New Life in Same Old Place : As Only Holdover From Previous Regime, Zampese Is Fitting Into Knox's Plans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Put Ground Chuck and Air Zampese together, and you've got the makings of some strange offensive brew, right?

One style has won football games for two decades using a careful, consistent style of offense, eliminating both fatal mistakes and large doses of creativity.

The other style has been bedeviling NFL defenses for almost a decade with a dizzying array of long-, short- and medium-ranged pass plays that sometimes seem nothing less than a sustained sprint bordered only by the offensive coordinator's almost limitless imagination.

Chuck Knox and Ernie Zampese: What are they doing together on this new Ram staff?

"This whole same thing went on with John (Robinson), too," Zampese said with a sigh during a break in the Rams' training camp. "Everybody perceived John as being a running guy, and everybody perceives Chuck as being a running guy.

"But both guys have been very successful utilizing the best personnel, letting them do what they do best. You go back to when Chuck was in Buffalo with Joe Ferguson, they threw the ball quite a bit."

Offenses run by Zampese have always thrown the ball quite a bit, from his days with the wild Don Coryell-Dan Fouts San Diego Chargers through his wildly successful days running the Ram offense from 1987-'89.

The past two years, the Rams kept throwing, but the production disappeared, and the fatal mistakes piled high.

Zampese thought he might disappear, too, after a season in which the Rams fumbled away six center-snap exchanges, turned the ball over 40 times and averaged only 80.3 yards per game rushing.

On a peripheral look, if there was one member of the old Robinson staff who seemed an incorrect fit for a new Knox staff, Zampese might have been it. Turns out he was the only one who stayed.

Summoned to a Beverly Hills hotel, where Knox was staying after being named in January to succeed Robinson, Zampese was ready to face reality, NFL-style. The new boss was in town, and who knew what that meant for all the people who worked for the old one?

Even he probably had to think to himself, me and Chuck Knox?

"I didn't really know what was going to happen," Zampese said. "Whether he wanted to make a change or not make a change. I didn't know until I went and talked to him.

"At the time, I didn't know who was going to be here and who wasn't going to be here. You hear so many rumors whenever jobs change, especially in the coaching business. My gosh, there's more rumors flying around than anything, so you hear all these things . . .

"I wasn't sure going in, and I didn't know who else until he told me he wanted me to stay. And I wanted to stay. I didn't want to go anyplace else."

So while the rest of Robinson's staff was sent away from Rams Park, Zampese remained a Ram. He, too, had other opportunities--Joe Gibbs, the Redskin coach and former Coryell staff compatriot, always asks him to think about coming to Washington. But when it all came down, and Jeff Fisher and Jimmy Raye and Hudson Houck and the rest were gone, Zampese was the only old Ram to be a new Ram.

Why? Because Knox remembered just how dangerous the Rams were not too long ago, he knew the key players were still in place, and he knew his brand of discipline, mixed with Zampese's magic, could quickly bring the offense to life. He also knew that without Zampese, the whole offense would have to be revamped, and he didn't want that.

"I think what Chuck wanted to do is keep the same philosophy throwing the football because the guys have been involved in it, and they know it," Zampese said. "We have the personnel to do it with.

"He's going to do whatever the ability of the players allow him to do. That's his philosophy, within limits. I mean, we're not going to go out and just start slinging the ball all over the place just because you've got a quarterback that can and receivers that can go ahead and run and get the ball.

"There's no question in his (Knox's) mind that you win by first minimizing the number of mistakes you make, sort of allow the other team to screw it up if they will.

"Those kinds of things are big for him, the discipline part of it, the paying attention to the small details of the game are the things that he stresses. And he's been very comfortable, very successful doing it that way."

With Knox obviously comfortable with Zampese, the question over the next few weeks, as the offensive staff was assembled, was how comfortable Zampese would be as the sole holdover of a failed staff in a new offense that surely will stress the basic running attack more than before.

Since Zampese still strongly believed in his aerial system, how would the marriage work? Just fine, Zampese says now, just fine.

One of Knox's first hires was Ted Tollner--an old friend of Zampese's back to their days at San Diego State--as quarterbacks coach and the man who would work most closely with the coordinator. Knox didn't fill the offensive staff with members of his Seattle staff but chose mostly to hire experienced coaches from other teams.

"I've been in that situation for a short period of time, and sometimes it can be awkward if you're the holdover guy," Tollner said. "I can't answer for Ernie, but I haven't seen any signs of it.

"I think offensively, Chuck has hired a variety of offensive assistants. It hasn't been the whole Seattle offensive staff and Ernie coordinating it. . . . So he's molded us into what he and Chuck have talked about the way they want to go.

"It's basically the system they've had before with whatever Chuck wants Ernie to do within that."

Said Knox: "I've known Ernie Zampese a long time and have got a lot of respect for him. I wasn't concerned about that at all. I knew he was good friends with Ted Tollner, he knew (line coach Jim) Erkenbeck and (running backs coach) Chick Harris. I mean, those guys have known one another in coaching over the years, so I had no reservations whatsoever."

There has been relatively little adjustment for him, Zampese says, other than one minor difference.

"For so many years I was always the youngest guy on the staff," said Zampese, 56. "Now I'm the oldest guy on the staff (of assistants). That feels a little bit different, no question about that."

Knox says Zampese clearly runs the offense, just as he did with the Rams the past five seasons. Knox will want to make sure the team runs the ball hard and often--but that's not a great deal different than what Robinson wanted to do with the Rams. Knox will strive to cut down on all the offensive blunders of the past two years--but that's nothing Zampese sees any differently.

The system, at least for now, has remained relatively untouched. Even though Zampese concedes the past two years were not highlights of his career and the system he has developed, he says he still believes in it.

"When things are happening to you and you're not successful, I think from time to time everybody has a sense of oh my gosh, can this still work, are we doing the right things, should we change?" Zampese said.

"I think the biggest mistake people make is to say gosh, this stuff doesn't work anymore and change to something completely different that you really don't believe in. I think the guys who are successful have a system that they really believe in and teach it to the players they coach.

"And if you do have a true belief in what you're teaching, I think the players can sense that. They know whether you really believe or you're giving them lip service. I think then you help them gain confidence in what you're doing."

The goal for Zampese this summer is to rebuild that confidence and maintain a sense of discipline that last year's offense lacked. That's where the Ground Chuck philosophy pours in, where the running game, the fines and all the tiny things Knox believes in practicing over and over again come to the fore.

"You fumble a center-quarterback snap, everybody involved with the offense has to take their personal responsibility for it," Zampese said.

"We had an awful lot of things like that happen last football season, and I think those are the things that Chuck's trying to shore up, to say, hey, the huddle itself is important. How you get into the huddle, where your eyes are at, are your eyes on the quarterback, are you looking at him, running the play through your mind even before you break the huddle . . . all those things.

"Everything is important."

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