Building on Zampese’s Legacy
In his heyday as the senior analyst for Sports Illustrated, Paul Zimmerman took offense when Bill Walsh’s 49ers grabbed the moniker “west coast offense.” Dr. Z had started his career as a writer for the AFL, covering the New York Jets. A former player and Xs and Os geek, he wrote several pieces claiming that Sid Gillman’s Rams of the late ’50s and his Chargers of the early ’60 were the original west coast teams . He drew the line to Don Coryell’s San Diego Chargers, as the modern day practitioners of the WCO.
It’s fitting that the first Paul Zimmerman Awards, given by the Pro Football Writers Association to the best assistant coaches in the game should name one of Coryell’s guys as a recipient. (Zimmerman had long advocated in vain for assistants to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.) Ernie Zampese, the formers Chargers and Rams assistant, the the Cowboys offensive coordinator for the last of the Cowboys’ ’90s Super Bowls, joined Fritz Shurmur, Howard Mudd and Jim Johnson in the inaugural Dr. Z Awards class.
That’s good reason to note how much the Dallas Cowboys’ offense still relies on Zampese’s system and on how potent it remains in the NFL.
Zampese’s start in the pro game came in the 1979, when he became the Chargers wide receivers coach. Zampese worked on a staff that included running backs coach Joe Gibbs, who was just a year away from taking the Washington job. They helped Coryell run the updated version of Gillman’s system, a timing offense that challenged secondaries vertically and laterally. The Chargers liked sending at least three and often four targets up the field, His Chargers turned speed tight end Kellen Winslow into a moving target, isolating him on linebackers. The offense’s second short-field tactic was using a speedy F-back as a vertical weapon from the backfield, getting those same mismatches against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.
And of course, the scheme relied on deep outside speed. In San Diego, Zampese mentored Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner, along with burners John Jefferson and Wes Chandler. When he joined John Robinson’s Rams in the late ’80s, he used Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson in similar ways. Those Rams never got past the Walsh 49ers, but they reached the ’89 NFC Championship Game, embarrassing Buddy Ryan’s Eagles in the wild card round. Ryan had bragged that no running back could get 100 yards on his “46” front. Zampese took the dare, hammering RB Greg Bell at and through the Eagles for 144 ground yards in the upset.
From a Cowboys’ perspective, Zampese’s Rams days are defined by his work mentoring a young receivers coach named Norv Turner. Jimmy Johnson hired Turner as his offensive coordinator in 1991, looking for a man and a system that could counter the heavy blitzing his young quarterback Troy Aikman had endured his first two years. Turner immediately improved an offense that had sputtered under David Shula; Norv’s first team scored six points per game more than the ’90s unit. The next year, they were champions.
That year, Zampese left his calling card, calling a brilliant game in Texas Stadium that kept Cowboys DC Dave Wannstedt off balance. Jim Everett mixed deep attempts to his receivers with short throws and delays to running back Cleveland Gary. The Rams upset the Cowboys 27-23. They were the only opponent to win in Texas Stadium that year.
When Turner took the Redskins job in ’94, the Cowboys tapped Zampese to succeed him. Zampese immediately calmed any fears that Dallas would miss Turner. Aikman issued a statement in his first offseason that Zampese knew the offense even better than Turner. Ernie’s first two units scored more points than Norv’s champs.
Schematically, Zampese kept things simple. He had a loaded lineup, that put eleven players in the Pro Bowl. (Alvin Harper was the only starter off those ’92-’95 units that never went to Honolulu.) He worked almost exclusively from the 21 package on 1st and 2nd downs, using motion to create mismatches. When the Cowboys were inside their own 20 or in the opponent’s red zone, Harper came out and a second tight end entered the game. When Dallas was in 3rd and long, F-back Daryl Johnston was replaced by a slot receiver.
Ernie’s guys were brutally simple, and simply beautiful. They could strike quickly, like his old Chargers teams, or grind you to a slow death.
The system so impressed Jerry Jones that he hired Zampese acolytes when the Chan Gailey experiment fizzled in 1999. Jack Reilly got the play sheet for most the Campo years. Jerry tried unsucessfully to swipe Mike Martz, a Norv Turner protege, from the Rams after their 1999 breakout Super Bowl campaign.
Jones let Bill Parcells run his version of Walsh’s old attack, with Sean Peyton at the controls, but went to the old formula when the Tuna retired in ’07. Jerry hired Jason Garrett before settling on Wade Phillips as his head coach, in great part because the old ’90s backup knew the Zampese attack. With a healthy line and prime time Terrell Owens, Dallas averaged 28.4 points per game that year, the best output since Tom Landry’s ’83 offense.
Garrett runs the same offense as Zampese. He has lacked the top-to-bottom talent Ernie enjoyed, so he’s had to make do by shuffling personnel packages. Here are two ways Garrett keeps serving Ernie’s wine in new bottles:
— Dallas ran a lot of plays from split backfields in the ’90s. You see the same plays run from the shotgun now, where Aikman worked almost exclusively under center for Zampese.
— Garrett has lacked a true F-back and has worked around it most effectively by using Jason Witten in this role, though this has left him short at the Y-position sometimes.
Garrett’s is a legacy offense. I’ve pointed out two examples of old Zampese favorites working today. Here are some cut-ups from a Cowboys win over the Eagles, showing how an old favorite broke the game open:
This is a legacy play. It’s produced big plays for Jason Witten his entire Cowboys career. It was a big-play maker for Jay Novacek in the ’90s. Focus your mind’s eyes on Super Bowl 27. Think of the seam pass Troy Aikman threw to Novacek for Dallas’ first touchdown late in the first quarter.
It was jack right, 370 F-flat, the same play diagrammed above, only run from the 21 package.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of a pet play that Zampese ran for Daryl Johnston, that Garrett has called for Witten with great effect.
Garrett is so committed to Ernie’s system that new OC Scott Linehan pledged to make only minor tweaks to it when he was hired to replace Bill Callahan as play caller. And why fix what isn’t broken? The system has won recent titles outside of Dallas. Martz went to two Super Bowls with his Rams. The Ravens have won the Super Bowls two years ago using this system, installed for them by Cam Cameron, another of Norv’s guys.
Callahan’s 2013 group, despite the “small ball” complaints, scored more points per game than any of the Super Bowl winners and than any Payton team. Only Garrett’s ’07 guys have scored more points in a season for Dallas since Danny White’s prolific ’83 team. The Cowboys have loaded up even more on offense, adding Zach Martin and Devin Street after an offensive-heavy ’13 draft.
The Cowboys are closer to running Ernie Zampese’s offense Ernie’s way than at any time since he left in 1998. Lighting up the scoreboard Triplets-style would be ultimate tribute the organization could pay him.