the Washington Football Team began to play better offensively despite an array of injuries, including ailments that ended the seasons of Pro Bowlers Chris Samuels, Chris Cooley and Clinton Portis. Still, Zorn never publicly bucked Cerrato’s demands. On Dec. 17, Cerrato, who had pushed for Zorn’s hiring but had grown distant from his head coach, abruptly resigned. He was replaced later the same day by Allen, who would not commit to Zorn during his introductory news conference.
Allen’s impressions of the Washington Football Team under Zorn, though, couldn’t have been good. They were dominated at home on “Monday Night Football” in a 45-12 loss to the New York Giants, a loss in which Zorn elected to twice try a fake field goal while his team trailed 24-0. The resulted in punter Hunter Smith heaving an interception as he was crushed by a New York defender, and nationally, it came to symbolize Zorn’s tenure in Washington. The following week, the Washington Football Team lost 17-0 to Dallas, again on national television.
Zorn is due the roughly $2.4 million left on his contract for 2010. It’s unlikely many members of his coaching staff will return. Snyder had to convince defensive coordinator Greg Blache had to stay on board when Zorn got the head coaching job in 2008. For personal reasons, Blache stopped addressing the media in midseason, but he was furious when star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, signed as a free agent in the offseason, criticized his system late in the season. Blache will likely retire.
Smith, the offensive coordinator, is closely linked to Zorn. The two were teammates in Seattle in the 1970s, and Zorn convinced Smith to leave a relatively secure job as the Tennessee Titans running backs coach to come to Washington. Offensive line coach Joe Bugel, 69, is expected to retire. Running backs coach Stump Mitchell is in line to become the next head coach at Southern University. It’s unclear what impact Gray’s interview for Zorn’s job — while Zorn still held the position — will have on his future with the Washington Football Team.
Shanahan, too, would likely bring his own staff. His son, Kyle, is the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, where he works under former Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak.