In Washington’s QB competition, the first pivotal step is learning to speak the language

So Rivera wanted a plan.

“I had one sheet,” quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said in a video conference call with reporters Thursday. “Because it is not easy, but the steps aren’t hard. … There’s an urgency and there’s an on-the-clock mentality with a young guy that they have to share. If you have to drag them, it is not fun. But if they’re already up for the hunt, it is a lot better. Baker [Mayfield] was that way, these young guys in the building are that way, and that’s what encourages me.”

Zampese, whose father, Ernie, was one of the top assistants to Don Coryell in the late 1970s and ‘80s, was Cleveland’s quarterbacks coach in 2018 when Mayfield set an NFL record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie (27). Zampese earlier helped Carson Palmer set franchise passing records in Cincinnati, then helped his successor, Andy Dalton, step in as a rookie after the 2011 lockout and lead the Bengals to the first of five consecutive playoff appearances.

Nine years later, Zampese faces a similar challenge in Washington, where the starting job has essentially become Haskins’s to lose. He will compete with Allen, a third-year quarterback who already knows the system from his time in Carolina (where Rivera was head coach from 2011-19), and maybe at some point Smith, too, if the veteran is cleared by team doctors to resume practice as he continues his return from a compound fracture in his right leg suffered in 2018.

Like 2011, there were no OTAs or minicamps in the NFL this year. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there will be no preseason, either, no joint training camp practices and few opportunities to evaluate young talent before games begin — if games begin — in September. The NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to a modified camp schedule that includes a lengthy ramp-up period and a maximum of 14 padded practices, beginning as early as Aug. 17.

Zampese’s coaching so far has been limited to technology and a great deal of trust.

“We have to trust that they are doing what we like them to do outside of the building because that is all we’ve had with them in a physical standpoint — that they are eating right, sleeping right and training right,” he said. “You saw what happened when Dwayne puts his mind to it. He’s down in weight, he’s in great condition. All those things that are in your control, he’s handled very well in the offseason.

“Now we’re on to the next step: What are we going to do on the field within this offense and this communication system, and how are we going to compete and those kinds of things?”

Since the NFL’s virtual offseason program began in April, Zampese has made verbiage a priority. Many of the same concepts carry over from one system to another in the NFL, but the greatest differences are often in how each team labels them.

Unlike the West Coast offense Jay Gruden employed with Washington, the Air Coryell system is rooted in stretching the field vertically with presnap motions, downfield passing and a complementary power running game. Success is dependent on a quarterback mastering his reads and his timing; often he’s throwing to a spot downfield with the trust that his targeted receiver will be there by the time the ball arrives.

Also unlike the West Coast, the Coryell system uses shorter play calls, with numbers to designate routes and words to describe protections.

“Twins right fly, scat right five, 25 F post swing. That would be an example of a play call,” Zampese said. “A lot of offenses, the protections are digits and the routes are words. … As you move from offense to offense, there are different ways of distributing responsibility. For the guys that haven’t had the system for the routes, you are converting words into numbers.”

Allen learned the language during his two years in Carolina, with new Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner as his quarterbacks coach and later his interim coordinator. Smith played in the Coryell offense under Norv Turner, Scott’s father, and later Mike Martz in San Francisco.

Smith was cleared by his surgical team to return, but he was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list while he continues to work his way back to football shape.

“Well, the first thing we have to find out is if he can protect himself,” Zampese said. “ … When it gets to the point where he gets to practice, we’ll find out. The drill work will be very important. How quick is he when he pushes off and those kinds of things. And change of direction. But I think the other things will come back very smoothly.”

Haskins, meanwhile, is starting anew with the system and the language. He said in June that he had already started to feel comfortable with the offense and that the terminology was easier to grasp. But his mastery of the language could ultimately be the difference-maker in Washington’s quarterback competition.

“It’s easy to drop back five steps and throw it to an out route. Everybody does that in every offense,” Zampese said. “Those physical things, I think, will be easier to pick up. It’s the other things, like the mental side of it and the memorization of where we want to go and why, the philosophy of the play, who we’re trying to throw it too, grouping different reads in such a way that it’s not new learning.

“Those are the things we are trying to do to make it easy on all of these guys and Dwayne in particular, and I can’t wait to hear him speak and fix things and see those wheels turning faster and faster when we get out there.”

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