Ken Zampese laughs hard when he's told he is standing on the springboard that should launch him into an NFL head coaching career.
"I haven't called a play in the NFL yet," he told B/R during the offseason, once the laugh subsided. "That's the last thing on my mind."
Fair enough. The longtime Bengals quarterbacks coach and new Bengals offensive coordinator has a lot to accomplish at his current job before he worries about the next one. He must guide the offense through significant free-agent losses. He must continue pushing quarterback Andy Dalton. And he has to help them win that elusive first playoff game.
Still, Zampese must know that coordinating the Bengals is a sure gateway to becoming a hot head coaching candidate. His predecessor, Hue Jackson, now coaches the Browns. Previous offensive coordinator Jay Gruden took Washington to the playoffs last year. On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Zimmer coaches a playoff team in Minnesota.
For the son of a coaching legend who has spent 13 seasons on the same rung of the NFL ladder, the chance for sudden, rapid advancement must have a little appeal. Right?
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. First things first."
Fine. Zampese is still getting used to that "play-calling" thing. But he has spent a lifetime surrounded by some of the greatest play-callers in football history. So that part should come easy.
The Miseducation of Ken Zampese
Zampese spent his childhood summers on the University of California at San Diego campus, training camp home of the San Diego Chargers, getting an inside look at one of the NFL's legendary offenses.
Maybe too much of an inside look.
"After the meetings were over, those guys would go up into the big lounge at UCSD," Zampese recalled. "They would break out the beer and hard liquor and put the dominoes on the table and go at it, two-on-two, with coaches and scouts sitting around waiting for their turn like it was three-on-three basketball at the rec."
"And I was sitting in the corner getting educated beyond anything I ever thought was gonna happen, having the time of my life."
Zampese's father was Ernie Zampese, Don Coryell's top offensive lieutenant. The domino players were guys like Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, superstars of the Chargers' famed Air Coryell offense, the system that ushered in the modern era of passing-oriented football.
Ken Zampese was in his early teens at the time, a ball boy sharing a dorm room with his father. He painted lines and stenciled numbers on the practice field while his father served as Coryell's assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and consigliere. Coryell once told Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times that Zampese was "the best offensive coach" he knew. John Madden, who coached in the Coryell circle in the mid-1960s, once said Zampese "may be the top offensive mind in the game."
Yet Ken Zampese said his father rarely brought football home with him; there were no X and O conversations around the football table. The elder Zampese didn't want his son following in his coaching footsteps; the money wasn't good at the time, and the job security has always been awful.
For his part, Ken Zampese didn't have much interest in joining the family business, even as he set up the practice fields for the Chargers. The younger Zampese played football at the University of San Diego, graduated with a business degree and planned to start climbing the corporate ladder.
"I got a summer job at Wells Fargo. I worked one day and I never went back," Zampese said. "I couldn't do it. It wasn't me."
Zampese joked that he went to graduate school "to hide." He became a graduate assistant for the USC football team. Soon, he discovered both a knack and a passion for coaching. "I don't know if it was running from actual work that led me to this profession, wanting to have more in common with my dad or what I was comfortable doing. Maybe it was all three."
But both the older and younger Zampese were reluctant to use nepotism to advance Ken's career. While Ernie coordinated the Cowboys offense in the latter part of the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin triplets era, Ken rose through the ranks at Northern Arizona and Miami of Ohio.
Life in the mid-majors introduced Ken Zampese to a new set of coaching influences. There was charismatic USC defensive coach Bob Cope ("He was my first mentor," Zampese recalls, "He taught me defense. He taught me a lot about life."). And also Miami of Ohio coach Randy Walker, whose coaching tree includes Sean Payton, Aaron Kromer, current Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and others.
"He's a difference-maker," Zampese said of Walker. "He handled the mentality and the attitude of everyone single-handedly. All you had to do was coach."
Zampese reached the NFL as an offensive assistant for the Eagles in 1998, sharing an office with Payton for a 3-13 team. When the whole Eagles staff was fired, Zampese followed head coach Ray Rhodes to Green Bay. After a disappointing Packers season, Zampese was part of another mass dismissal.
Zampese's two children were toddlers. The instability of coaching life that his father warned of had struck. "I was sitting on the couch again, looking for work again," Zampese said.
"Mike Martz saved me."
Martz had deep roots in the Coryell system. He and Ernie Zampese worked together on the Rams staff in the early 1990s. Martz used the chassis of the Air Coryell offense to build The Greatest Show on Turf. The kid who watched Fouts and Winslow play dominoes was now helping Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk break offensive records as he climbed from offensive assistant to receivers coach to passing-game coordinator.
"Mike is the most creative guy I have ever been around," Zampese said. But Martz's influence runs deeper than just designing plays and installing game plans. "His delivery was just off the charts. How he spoke to guys. The confidence he had in each player came through every time he talked to them."
Zampese joined the Bengals as their quarterbacks coach in 2003. The coach who was once warned off the profession because of its instability suddenly found himself in one of the most stable situations in modern NFL history.
The Shell Game
Offseason workdays were only a little longer for Zampese since his promotion. He was on the road for predraft pro days more than most previous years but fewer than in 2011, when he embarked on what he called "The Jacksons Victory Tour" in search of the Bengals' next franchise quarterback.
It's the scope of the work that has broadened. "A lot more things come home with me," he said before the draft. "The computer comes home with me: a hard drive with every college game that ever was in 2015 on it."
The hard drive was not just for college scouting, but also for new play design and game-plan ideas. Zampese doesn't anticipate making major changes to the Bengals offense, but he is always on the lookout for new wrinkles. "You always have to find ways to make it look different or find something else that's easy," Zampese said. "We're always searching for those things. Keep moving the shell game."
Zampese's sleight of offensive hand sounds a lot like Hue Jackson's Pandora's box. Jackson promised reporters he'd throw the kitchen sink at opponents last year, and he delivered: options, Wildcat plays, strange formations with offensive linemen split out as wide receivers, everything short of the Statue of Liberty play.
Pushing the envelope of unpredictability means pushing into the hinterlands of football strategy. The Bengals offensive staff has always been research-oriented, scouring college and pro game film for new concepts. And while Jackson and Gruden may have been the big-picture guys, Zampese was the one sweating the small stuff.
"He's the most detailed guy I've ever seen," Gruden said of Zampese during this year's scouting combine. "For my lack of detail, he made up for it."
"His expertise, his vision of the offense—any time you get an opportunity to put your hands on something you've been a part of, you get a chance to push it in new directions," Marvin Lewis said.
"It's a system I helped put together," Zampese said. "Now I get a chance to put my spin on the install."
Players sound excited as well. "To have a guy like Zamp who's been here for a long time and has been in this offense ever since I've been in it is great," Andy Dalton told reporters. "He understands our players; he understands me. I think it's a perfect transition for us."
Key to that transition is the continuity the team discussed during minicamp. "I'm not learning a new person," Dalton said. "Zamp's been my quarterback coach since I've been here. We already have that great relationship. I understand how he thinks and does things."
"You've seen less of that particular thing, where Andy has to do any kind of translation," Lewis told reporters. "Our quarterback continues to blossom with his own leadership and his personality. Kenny provides a new space for him to continue to do that."
Yet Zampese is tasked with pushing the offense forward just as free agency forced the Bengals offense to take a step backward. Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are now in Detroit and Atlanta, respectively, leaving Dalton without his second and third wide receivers and Zampese without his best big-play alternative to A.J. Green (Jones) and trick-play Swiss army knife (Sanu). And tight end Tyler Eifert has missed the start of the season as he recovers from surgery on his ankle.
Still, Zampese has plenty of talent to work with, from Dalton, Green and Gio Bernard to newcomers Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd. Zampese hasn't scaled back his attack much early in the season, despite two tough opponents (the Jets and Steelers) and rainy conditions on Sunday. The unbalanced lines, three-man offensive lines and intricate screens are still there. For a man who spent a lifetime among coaches like Coryell, Martz and Jackson, strategic envelope-pushing is a fundamental concept of coaching.
"Don't be afraid to do things that are unique," Zampese said. "Because it's in your uniqueness that you gain an advantage on a team that was not able to practice that formation.
"What is the next wrinkle? We look at the NFL tape, look at the college tape. Wherever we can find a new idea, we're going to find it."
With so many ideas, it makes you wonder why it took him so long to get his chance.
Much as his coaching career followed in his father's path, so, too, did Ken Zampese's career arc. Ernie Zampese was famously uninterested in an NFL head coaching job. "I wouldn't like to do it and I don't have to do it," he told the L.A. Times of leaving Coryell's side for his own team in the 1980s.
The elder Zampese replaced Madden as the head coach at Allan Hancock Junior College (Santa Maria, California) in the mid-1960s and found he hated the duties assistants and coordinators don't have to worry about, from speaking at press conferences to firing assistants. "I don't like to be the out-front guy," he told the L.A. Times in 1987. "I'm not comfortable in that position."
Perhaps it's no surprise then that Ken Zampese arrived in Cincinnati and stayed in the same job for 13 years.
The Bengals didn't make it easy to leave.
Carson Palmer arrived in Zampese's second season; Dalton when the relationship between the Bengals and Palmer soured in 2011. Bob Bratkowski was his offensive coordinator for eight years; Lewis has always been his head coach his entire tenure. And the Bengals are always in the playoffs. Why move on?
"You're always looking. But you know how good you have it. Do you really want to do that? Or do you want to continue and keep stability in your family, keep stability in your work?"
"When you take another job, you're gone. You are in another city. You don't see your kids until summertime. That's not OK with me."
That stability proved important last season, when Zampese's wife, Christine, was diagnosed with breast cancer last October. While Christine battled, the franchise rallied to the family's side. Former quarterbacks Palmer and Jon Kitna even checked in on the family.
"They treat you like family," Zampese said of the Bengals organization. "And they mean it. And it's for real."
Even before his wife's illness, Zampese enjoyed advantages that few NFL coaches can imagine. "I got my kids all the way through high school in the same house."
Zampese said he had opportunities for advancement elsewhere, but none that appealed to him. Lewis said he spoke to Zampese about the last two coordinator vacancies before deciding upon Gruden and Jackson, both of whom had considerable play-calling experience (Gruden in the Arena Football League, Jackson at several stops and as head coach of the Raiders).
"In those two instances, I chose to go a different direction," Lewis told reporters after promoting Zampese in January. "This time I chose to go with Ken." Lewis mentioned that as an assistant coach's roles and responsibilities grow, they prove themselves worthy of promotion.
During Zampese's introductory press conference, a reporter asked Lewis if he ever promotes a coach he considers to be his eventual successor. Lewis laughed. "There's no doubt. My place? Wow," Lewis said before moving on to more pressing January matters.
Zampese said his "pursuit of moving up will happen when it happens," sounding just a little like his father in the 1980s. But head coaching opportunities could soon arrive, including one that won't require a change of address if Lewis retires or the Bengals decide a shake-up is the only route to the Super Bowl.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
He hasn't called many plays yet.
One thing at a time.