There is a long pause on the telephone as John Paul Young, the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, tries to collect his thoughts.
"Ernie Zampese, eh?," said Young. "Is he in jail?"
No, he is told.
"He oughta be."
And there you have it. in a nutshell, the general consensus on one Mr. Zampese, formerly of Hancock Junior College, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, San Diego Stater, the San Diego chargers and now the Rams.
Zampese tends to keep the Youngs of the world awake at night. You wouldn't believe it if you me Zampese Quiet, humble, unassuming, Zampese hardly seems the type to cause such consternation.
But there he is, forcing defensive coordinators into blackboard nightmares. All it takes is a gentle reminder of past Zampese statistics, mainly the ones that say his Charger offenses led the National Football League in passing six of the last eight years.
"I watch him like a hawk," said Young. "Every time I feel like I've got him roped like a goat, he slips out of the knot. I don't know if there's a 'book' on how to stop him, but we've got a whole filing drawer full of stuff--most of it failed. It was stuff not to do."
Said Joe Collier of the Denver Broncos: "Ernie, to me, is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league. He's very difficult to pinpoint. He keeps you off balance all the time. And he's very imaginative. He's probably the best in the league as far as I'm concerned when it comes to calls during the game. quite often, you make quite a bit of your calls by the seat of your pants. After years of work, some coaches learn that. Ernie got the hang of it a long time ago."
There is a slight disagreement over the reasons' for Zampese's yearly successes. Coaches who know his methods best, those Zampese is a master of adaptation. Others say he perfectly blends his ideas with his roster. And then there are those who say he has a flair for the unthinkable.
ERNIE THE ADAPTOR
What makes Zampese's offenses so infuriating is their tendency to confound. Just when you think you've got him, really got him, Zampese wriggles free. There, high above the field, in one the Ram coaching boxes, Zampese sees openings and weaknesses. A phone call later...
"He does the same thing over and over, but it's from different looks," said Young. "He just causes all sorts of problems. It's so varied. He'll line up in a regular formation and then scatter them like he had a bunch of quail in there. Then he'll line up with bunch of wide receivers and run at you. He'll put backs on the field and have the halfback run the option. He's a sneaky snake now, one that you've got to watch. We just try to trip him up now and then, slow him down."
Dave Levy is now the Charger offensive coordinator. He proudly points out that this is the same San Diego offense that Don Coryell and Zampese helped install during the late '70s. A few of the names have changed, but the system remains healthy. And the system, says Levy, works partly because it anticipates and counters most defensive moves.
"That's probably the greatest thing we have done with those movements, motions and shifts," said Levy. "You adjust more easily when you have all the weapons. If you've got a great idea, a theory and no offense with a twist.
Collier, who has seen the 10- to 15-yard passes work more than he'd like to remember, has a simple name for them.
"Garbage plays," he said. "It just keeps the drive alive. It's not a play that scores a touchdown. But it's a situation that's difficult to defend. And he'll use pickoffs (one receiver shields another receiver from a defender). That's one of the things that he does extremely well."
ERNIE THE ROSTER WIZARD
Zampese has been blessed with a tool-shed-full of offensive implements. With the Chargers, he had quarterback Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receivers Wes Chandler and Charlie Joiner, running backs Lionel James and Gary Anderson.
With the Rams, quarterback Jim Everett, running back Eric Dickerson and receivers Henry Ellard and Ron Brown are at his disposal.
"When I think of Zampese, I also think of Dan Fouts, a guy who has seen everything there is to see," said Tom Catlin, Seattle Seahawk defensive coordinator. "He recognizes everything. He can throw the ball on a pinpoint up there.
"You try to keep changing things up on (Zampese), but it's hard to do. There comes a point when you run out of things to do."
"He won't try types of things, plays that maybe a guy can't perform very well," he said. "What I consider him is a very good utilizer of talents. That's the way he was in San Diego and I'm sure that's how he can be with the Rams."
Said Levy: "What (the Rams) are going to get is an excellent coach who will do an excellent job. He understands how to use players. They can be pretty darn versatile themselves. They have a young quarterback, a great running back, speed receivers. They were relatively one-sided. Now they want to have more clubs in their bag."
Introducing your new Ram caddy, Zampese.