Over the offseason, the national media overreacted to Hue Jackson’s departure from the Bengals, generally theorizing that Cincinnati’s offense would take a drastic hit without its former offensive coordinator. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, however, proclaimed their confidence in Ken Zampese, Jackson’s successor, and for good reason. Since drafting A.J. Green and Andy Dalton in 2011, Cincinnati has seen a lot of success at the offensive coordinator position.
Jay Gruden, Dalton’s first offensive coordinator, orchestrated a pass-oriented offense, helping Dalton lead his team to the playoffs in his rookie season. The Bengals were even better in 2012 and took a significant step forward in 2013 before early playoff exits in each of those respective seasons.
With Gruden gone, Hue Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator, and the Bengals immediately began to yield benefits from a changing of the guard. Jackson became insistent on feeding the hot hand — and in 2014, there wasn’t a better player than rookie running back Jeremy Hill, who was the NFL’s best ball-carrier over the second half of the season. Despite a slew of injuries on offense, Cincinnati managed to make a fourth straight playoff run. In 2015, Jackson gave Dalton the keys to the offense, and the quarterback made his coach look great, playing like a potential MVP candidate before a thumb injury curbed him for the remainder of the season.
The Bengals’ quarterback coach for 13 years, Zampese has been around the Cincinnati area for quite some time, yet the man still remains a mysterious figure in the Queen City. No one truly knows what to expect from the offensive coordinator, but expectations are high for the man best known for his ties to the “Air Coryell” offense. On that note, here are four things you probably didn’t know about the Bengals’ first-year offensive coordinator, most of which can be found in this Bleacher Report feature on the new Bengals OC.
1. Zampese has strong ties to the city of San Diego.
The now-offensive coordinator, son of former-Chargers coach, Ernie Zampese, (who was a receivers coach, offensive assistant and offensive coordinator in his San Diego tenure) spent his summers at the Chargers’ training camp learning from his father and the rest of San Diego’s coaching staff.
"After the meetings were over, those guys would go up into the big lounge at [the University of California, San Diego, where the Chargers held their training camps]," Zampese told Bleacher Report. "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 son, Anthony, just graduated from St. Xavier high school and committed to the University of San Diego — his father’s alma mater. Zampese’s son is looking to continue his football-playing career as a walk-on wide receiver.
2. Becoming offensive coordinator for the Bengals wasn’t in Zampese’s initial career plans.
The now-offensive coordinator didn’t initially even plan on coaching football — he graduated from the University of San Diego with a business degree, eyeing a potential career in the corporate world.
"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."
And while historically, many in the NFL have given their offspring a chance to climb the NFL ranks, and stay there, neither Ernie nor his son intended on advancing Ken’s career through nepotism. While Ernie served as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator in the late 90’s, his son was busy climbing up the football ranks in stints at USC, Northern Arizona and Miami (OH).
The younger Zampese eventually landed his first NFL coaching gig, as an offensive assistant with the Rams, in 1998. Five years later, he became the Bengals’ quarterbacks coach and in 2016, he was finally promoted to offensive coordinator. Seeing as how Zampese is sitting pretty in a position which has spawned two head coaches in Dalton’s five-year career, the coordinator’s chances of eventually being promoted again look promising.
3. Zampese’s system will be very similar to that of the Bengals’ former offensive coordinators.
Zampese was one of the masterminds behind every Bengals offense for the past decade-plus, as he’s been one of the few guys to stick around Cincinnati for this long.
"It's a system I helped put together," Zampese said, upon being promoted to offensive coordinator. "Now I get a chance to put my spin on the install."
Spending time with Zampese at this year’s scouting combine, Jon Gruden got a first-hand look at Zampese, who — according to Gruden — is one of the more detail-oriented minds in the NFL.
"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."
Head coach Marvin Lewis seemed to agree with the former coach and Super Bowl champion. "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," said Lewis.
Like his predecessor, Zampese brings a creative dynamic to coaching which fans should be excited to see. Considering he’s the son of a mastermind behind one of the most revolutionary offenses in NFL history, it’s no surprise Zampese highly values innovation.
"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."
4. The Bengals, and Cincinnati, are home for Zampese and his family.
While his strangely long tenure as the quarterbacks coach seemed to spook fans, it seems as though Zampese was simply satisfied with the situation he was in as Lewis’ quarterbacks coach.
"You're always looking [for a promotion],” said Zampese. “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."
When his wife, Christina, was diagnosed with breast cancer last October, the Bengals organization rallied to the Zampese family’s side, just as they did with Devon and Leah Still when the latter was diagnosed with pediatric cancer and just as they have done with so many people around the organization who have gone through difficult times.
"They treat you like family," Zampese said of the Bengals organization. "And they mean it. And it's for real."
Zampese stuck around in Cincinnati long enough to see his kids graduate high school in the same house. That, in itself, is an insane accomplishment for someone whose position has offered such little security in the grand scheme of the NFL.
Coming out of two difficult road games, down Tyler Eifert, and with the quarterback who is leading the NFL in passing yards, a 1-1 record is an accomplishment for the Bengals and Zampese. It’s no 2-0, but splitting two tough matchups against teams that had 10-win one season ago, is impressive in any sense. Facing a stout Denver defense in Week 3, perhaps it’s this week we’ll see a better look into what the Bengals’ offensive coordinator has up his sleeve.