ASHBURN—The mood is lighter at Redskins Park.
The nervous reign of Joe Gibbs is over, with the worrywart legend replaced by a rookie coach who is upbeat, approachable and refreshingly candid. Jim Zorn isn't sitting on a Hall of Fame pedestal — he's constructing a new Washington Redskins frame of mind.
"Coach Gibbs was an intense individual," center Casey Rabach said. "He wanted everything perfect, always so focused on the goal. Not saying that Coach Z isn't as competitive or intense, but he's got a different way of going about it. He can make a joke, he can keep it a little bit light, and people aren't on pins and needles around him."
Zorn is confident, not cocky. He's eager, but not nervous. He's fun, but he has his rules. He plays to win, instead of playing not to lose. He'll publicly needle a player who has messed up — because he thinks it's unfair to say one thing before the cameras and something else behind closed doors. He's been scrutinized to the hilt for any sign that he might be overwhelmed, but so far he has shown himself to be extremely well-prepared.
No one wants to bash a departed icon, but, as receiver James Thrash put it: "Change is good at times." Even those who were close to Gibbs admit that Zorn's optimism is wonderfully infectious.
"You're not going to rattle him," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "He's not going to get too excited. He's not going to get too down. He just zips along. Consequently the players respond that way. They start to emulate the head coach. He's an exceptional leader.
"He's done a great job with this team attitude-wise. I think the guys are responding. I think the guys are enjoying it. They're having fun at practice. He generates a great optimism."
Hopeful hyperbole? Maybe a little, but there's no doubt that everyone in the building is more relaxed — players, coaches, staff and even the media. Zorn — gasp! — actually tells his players the practice schedule in advance, whereas Gibbs felt there was something to be gained by keeping everyone guessing. Zorn even suggested that reporters do the wave to relieve boredom during the tedious bits of practice, a distraction that would have driven Gibbs up the wall.
"Not that he's over-relaxed, but he's not uptight," Thrash said of the new coach. "And there's that confidence that you're going to see."
There's a feeling that Zorn's attitude adjustment could be worth a victory or two this year. If so, the Redskins gladly will take it. In the competitive NFC East, they'll need all the help they can get.
That's because no amount of bonus points for optimism can hide the fact that Zorn is a novice head coach who had never been so much as a coordinator in the NFL before the Redskins hired him. He will be calling plays for the first time. The former Seattle quarterback also has to learn to command a sideline and pay attention to defense. There will be losing streaks that test his coaching mettle. That extra win or two chalked up to positive intangibles could be negated by a loss or two resulting from inexperience.
Then there are more practical matters. Zorn needs young quarterback Jason Campbell to master the West Coast offense in a hurry. He needs Antwaan Randle El to become a bona fide No. 2 receiver and someone — anyone — to step up as a solid No. 3. He needs new acquisition Jason Taylor to have another 10-sack season, scooting around linemen with his moves beyond anything seen on "Dancing With the Stars."
Oddly enough, one of the Redskins' top assets will be continuity. Yes, last year's top three coaches — Gibbs and lead assistants Al Saunders and Gregg Williams — are gone. But 21 of the 22 starters were on the team last year. Blache, promoted when Williams was dismissed, is running a more player-friendly version of his former boss' defense.
Zorn even kept the running-game portion of Gibbs' playbook intact, overhauling only the passing attack. The offense should be more prolific because the Gibbs-Saunders tension about play-calling is over, with Zorn now undisputedly in charge — and relishing the task with a can-do attitude that applies to everything he does.
"The thing I try to impart to them is my encouragement to get better, my enthusiasm to get better, and then that I am very competitive," Zorn said. "I want that to come through, but I don't think it necessarily comes through with me jumping up and down acting like a big baby if something doesn't work."
Thursday's gameWHAT: Washington Redskins (0-0) at N.Y. Giants (0-0).
WHEN: 7 p.m.
TV: NBC 10 12.
On Page D5 Jaguars tackle Richard Collier faces life-threatening injuries after being shot.
Dailypress.comKeep up with the season at Redskins Central online at dailypress.com/
redskinscentral. Also online is our 2008 NFL preview at dailypress.com/nflpreview08