Main Menu

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.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

  • Football Mensa

    “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.” And who does he have to blame for that ? Zampese was 100 times the play caller Garrett is. It’s not always about points scored per game. It’s when to run and when to pass and when to drop the hammer. Zampese knew when to drop the hammer.

    • cowboys maniac

      amen – this team is always missing something and it’s not the players – it’s the coaching. Not adjusting during halftime or trying to outsmart people when a simple commitment to the run would suffice – This team could win with these players but the coach loses a couple games on his own. Garrett would make for a good GM but head coach isn’t his calling.

    • IronRing

      Would you lend any credence to the theory that as Romo’s mistakes diminished so too did the big plays?

      • Football Mensa

        What does that have to do with my post ?

        Look at the last two Lions games and this past seasons Packers game. Garrett has no clue when to run and when to pass or how to use either to the teams advantage.

        • IronRing

          I’ll take that as a no

          • IronRing

            Mensa, it isn’t always adversarial, sometimes it’s just a request for insight/opinion.

        • Jon B.

          Bingo. No clue as to run or passs. I know a couple 10 year olds on madden that could play all better than garret and calahan.

      • Football Mensa

        Iron, Romo hears what’s in the media. I think it plays a role in his approach now to the game. Yes is the answer to your question. And I think this season will tell us just how healthy his back is.

    • Jon B.

      Zampese like Turner was smart enough to give Emmit 25 carries a game. I firmly believe if Demarco Murray got 25 carries every game last year we win 10 games and the NFC east. He averaged almost 6 yards a carry, fumbles rarely and was healthy for 14 games last year. FEED HIM THE ROCK Linehan and Garret. Don’t let Romo check into INTs.

      Our defense was terrible last year and after the Denver game I think the O thought that it was all just Madden……….well despite the NFLs best efforts and the rules slanted in favor of WR and QBs…………..the teams that won the SB RAN THE BALL.

      Woody Hayes said there are only three possible outcomes when you pass the ball, and two of em are bad. I ain’t recommending we run the wishbone or the option like Switzer used to whisper to Troy……….”Troy run the option……..go left and then try and run the option right” I am just saying you beat teams by wearing em out with a ground game and your O line dominates the line of scrimmage……………O LInemen prefer to run block which unless you are pulling is blocking forward and with power………..pass blocking is packing up………much harder for 300+ lb men even when they are light on their feet like Tyron Smith.

      Run the ball Garret. Remember a guy you played with named Emmit Smith? Run the ball!!!!! In the history of the Dallas Cowboys when Tony Dorsett or Emmit Smith had over 100 yards rushing a game their Victories are like 95% of the time. If that isnt’t enough evidence I don’t know what is. Now I understand if we are down by 3 touchdowns………..thats different buy in the last three 24-24 seasons we only got blown out a handful of times. Most games were lost with a stupid INT or turnover or a failure to stop anybody on Defense………..the occassional bad clock management by our Coach or icing our own kicker also contributed to 5 or 6 of those 24 losses.

      You want to find that 5% to make the team better? Want to help your ailing and undermanned defense? RUN THE BALL!!!

      • Football Mensa

        I hope Linehan will have the balls to run it. I also hope JG has nothing to do with the offense.

        • Jon B.

          We both agree he has gm written all over him. As oc and hc he has been underwhelming and disappointing. You are what you are and his record says he is a loser.

          After the debacle that is jerry jones forcing Callahan on em I thought he was alame duck last year. But jerry wants his hometown Princeton genius to come of age in dallas. Kind of hard when you got a head coach in training.

          • CB Fan

            Garret actually has a winning record as HC….dont let facts ruin a good narrative though

          • CB Fan

            ^^^And just for reference to the above Belichick’s record over the SIX seasons in Cleveland and before Brady was 41-55. Not saying Garrett is anywhere near Belichick….but was Belichick the same “genius” we laude him as when he was 14 games below 500?

          • Jon B.

            hes 24 and 24 in his 3 seasons as a HC which is .500. I assume you are referring to his temporary duties when Wade was fired? And what does that make a game or two over 500? Not exactly reason for celebration………I would say the Offense has more weapons now than it did when he was name head coach but the D has had significant talent lost due to FA and injuries. Overall I am not sure we are any better roster than when he took over…………..the last of the Tunas groceries are all cooked or gone………….Garret Jerry and Stephen been doing the shopping but so far the meals he’s been cooking haven’t been very tasty.

            I don’t know his record in that one season? What was it 5-3?

            I will give him credit for getting his team to play hard. Wade lost em and they looked pathetic. I still think Jerry undermined Wade and Garret…..the players in Dallas are coddled a bit by Jerry…he needs a strong personality that holds the team accountable and so far the only two guys hes had do that left too early………Jimmy and Parcells. Garret maybe one of the smartest men to ever man the sideline……..but so far all he’s managed is to outsmart himself a few too many times.

          • Sam

            Your quote was, “You are what you are and his record says he is a loser”…so obviously now we know that’s not the case no matter how you cut it or what you credit as games as head coach as, CB Fan pointed out. Mediocre as a coach is nothing to necessarily be proud of by any stretch; but like then you look at the Belichick’s inaugural HC seasons as CB Fan has above…and its clear it can take some time when you are a first time head coach. 500 is beyond frustrating…but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the old roster has been jettisoned (as you mentioned) and they have not completely bottomed out as a team speaks volumes in and of itself. A declining 500 team (the Cowboys with Wade) is different than an ascending 500 team (which I categorize this current team as)….the record is the same but the dynamics are completely different.

            The thing that is being missed is the archetype of player Garrett is bringing in, in particularly in how it pertains to your comment on Jerry “coddling” players…idk what facts you have to support that assertion—but regardless….the definition of the RKG that Garrett speaks about (admittedly ad naseum) does not need “coddling” by anyone. They are self-motivated and driven, and will keep each other accountable to be at their best. Look at the leaders and up and coming guys on this team, what they say in the media (which is all we have to go on)…in your estimation who exactly are the players who need the “coddling” that apparently takes place? Garrett, Marinelli, Eberflus said very frankly to the media a month or so ago that Bruce Carter needs to “man up”—that sound like coddling to you?. Have you ever watched a Garrett press conference? Some of the first words out of his mouth are about accountability, playing and preparing the right way, etc., etc. He has a looooong way to go in many respects as a head coach but much of his shortcomings are significantly overblown in totality.

          • CB Fan

            ^^^Stole my thunder lol….but yes, exactly

          • whatdidyousay

            ” Some of the first words out of his mouth are about accountability, playing and preparing the right way, etc., etc”…BLAH BLAH BLAH , who holds Garrett accountable for his idiocy ? His shortcomings have cost the team games which would have propelled them to the playoffs and stifled most of the bitching.

          • Yuma Cactus

            I don’t believe there is much that would stop “most of the bitching”.

  • egtuna

    And now with a better OL, they’ll be able to run in the red zone as well, which has been the only shortcoming of Garrett’s offense the last 3-4 years (with improvements last year), I have little worries about the offense with the exception of Romo’s back holding up (I have my doubts), as it’s the defense that troubles me greatly. I don’t see them being anywhere near league average, which means the team will have to rely on their offense, which means relying on Romo to win the game in the 4th quarter week in week out. It’s too much to ask any QB, but definitely too much to ask a QB with a tricky back.

  • AustonianAggie

    Linehan seems at home in the Air Coryell offense. He’s talked about adopting his language to Sid Gilman’s fairly often through out his career, like when he took over the St Louis Rams. I found myself wondering, Sid Gilman’s route trees came to prominence in the 60s, and the spread came to relevance in the 70s, it could be that Erickson’s spread is based in Gilman’s lingo, just conjecture though