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Learning about QB Coach Ken Zampese

2018 Cleveland Browns Training Camp Photo by: 2018 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

In late May, Ken Zampese was one of five offensive position coaches highlighted in an article here on Hogs Haven. Yesterday, Ken Zampese spoke to the Washington sports media via Zoom, so it seemed like a good opportunity to turn the spotlight fully on the new quarterbacks coach of the Washington Football Team.

"We need guys to play winning football for us here in Washington the way we ask them to do it." QBs Coach Ken Zampese...

Posted by Washington Football Team on Friday, July 31, 2020

At 52 years of age, Ken Zampese brings more than two decades of NFL coaching experience to the Redskins and has worked with many successful quarterbacks, including Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Baker Mayfield. The last QB on that list may have the most to do with why Zampese was hired this off-season by Coach Ron Rivera after Zampese spent 2019 in the AAF and college football.

Zampese’s tenure in the NFL began in 1998 as an offensive assistant in Philly, and then, between ‘99 and ‘02 he moved on to Green Bay and St. Louis, adding WR coach and Passing Game Coordinator to his collection of job titles. In 2003, he joined Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, where he spent 13 years as the QB coach before taking over as offensive coordinator in for the ‘16 and ‘17 seasons. He was fired abruptly in 2017 after the team failed to score an offensive touchdown in an 0-2 start to the season.

In January 2018, Zampese was hired as the quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns by Hue Jackson, who had previously been the OC with the Bengals. Jackson’s reign of error ended midway through the ‘18 season, with Gregggg Williams taking over as interim head coach and leading the team to 5 wins and 3 losses to finish 8-7-1. Despite that effort by Williams, Freddie Kitchens was promoted and Zampese was sent packing at season’s end.

But anyone who remembers the Browns in 2018 will remember a lot of magic in Baker Mayfield’s rookie season. After the Browns had won just a single game in the previous two campaigns combined, Mayfield helped lead the Browns to a 7-8-1 record and their highest win total in a season since 2014, as well as their lowest number of losses since 2007. Mayfield finished the season with 3,725 passing yards and surpassed Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for most touchdowns thrown in a rookie season with 27.

NFL: JUL 29 Browns Training Camp Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mayfield was considered by many to be the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year during the 2018 season, although, in the end, the award was given to Giants running back Saquon Barkley. With 27 TDs and 14 INTs, Mayfield’s rookie season held the kind of promise that made the Brown’s front office look damned good for drafting him #1 overall.

Baker’s subsequent fall off to 22:21 TD:INT ratio in 2019 may not have been the result of Ken Zampese leaving the Browns, but the coach used what he’d done with Baker Mayfield in his job interview with Ron Rivera. Talking with the local sports media yesterday, Zampese recounted some of what occurred in 2018:

I had an opportunity to do this two years ago in 2018 in Cleveland with Baker Mayfield. He played very well and was a very accountable guy. He was good to his teammates and wanted to win very badly. It was easy for us to do extra work and get ready to play.

There is an urgency and an on the clock mentality with a young guy that they have to share. If you have to drag them, it is not fun. For the hunt it is a lot better. Baker was that way and these young guys in the building are that way. That is what encourages me.

Rivera must’ve liked what he heard from Ken Zampese. He certainly has an impressive list of quarterbacks that have thrived under his tutelage.

Zampese, of course, comes from a football family. His father is Ernie Zampese, the 84 year-old who was a scout and coach in the NFL from 1976 to the early 2000s. Yesterday, Ken talked about his father’s close ties with Joe Gibbs and the latter’s efforts to get the elder Zampese to bring the family to DC back in the 80s.

I was a kid and [every] January, Dad would call a family meeting, which never happened, so we knew something was up. It was about four Januaries in a row. It was like OK, how do you guys feel about going to northern Virginia. It was a resounding four “no’s” and it was done. We didn’t want to leave southern California; what did we know?

Northern Virginia was Siberia to us. [Are] there beaches there? No? Ok, I am out.

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Speaking of the relationship between his father and St. Joe, Ken Zampese said,

They had a great relationship. They got a long so well and I am sure it was pretty close to us coming here.

So, after resisting the move to DC throughout his youth, why did Ken Zampese decide now was the time to join the Washington franchise?

Whenever you get a chance to be around Coach Rivera, you take it. You don’t ask questions. It doesn’t matter where it is at. You know what you are getting and it’s all good. You want to be around those guys and leaders.

The accountability that filters down through the building when you have someone like that is the atmosphere you want to be in. Everyone has been in atmospheres where it is different than that. When you get an opportunity to take it, you do. On top of that, being here in a storied franchise [that] has won at a high level before — that is exciting too... to be [one of] the people to bring it back.

I am so glad I have an opportunity now to work with Coach Rivera and Coach Turner. The sky is the limit for us.

I went looking for the connection between Ken Zampese and Ron Rivera, and didn’t find anything direct, but there are some indirect connections. Zampese was in Philly in 2018; Rivera came there a season later, in ‘99, when Andy Reid was hired. Zampese Senior (Ernie) spent about 7 years with the Chargers from ‘79-’86. Rivera coached defense there from ‘07-’10, leaving to take the head coaching job in Carolina. Suffice to say that, while they’ve never worked on the same staff together, these two life-long coaches are familiar with one another.

In trying to understand how Ken Zampese will teach quarterbacks to play ball in the Scott Turner offense on Ron Rivera’s team, this dichotomous explanation from the QB coach seems enlightening:

I know it is going to be a low turnover-type deal, and a big play down the field when we can get them - and be very consistent in between.

Those are the things that we will play out and we will work on the mentality as we go forward. It is an attack mentality, but don’t be silly with it.

[I]t is still a long ball league to a degree. The team’s that have the chunk plays move and change the field and score points, especially early in the game throwing it.

I may be misunderstanding or misremembering, but this is basically how I think of the old Joe Gibbs offenses of the 1980s. The team would pound the ball on the ground, then go over the top for 40 yards when the receiver got a mismatch or separation from the defender. Gary Clark never caught more than 79 balls in a season, but in his eight seasons as a Redskin, he went over 1,000 yards five times and never went for less than 892 yards in a season. He averaged 15.9 yards per receptions in Joe’s Air Coryell attack. What I saw from Terry McLaurin last season felt a lot like GC back in the day. During those super bowl years, Ricky Sanders was a notch below Clark, but still averaged 14.1 yards per catch in his Redskins career.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

While the Team may be still in the process of accumulating weapons, they seem to already have their trigger man on the roster. Yesterday, Zampese talked about all four quarterbacks on the roster, but it was clear that the coach likes what he sees in Dwayne Haskins.

Dwayne...is very quick with the ball. He is very short, quick, accurate. He can repeat the same stroke over and over again. Those are the things that got me excited. Once he sees it, it comes off of his hand very quickly. There is no windup, wasted motion or movements. He is very smooth with his movements. I just think there is a lot of meat on that bone to get. He is just starting, and the atmosphere in the building with Coach Rivera will get the best out of him.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Still, we heard repeated reports or rumors last season that Dwayne struggled with the playbook or playcalls, and this season the verbiage will be completely different than it was a year ago in Jay Gruden’s West Coast system.

I think [what I most want to see from Dwayne is] the memorization of the playbook — speaking of the language fluently is certainly like learning a foreign language and being able to study the reads and know them inside and out. That is the part that is the toughest. That is the newest.

It is easy to drop back five steps and throw to an out route, everybody does that in every offense. Those physical things I think will be easier to pick up.

It is the other things like the mental side of it and the memorization of where we want to go and why, the philosophy of the play, who we’re trying to throw it to, grouping different reads in such a way that it is not new learning, it is these three are the exact same read but they are not always given that way.

So those are the things we are trying to do to make it easy on all of these guys and Dwayne in particular, and I can’t wait to hear him speak and fix things and see those wheels turning faster and faster when we get out there.

While Zampese may have concerns about what he hasn’t had the chance to see first-hand from Haskins yet in terms of mastering the playbook and verbiage, he, like most fans who have been paying attention this off-season, has been impressed with the work that his young QB has put in since the end of his rookie season.

You saw what happened when Dwayne puts his mind to it, he is down the weight, he is in great condition, all of those things that are in your control he has handled very well in the offseason.

Now we are in the next step: what are we going to do on the field in this offense and this communication, how we are going to compete, and those kinds of things. That is where we are at right now, but all of those guys did a nice job coming back — Alex sure did, and Kyle [Allen] and Steven [Montez] coming in.

Coach Zampese was asked if he had learned anything about how to work with a quarterback when he was with the Bengals and Andy Dalton during the 2011 lockout.

Not having guys in the spring, you’re trusting that they are accountable people that will handle their business in the playbook while you’re not there to oversee it. That year was like that. We were drafting Andy as a rookie and he was going to come in and start, but we didn’t have spring. So, he had to be accountable for the language and be able to speak the plays when he got into the huddle for the first to make an impression to all of the veterans that we already did have and he did that.

We are in a similar situation. We have a new offense for guys that haven’t spoken the language. We have Kyle coming in who has experience in the language. Alex has a little experience with Coach Martz in San Francisco with the language and Coach Turner. But Dwayne and Steven don’t and that is why we are relying on those guys to handle their business away from the building.

When we have had them on the Zoom meetings, we are pounding the language in their head and making sure they speak it as well as they can until they get out here and actually do it, feel it and talk to the other guys.

Perhaps my favorite part of Coach Zampese’s interview came when he was asked what he liked about working with young quarterbacks.

You get to mold them from the start. There is no first occurrence that didn’t go right. You get to build it. You get to build the mentality.

They don’t have any preconceived notions that it hasn’t gone right because they haven’t done anything. You have a chance to feed them the language and information in such a way that you get to see that this works. Things start to slow down for them and there is an added sense of urgency on top of that because they start to see success.

I just love that about the young guys and building the mind in what our head coach and coordinator want to see.

That part is a blast for me.