Exit Stage Left, With Grace

In William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, the character Jacques utters these famous words:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

What Jacques doesn’t tell us is who’s directing the play or who’s in the audience. As Christians, we believe that God is the Director and the Audience, and we perform for Him.

We’re not trying to win His favor with our performances – by repenting and accepting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as payment for our sins, and making Him the Lord of our lives, we’ve already got the part. We’re performing for two reasons – to show our gratitude to Him for His gift of salvation by being fully obedient to Him, and to show others the way to Him.

That leads me to – the National Football League. Huh? Hang on – you’ll see my point.

In life, it is easy for our performances to earn plaudits when the play is light-hearted and everything goes well; we’re all capable of our best when we’re happy and there’s no trouble in our lives.

When the play is dark, however, nothing works out as we planned and the victories are hard to come by, the performances are a struggle, and how we conduct ourselves during the hard times is what speaks to the Audience of One.

While we are all players on the world stage, there are a select few of us who are given the opportunity to perform in the main hall, where our every word and action are visible to millions, even billions of people. Jim Zorn, recently fired as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, was given such an opportunity and, while the world declares his performance a failure, I’m convinced God deemed it a success – and so did those who were playing close attention and watching the man, not the circumstances that swirled around him.

As with many such opportunities, this one came out of nowhere. Jim Zorn had been in the main hall briefly as the first quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks when they were established in 1976. He put together a nice career, winning NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first season, and he put his favorite receiving target, Steve Largent, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Zorn played as a backup in his final season with the Seahawks and with several other NFL teams and one CFL team before hanging up the cleats for good. He was the second player inducted into the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor, right after Largent.

He began coaching in 1988, first in the college ranks and eventually in the pros. He developed a reputation as a first-class tutor of quarterbacks, helping Detroit Lions signal-caller Charlie Batch achieve the fourth-highest quarterback efficiency rating in NFL history for a rookie. He was instrumental in developing Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck into a Pro-Bowl player who broke several team passing records, many of them Zorn’s.

It was this reputation and the recommendation of several other NFL coaches and front-office personnel that landed him the job of offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2008. The Redskins had not yet found a head coach to replacing retiring coaching legend Joe Gibbs, who had just completed his second stint in that job. After several false starts, rejections and negative fan reaction to some potential candidates, the Redskins surprised the fans and Jim Zorn by offering him the head coaching position.

At first, the play was progressing along smoothly. Zorn compiled a 6-2 record and beat the hated Dallas Cowboys in the process, the first time a first-year Redskins coach had beaten Dallas in their house since the late George Allen in 1971. He also beat the Philadelphia Eagles, who eventually went to the NFC Championship Game, twice. There was early talk of Coach of the Year honors for Zorn and, although they stumbled at the end to finish 8-8, his offensive scheme and the team’s execution of it sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl.

Fans reminded themselves that the revered Joe Gibbs, he of the three Super Bowl victories, had finished 8-8 in his inaugural season with the team in 1981, and there was hope that the ever confident and optimistic Zorn, with his quirky quarterback development drills and the “medium” disposition, would figure out the missing pieces and bring more victories to Washington, D.C.

The 2009 season was a nightmare, however, and Zorn took the brunt of the criticism for the Redskins’ collapse. An unimpressive 9-7 home victory over the pathetic St. Louis Rams led to the home crowd booing after a win, and that was the turning point in a season that saw the Redskins finish with a 4-12 record. They lost to the Detroit Lions, who hadn’t won in 19 games, and were swept by every team in their division for the first time since 1994. Jason Campbell had his best year statistically despite a patchwork offensive line that nearly got him killed during the season, but Zorn didn’t even get credit for that.

He had his play-calling duties stripped from him in mid-season and was replaced by a retired NFL assistant coach who was leaving his home to call bingo at the local seniors center when the Redskins recruited him. Zorn was lambasted on the team bus in front of the coaching staff and team personnel by then-executive vice-president of football operations, Vinny Cerrato, after a close loss in Philadelphia.

When Cerrato himself lost his job, he took a final shot at Zorn, the man he picked to be head coach, by excluding him from a list of football people in the organization he admired. He even mentioned the former assistant coach and new play-caller who’d only been with the team for a few weeks.

Throughout all the mistreatment and indignities heaped upon him, however, Jim Zorn gave his finest performance. In press conference after press conference, he refused to take the bait and criticize the owner, his staff or anyone else for his troubles. He took full responsibility for the team’s failures, even though much of it was not his fault, and while the fans wanted him gone as the head coach, they saw the grace with which he handled himself, and they made note of it.

He was fired early Monday morning, as almost everyone expected, and was quickly hustled away from Redskins Park to his car by security personnel, a far cry from the hoopla of his introduction as the head coach, with the three Super Bowl trophies displayed in front of him. The Redskins wanted to avoid a scene like the one that occurred in Tampa in 2002, when Tony Dungy, the respected and loved coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was fired and captured by local TV cameras packing his boxes into his SUV as it rained.

When Zorn was finally reached for comment, his grace was still on display:

My experience was just incredible…It was tremendous. Too short for me, but tremendous. Learned a lot. I think I accomplished some things, but we accomplished a lot less than what was necessary, less than what was expected, so that's why I'm on the road.

…I think I'm a better coach today because of the experiences that I've had. That's the positive that comes out of something like this. I'm further along now in experience as a head football coach. I hope I get another opportunity.

His former favorite receiving target and best friend, Steve Largent, marveled at Zorn’s ability to see this experience in a positive light:

I would say Jim's strength, it's not forgive and forget. It's totally forgive, and learn from the mistakes you've made. I think that's Jim's basic attitude about life. But at the same time, Jim also has an incredible capacity to say, “Okay, that was last week or that was last year. What do we do this year to get better?”

…I'm surprised only in the fact that I keep seeing how many times Jim does things that I wouldn't have done. His maturity level is much higher than my own.

…I think Jim wrestles with all these things. I don't think it's natural the way he's responded. I think it's super-natural. I think Jim's faith is very much a part of the way he reacts, the way he responds, the way he leads. I think that's why, even in this tumultuous situation, Jim can have a sense of peace about himself, about his future, about the job he's doing.

I am forever a Jim Zorn fan; his performance as a Christian is worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. I hope he finds himself in a position of great visibility and responsibility sometime in the future, and that God rewards him with earthly success. After all, Tony Dungy’s firing eventually led him to six straight playoff seasons as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, including a Super Bowl victory that enshrined him in the annals of pro football as the first black head coach to win the big prize.

Like Zorn, Dungy is a devout Christian who rewrote the coach’s book of style with his calm demeanor and teacher’s disposition. He put faith and family first, and stepped down on his terms, while still in his prime,  to minister to troubled young men in prisons or in dire circumstances. He has been a hero of mine for a long time.

I doubt that Jim Zorn will ever read this, but I would like to say to him, “You did us proud – thank you!” As he exits stage left with his integrity intact, I wish him Godspeed and tailwinds to guide him to his next destination.