The year is 1976. The San Diego Chargers, just six years after the AFL merger with the NFL, have just hired Ernie Zampese to be their new defensive backs coach under struggling head coach, Tommy Prothro. Ernie's son, Ken, is just nine years old and eager to learn his father's trade as an NFL coach.
Prior to the 1970 merger, the Chargers posted only a single losing season in their 10 years of existence (1962, 4-10). However, ever since the merger, the Chargers had struggled to find relevancy. A series of poor coaches, bad personnel decisions, and drug scandals rocked the once proud franchise to its core. Prothro entered in the 1974 season with the intention of turning things around, but only managed to go 5-9 in 1974 and 2-12 in 1975.
1976 and 1977 were better, but the Chargers still only put up a record of 13-15 during those years. A 1-3 start to their 1978 season led to Prothro's firing and the hiring of present day member of the Chargers Hall of Fame, Don Coryell. Coryell took the Chargers from 1-3 to start the season under Prothro to 9-7 by season's end. But, there was still work to do in 1979 to make the team really click.
One of Coryell's first orders of business was to reach out to his long-time defensive backfield coach from his tenure as the head coach at San Diego State, Ernie Zampese. Zampese had been working for the Jets as a scout at the time. But, instead of a defensive position, Coryell asked him to coach the wide receivers. During that time, Zampese coached the future hall of famer, Charlie Joiner, to an incredible career revival. Like Zampese, Joiner began his career as a defensive back (with the Houston Oilers), although he made the switch to wide receiver in 1972 when he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals, who traded him to the Chargers after a lackluster first three years and promising 1975 season.
Constructing Air Coryell
Under Zampese's direction, Joiner proceeded to put up five 1,000+ yard receiving seasons in just seven years. As a result, Zampese was promoted to assistant head coach in charge of the passing game in 1982. During his time at both positions, as Geoff Hobson writes in an article on Bengals.com, "[he] helped pump the oxygen into Air Coryell."
Joiner never did quite as well without Zampese as his position coach, but Hall of Famer Dan Fouts thrived in the system when healthy, putting up 13,384 yards and 82 touchdowns during Zampese's time controlling the passing game (1983-1986). Those stats came despite Fouts never being completely healthy and only starting in 47 of 56 possible games.
"He turned down opportunities to stay in San Diego. He couldn't see moving us out of there," Zampese told Hobson. "I remember being around the living room and kitchen and he'd say, ‘OK everybody, time to talk. What do you think about going to . . .?' and he'd say whatever city. Washington or Buffalo or some place that would be so foreign to us. We would just scrunch up our faces and he didn't want to do that to us. San Diego is our home and he didn't want to move us out of there."
A lasting legacy
In 1987, Fouts' final year in the NFL, Zampese took his talents to Long Beach, California. Technically Anaheim, but the point was that he left the Chargers to become the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. After an uneventful first year, Zampese's Rams ranked in the top 10 in offense for five years from 1988-1992. But, after another down year in 1993 Zampese moved on to the Dallas Cowboys where he constructed an offense behind Troy Aikman that ranked top three in scoring from 1994-1995 and led to a Super Bowl win. After joining Pete Caroll in New England, he helped Drew Bledsoe to lead another potent offense that ranked fifth and 10th in passing respectively in his two years. Following the 1999 season, he retired.
A son's journey
Ken Zampese never got to work with his dad in an official role, but he did learn from one of the best passing coordinators to ever coach the game. The nice thing is, it has shown in Zampese's record as a coach. Before coming to the Bengals in 2003, Ken bounced around at USC, Northern Arizona, and Miami of Ohio as a college coach and then spent time with the Eagles, Packers, and Rams in the NFL. He helped to coach the "Greatest Show on Turf" in 2000 and 2001. In 2000, the Rams' offense was actually even better than it was in their Super Bowl winning 1999 year, but didn't see a Super Bowl victory on account of defensive struggles. The team did play in the Super Bowl in 2001, but lost to Tom Brady's New England Patriots, two years after Ken's father retired.
In 2003, Ken took his talents to Cincinnati and never looked back. He was brought on at the start of Marvin Lewis's regime to help fix the Bengals' revolving door of quarterbacks and to develop the No. 1 overall pick, Carson Palmer. He got off to a great start. In Hobson's aforementioned article, Jon Kitna was quoted as saying of Ken "He taught me a lot about playing NFL quarterback. About preparation. How to handle guys and all the different personalities. I value his opinion so much."
Under Zampese, Kitna helped to stabilize the team in 2003 and Palmer took the reigns to help bring the Bengals back to a competitive state. Under him, they made the playoffs twice from 2005-2009 after the franchise had not seen a playoff berth in 13 years.
In 2008, Palmer was injured for much of the year and Zampese had to coach another quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to play well in Palmer's place. The team ended up 4-11-1 that year, but Ryan Fitzpatrick played well enough to impress other teams. He moved on to the Titans, Texans, and Jets after the Bengals, holding a starting role with all of them, partly thanks to his time under Zampese.
In 2011, Palmer demanded a trade away from Cincinnati and threatened to retire if he wasn't traded. In response, the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton and Zampese once again worked the magic that he learned, in part, from his dad. Dalton struggled to find consistency through his first four years as a pro but he always played well enough to keep the team's confidence alive and rally to make the playoffs every year. Last year, Dalton seemed to have taken the next step as a quarterback, playing at a very high level all year fairly consistently. Even in the final few games of 2015, the Bengals had to start backup AJ McCarron who performed far above expectations to finish off a 12-4 record and come within two points of giving the Bengals their first playoff victory in a quarter century.
Although Ernie and Ken's NFL journeys began very differently, the similarities in results are eerie. Just like his father, everywhere that Ken goes, the passing game starts rolling and offenses tend to perform very well. Can Ken bring the lessons he learned from his father to the Bengals as the team's new offensive coordinator? We all just hope that it doesn't turn out like the last time the Bengals hired the son of a legendary coach.