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Rams '87 PREVIEW SECTION : Doing Things the E.Z. Way : Rams, Looking to Balance Offense, Turn to Aerial Guru Ernie Zampese

September 11, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

For the Rams, training camp 1987 had all the feel and excitement of back-to-school week.

Receivers, quarterbacks and running backs filled meeting rooms to hear the gospel of the new pass offense, as told and taught by offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese.

You don't think these guys are all ears?

"He's a great teacher," reserve quarterback Hugh Millen was saying recently. "He gets up there on that blackboard and speaks in terms you can understand."

Millen compared Zampese to a favorite professor at his alma mater, the University of Washington. What's this? Football players rushing to class?

"I like listening to him," Millen said. "It wouldn't matter if he was speaking on football or economics. I took Speech 101, and he's got it all. He'll lighten you up by saying something about some guy's hokey state university nickname."

No, there's nothing quite like learning--even if it requires paying attention--from a professor who makes it all sound so exciting and convincing.

And that, the players say, is what the Rams have in Ernie Zampese, for eight years the right-hand man of Don Coryell's high-flying San Diego Charger offense.

Only now, Zampese is drawing slant-routes and button-hooks with chalk and chalkboard provided by the Rams.

Suddenly, blackboard X's and O's--once confused with tick-tack-toe etchings--are now taking the form of successful pass routes.

Remember, this was not an easy task for Prof. Zampese.

In the last three years, the Rams have finished 28th, 28th and 27th in the National Football League in passing. In a league with only 28 teams, that translates to last, last and next-to-last.

The amazing part is how the Rams somehow managed success. Coach John Robinson, in four successive playoff appearances, which included--in 1985--one NFC Western Division title and one trip to the NFC Championship game.

The Rams accomplished this with a tough defense and a 50-mule team work ethic on offense. And, of course, Eric Dickerson, the NFL's rushing leader in three of those four seasons.

Through it all, though, the passing and running game seemed distant entities, as isolated as a company's accounting and mailroom departments.

The flaw was sufficiently camouflaged until push always came to shove in the playoffs, when teams of equal might simply stacked their best and beefiest players against the only hand the Rams could play--Dickerson.

THe Rams and Robinson, to their credit, have seemingly learned from their mistakes and have diligently set out in search of missing links.

They found one last September, when they completed the trade with Houston that brought the Rams rookie quarterback Jim Everett.

The final link, many experts believe, was located last February, when Robinson lured Zampese to Anaheim. Under Coryell, Zampese's offense had led the NFL in total offense and passing yardage six times in eight seasons.

But one thing that Zampese has made clear from the beginning is that he is not coming here to stir up trouble.

"There's not going to be any drastic changes in the philosophy of football with John Robinson," Zampese said, "This is the L.A. Rams and this team is going to emulate John Robinson. This team is going to be a physical, knock-the-hell-out-of-you football team. What we'd like to see is an ability to make something happen with the passing game."

Zampese says the pieces are all there.

"We've got guys like Henry Ellard, Ron Brown and Eric Dickerson," Zampese said, "Those are some pretty good people to start with. We want to get the ball in their hands so they have a chance to make something big happen."

So what and who is Ernie Zampese? Why is his offense so feared? Why the fuss?

Zampese says there is no mystique to his success other than his insistence on detail and repetition. It's a play off of the "If at first you don't succeed. . ." axiom.

Milen says Zampese's style is keen but subtle.

"You get the feeling that in his mind he knows the way it can work," Milen said.

Zampese pass routes are precise and snappy, with the quarterback and receiver taking advantage of the slightest opening.

Milen said he has been taught to throw or not to throw a pass based on how a defensive back's hips are positioned, of all things. Or maybe the safety or linebacker is leaning on the wrong foot. That's the time to strike.

Zampese wants the ball in his receivers' hands in between the steps of a linebacker or at the moment a cornerback is shifting his balance. The split second, he says, can mean all the difference.

Already, the subtleties of his teaching have met with success. In the team's exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos in London, receiver Ron Brown, the NFL's fastest man, took a slant route over the middle and was tackled almost immediately after the catch.

In the four days from that catch to the team's next game against Seattle, Brown was drilled on a technique that could utilize his speed and free him from his defender.

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