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Originally published Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jim Zorn says his preparation makes him ready to coach Redskins

The opportunity came out of nowhere, but not the ambition. Jim Zorn's aspirations were evident before he was named head coach for one of...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The opportunity came out of nowhere, but not the ambition.

Jim Zorn's aspirations were evident before he was named head coach for one of the NFL's richest franchises. Before Washington hired him to be its offensive coordinator and before the franchise promoted him a couple of weeks later without Zorn so much as calling a single play.

This was back when Zorn was with Seattle, the quarterbacks coach on a team where the offensive coordinator doesn't even call the plays. He was on the computer one night at his Mercer Island home, doing the kind of thing ambitious assistants do, typing up an outline of a practice program. His wife, Joy, peeked in to see what he was doing and noticed something at the top of the page: head coach. Not offensive coordinator, which would have been the next professional step for a quarterbacks coach. So she asked her husband just why he hopped over a couple of rungs on the NFL career ladder.

"Well, if I don't prepare and then I get the opportunity, I'll fail," Zorn said.

The chance arrived so unexpectedly. The man who had coached quarterbacks the past 10 years in the NFL is now in charge of one of the league's flagship franchises and working for an owner who is on his fifth head coach since taking over the team in 1999.

Zorn was a fixture in Seattle. He was the first starting quarterback in the franchise's history and he spent nine of his 11 NFL seasons playing for the Seahawks. Zorn's coaching career began in college, going from Boise State to Utah State to Minnesota before coming to the NFL. This is his 12th season on an NFL staff. Eight of those seasons were spent in Seattle, and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren did his best to keep adding to that total.

"I did not want him to leave," Holmgren said. "I told him that I think Seattle is his place. I always thought he should be here, working here, being a part of this city."

And when Washington came calling, Holmgren urged his assistant to stay.

"I tried to talk him out of it," Holmgren said. "But I didn't have any bullets in the gun. I couldn't match anything or do anything."

That's no longer Holmgren's department. He already announced 2008 would be his final season. The Seahawks named Jim Mora his successor in early February and in the time between those two landmark decisions for this franchise's future, the Seahawks offered Zorn no assurances of a promotion after Washington came looking for an offensive coordinator.

Washington owner Dan Snyder even called Holmgren for a reference, and the two ended up talking about Zorn and then veering into a discussion of Washington's other head-coaching candidates. Washington brought Mora out for an interview, talked with former Giants coach Jim Fassel and waited until after the Super Bowl to interview the Giants' current defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo.

When Spagnuolo withdrew from consideration, Washington doubled back and named Zorn its head coach. Eyebrows across the country raised in surprise. Zorn, a head coach? Really? This was a franchise that fired Marty Schottenheimer. The place where Steve Spurrier lasted two years and now here comes Zorn, designated to follow the second coming of Joe Gibbs.

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And Zorn knows there's a little bit of skepticism, but he has got some faith, too.

"I know I'm more prepared than people think I am," he said.

After he was hired, he returned to his Mercer Island home for a week or so in late June. Like any husband on vacation, he had a list of things to do around the house. He fixed the spigots outside, repaired a couple of sprinkler heads and worked on a frame for a mirror.

"Just tinkering around," he said in a phone interview.

The heavy lifting began this month at Washington's training camp. Defensive end Phillip Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury the first day and no sooner had that happened than the team acquired Jason Taylor, the league's defensive player of the year in 2006.

Welcome to life in the NFL's fast lane with a free-spending owner and big-budget expectations.

Not like Zorn is some bumpkin. He coached quarterbacks under Holmgren, as demanding a job as there is in the NFL.

"You have to have an iron jock," Holmgren joked.

It's the position Andy Reid and Steve Mariucci each held in Green Bay under Holmgren before becoming head coaches.

In Seattle, Zorn was the quarterbacks coach with the wacky drills. The guy who taught his quarterbacks how to hit the deck by bringing out a Slip-n-Slide and improved the trajectory of Matt Hasselbeck's deep passes by having him arc passes down the field into 10-gallon garbage cans. He taught his quarterbacks to avoid contact in the pocket with a super-sized game of dodge ball, having one quarterback duck, dodge or otherwise evade the oh-so-big inflatable exercise balls being thrown at him.

"Even though the drills may seem unorthodox and maybe even silly at times, there is a method to his madness," Hasselbeck said. "You do improve as a quarterback doing stuff like that."

Zorn is cut from a different cloth than most coaches. When the Seahawks trained in Cheney, Zorn pedaled a mountain bike around campus. The other coaches drove golf carts.

But there's not going to be any New Age healing crystals in the training room and no one's going to be singing "Kumbaya" on the sideline. This is football, and Zorn has the blessing of one of the league leaders in fire and brimstone.

"I wish him well," Holmgren said of his former assistant. "Now we play them this year, and he knows other than that game, I'm pulling for them."

Holmgren was in Hawaii vacationing with his wife when he got a message from Snyder marked urgent.

"I'm on vacation so I didn't phone him back," Holmgren said.

The headline that greeted him the next morning was that Zorn was Washington's new coach. So Holmgren called up his old assistant and ended up on the phone with Snyder.

"Did I do the right thing?" Snyder asked Holmgren.

"Well, it's a little late," Holmgren jokingly said. "You absolutely did the right thing. Now help him as an owner. Help him. Do everything you can to help him because you've got a good man."

A man who had been preparing for this chance for years in Seattle only to have it arise so unexpectedly in Washington.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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