An Offensive Offense

Bob George
December 22, 1999 at 12:32 pm ET

When you think about it, the things that Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Shawn Jefferson and Ben Coates are capable of staggers the imagination.

Sometimes Patriot fans make comments like “who needs a running game with the passing offense we have?” When you think about it, it’s not bad logic. The Patriots have gone through Curtis Martin, Robert Edwards and Terry Allen in the last five years in the backfield, and each one of them is or was a second fiddle to the pitcher and catchers.

Taking the good with the bad, Bledsoe is clearly a force in today’s NFL passing scene. His shotgun for an arm and his ability to thread the needle with precision throws are a marvel. Add to that his ability to rally his team in the fourth quarter, as well as a tough side that was revealed late last year, and you have a quarterback that the Patriots are fortunate to have.

Glenn and Jefferson form a formidable wide receiver tandem when all things are right. Glenn has been a health problem, but when he’s on he’s right up there with the best of them in the NFL. Jefferson may be one of the most underrated wideouts in the game today. Both men are speed burners who demand tight coverage from the defensive backs, and often times that isn’t enough with Bledsoe’s howitzer gunning the ball in there.

Speaking of underrated, don’t forget Troy Brown. Here’s hoping that the Patriots have the good sense to keep this guy on for a few more years.

Bledsoe’s “go-to-guy” has been Coates. He can wear two guys and have a third in his face and still make a catch. Coates turned 30 in August, and some say has lost a step or two. But the man is still a force around the goal line, and is as dependable as there is when used properly.

When the Allied invasion landed at Normandy, France in 1944, you just knew that everything was fine with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in charge. Americans had a similar feeling with Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf in charge of Operation Desert Storm in 1990 over in Kuwait.

And with an offensive coordinator like Ernie Zampese in charge of this Patriot offense, you might just figure the same.

Actually, with Zampese at the helm of the Patriot offense, one might think instead of him being like a Hermann Goering, the trigger man of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. Bledsoe would throw passes that would remind war vets of the blitzkriegs that Goering used to spring on the Allies. And with Zampese’s credentials and prior experience, Patriot Nation could expect no less.

Zampese first made his mark as the top offensive guy at San Diego in the late 70s and early 80s. With Dan Fouts, John Jefferson, Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow at his disposal, the Charger offense back then was the marvel of the NFL. Only a perenially weak defense (plus having to play at Cincinnati in minus-40 degree weather) kept San Diego out of a Super Bowl. Fouts paved his way to Canton with unreal passing stats, thanks largely to the schemes that Zampese gave him.

When you think about it, why was the offense named “Air Coryell” instead of “Air Zampese”? We’ll leave that to the history buffs.

Zampese then went to the Rams, and helped introduce the world to someone named Jim Everett. Everett’s first NFL start was against the Patriots, and he came within a Tony Eason to Irving Fryar TD pass of winning in his maiden voyage. Zampese used Everett, Henry Ellard and Ron Brown to light up NFC secondaries. Having Eric Dickerson in the backfield didn’t hurt, but the Rams of the mid-80s were a strong team, and their rivalry with the 49ers was perhaps the NFL’s best at the time.

In the 90s, Zampese had moved on to Dallas. Zampese was in the coaches’ box when Barry Switzer made all NFL fans gape in horror by accepting the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XXX. With Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Jay Novacek at his disposal, Zampese made Switzer look like a winner with a potent offense that was near unstoppable.

Then in 1998, Zampese landed in New England. At the time, it seemed like a major coup for the Patriots. Getting a man of this pedigree to come in and take charge of Bledsoe and his mates seemed too good to be true.

And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Too good to be true.

Some folks thought that Jerry Jones did his pal Bob Kraft a favor by offering Zampese to the Pats before Miami could scoop him up. Miami had wanted Minnesota’s Brian Billick, but he moved on to become head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Miami’s next choice was Zampese, but Kraft beat Jimmy Johnson to the punch.

But there were others who complained that Zampese had grown stale in Dallas. His offensive schemes had become predictable. You can be lots of things in the NFL offensively, but perhaps the worst thing you can be is predictable. Just pop in your tape of the 1997 Wild Card game at Foxborough when the Pats shut down Miami by knowing everything they were going to do, and you will get the idea.

Zampese has been here two years now, and Patriot Nation has seen lots of predictability and virtually no Air Zampese. This year, the results have been both disastrous and baffling.

Bledsoe has been overwhelmed in a hail of blitz packages. Receivers aren’t running correct routes. When they do run correct routes, they take too long to develop. Bledsoe has been reduced to a scared rookie who holds on to the ball too long and takes way too many sacks. And when he does hurry his throw, it usually winds up in the hands of someone on the other team.

Now that he has been healthy all season long, Glenn has been exposed as a lazy and undedicated wide receiver who isn’t playing hard. Zampese has practically ignored Coates all season long, and despite the age factor, there really is no rational reason why. Zampese doesn’t have much of a running game to start with, but what little he has hasn’t been used well or often enough to keep defenses honest and set up a good passing attack.

It all adds up a one major disappointment after another. And it’s the predictability factor, plus his refusal to make correct adjustments to defensive blitz packages that warrants Zampese’s removal.

Bledsoe is being killed by week after week of defenses blitzing on most every down. He is beginning to look like Jim Plunkett. Defenses are continually sending in more men that can be blocked, and all Bledsoe does is drop back seven steps and wait for them all to come and pound him into the ground.

In defense of Zampese, the Patriot offensive line ought to be ashamed of themselves. Not just for their pathetic effort Sunday against Philadelphia, but for their total season-long decline in the one area that they did excel in, pass blocking. Paul Boudreau must be laughing himself silly, watching special teams guru Dante Scarnecchia try and manage these overgrown tubs of lard.

Offensive line is definitely the top need in the 2000 Draft. And you can thank Damon Denson and Ed Ellis for that, as those two should be starters by now instead of wastes of locker room space (well, Ellis still is). Also, drop Tim Couch a line in Cleveland and ask what he thinks of Scott Rehberg.

Defenses constantly blitz the Patriots because they know what the Patriots will keep trying to do, and that the Patriots can’t stop it. What Zampese fails to understand is that you may not be able to stop it, but you can do things that will stop the other guys from blitzing on every play.

To explain this, you the reader will have to excuse me from repeating myself. All year long, this column has been calling for Zampese to use two simple plays to beat the blitz and eventually force the opponents to cut back on it. Those two plays are quick slants and dump offs to Tony Carter.

Bledsoe may lack the foot speed, but believe it or not, he does have the arm to whip the quick, short slant pass into a wideout. When someone blitzes, there is a hole somewhere in the defense. It is the job of the wideout to find that hole. Bledsoe sees the blitz and calls an audible. A wideout breaks off on what is called a “hot read”. It’s a bang-bang play, and it is well within the means of the Patriots to do it.

Patriot wideouts complain that they are constantly getting bumped by cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage, upsetting the timing routes. A cornerback doesn’t have as clear a shot at a wideout on a slant versus a deeper route. All the wideout needs to do is to slant in towards the middle and be open for a split second, and Bledsoe can get the ball there quick. Besides, if the wideouts are really jammed up, there’s always Mr. Coates, who can catch the ball in thick traffic.

The lack of usage of the dump off pass to Carter out of the backfield is puzzling. This play is generally one of the best and most reliable plays in the Patriot playbook. Carter can either break to the right sideline and catch a quick lateral pass, he can slide through and take a quick dump over the middle, or he can be used in a screen pass. All the Patriots do with Carter is expose him to be a lousy blocker. Zampese simply doesn’t feature Carter like he should.

The results of all this is demoralizing to all who follow the Patriots. Defenses are always asked “Gosh, what did you do to shut down the Patriots?” and they respond with “Nothing special, we just knew what they were going to do!” This is as damning to Zampese as can possibly be.

Some folks credit Bill Belichick with the blueprint for shutting down the Patriots. He used a “cover-two” scheme, where the corners bump the wideouts at the line, and the safeties play a zone behind them. Other defenses have featured “flooding”, where two or three blitzers come from one side of the ball, and the Pats simply can’t account for all the rushers.

Again, quick slants can beat this. But instead, you see Bledsoe drop back in the pocket and wait for the big hit to come.

Use quick slants as often as necessary to force defenses to back off. Once that happens, then you can go back to running your full offense. But Zampese refuses to buy this. Bledsoe keeps getting killed, and the Patriots now have a worse scoring machine than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not the Trent Dilfer Bucs, the 1976 Bucs whose offense should have been executed for not executing.

All of what ails the Patriots is completely correctable. Zampese just won’t do it. And no one seems to know why. The result is an offense that is just that — offensive.

Where are the blitzkriegs? Why isn’t Bledsoe filling the skies with passes like Fouts did? Why is this potentially awesome offense reduced to a mere shell of itself? Why is what’s wrong with the Patriot offense obvious to everyone on the planet except to Zampese?

In addition to not recognizing how to beat the blitzes, Zampese hasn’t demonstrated a consistent knowledge of being able to call the right play at the right time.

Part of play calling involves “catching defenses off guard”, “keeping defenses guessing” and “knowing who to exploit and when”. Dealing with the blitz in and of itself is hard enough. But defenses will know a bit less about what’s coming if you know the right play to run in the right situation.

You have bad to mediocre run blocking, you lack a speedy back, you have quick defensive pursuers. Don’t call for an end run.

On second and long, a run play generally won’t work unless it’s a draw play or an awfully good misdirection type. With the Patriots, even a draw won’t work. Don’t run on second and long, even if the defense guesses pass.

How come Bledsoe rarely runs a play-action on obvious run situations anymore? The Packers bit silly on those plays in Super Bowl XXXI, and Bill Parcells wasn’t even trying to win that game.

To build a running game, you have to commit to it. Next year, Kevin Faulk has earned the right to more carries. If Allen returns, up Faulk’s load even more. But Zampese always abandoned the run too quickly. And Allen was still used far too often this year.

Next year’s offensive coordinator must understand that Bledsoe needs work on the deep ball, and find someone who will actually correct that problem. Patriot Nation has seen enough overthrows to Jefferson for one lifetime.

And so on. Things like that are what Zampese could have done and didn’t, or shouldn’t have done. Zampese just didn’t bring his “A” game to Foxborough like he did his previous three stops.

So much was expected of Zampese. But he has delivered so little.

Some Patriot fans blame Bledsoe, saying he is too slow in both his mobility and his thinking. This is nonsense. Everyone out there has seen what Bledsoe is capable of.

The league has figured out the Patriots. Or, to be more specific, it has figured out Zampese. If Zampese would make the right adjustments, fine. But he won’t. Time for the next guy to step up and take a shot.

With a new head man sure to come in, a new offensive head will be a near given. Assuming Pete Carroll goes, it is doubtful that his replacement will keep Zampese around. Kraft may make sure of that when he picks his new head man.

But you have to admit that it made for some great fanciful dreaming last January when Ernie Z was brought on board. He was the right man for the job, except that the right time was 1979 and not 1999.

The new offensive coordinator should have two mandates. Throw quick slants. And take care of The Franchise. Anyone who doesn’t buy that, cross ’em off the list.

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