First there was the toughness of Ray Perkins, then the fatherly prodding of Chris Palmer, then the stay-the-course stoicism of Larry Kennan. Now it's the quiet but precise approach of Ernie Zampese, who becomes the fourth offensive guru to work with quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the last four years. "I'm murder on coaches, huh?" Bledsoe says as he smiles through the perspiration.
Bledsoe is pedaling hard. He's sweating bullets on this hot morning, pumping the exercise bike after a training-camp practice in Smithfield, R.I., as he considers what the wave of coaching changes means to him and his team. Ever since the all-controlling Bill Parcells jumped ship after the 1996 Super Bowl season, Bledsoe has been the key to anything this team accomplishes. There's talk of a hundred other factors that might determine New England's fate in '98—whether the running game will be too thin with the departure of free agent Curtis Martin to the Jets, whether moody franchise wideout Terry Glenn will come to play, whether a weak secondary can hold up—but what is most critical to the Pats' chances of winning a third consecutive AFC East title is how the marriage between Bledsoe and the well-traveled Zampese works out. After all, it was Bledsoe who led this team to 4-1 finishes in each of the last two regular seasons when Martin was either injured or not his usual spectacular self.
Under Zampese, who becomes the Patriots' offensive coordinator after four years with the Cowboys, Bledsoe's biggest adjustment will come in his timing. "The ball will be out quicker now," Bledsoe says. "I've got to get the ball in receivers' hands faster. It's more of a precision offense, and I like it because you force the defense to commit quicker. It's kind of like the West Coast offense in the slants and quick reads, but you maintain a lot of the elements of the regular prostyle offense too. Having worked on it for a few months, I can see why Ernie's been so successful. I can't wait to use it in games. I think it's going to make us, and me, better."
Zampese, however, arrived in New England in a slump. Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman might be the league's best marksman—"He's the most accurate one I've seen," Zampese says—but in terms of completion percentage (56.4), last year was his worst since 1989, his rookie season. Blame injuries if you want, but the feeling among NFC East coaches is that Zampese's offense became all too predictable.
"Drew will have to speed up," Aikman says. "He can do it. But everything he's always done is deliberate, and now he'll have to get it out sooner so he can sync his game with the receivers. Everything with Ernie is timing. It'll make him a better player. My first year under Ernie, I think my mechanics improved dramatically.
"Ernie is a great coach. He was good for me, and I know he'll be good for Drew. His offense is proven. We won three Super Bowls with it."
Zampese, who returns to the AFC for the first time since he was the Chargers' offensive coordinator from 1983 to '86, welcomes the change of scenery. "It's something new and fresh," he says. "It'll be fun going against a new division and a new conference. We still have to find a running back, though."
Right. Aikman wouldn't have won those three Super Bowls without Emmitt Smith. The Patriots didn't have a viable backup last year when Martin was sidelined in December with various injuries, forcing them to go with untested first-year men Derrick Cullors and Sedrick Shaw in the playoffs. First-round draft pick Robert Edwards looked like the real deal early in training camp. He's a 5'11", 218-pound bull with the shake to get away from outside linebackers. But he was slowed at Georgia by a broken foot and ankle sprains, and he'll have to prove he's durable.
If the running game fails, Bledsoe must get big production from Glenn, who vows he's up to the challenge after an injury-plagued 1997 season. Glenn was a more frequent participant in off-season workouts than he had been the previous summer, and that—along with Zampese's offense—may help him put to rest the notion that he's too fragile to be a bona fide NFL star.
"I've been in a lot of offenses, and I think this one's going to be a real nice one," says Glenn. "Last year I think I got caught up in all the hype of trying to beat my rookie season [of 90 catches]. This year I'm not thinking numbers. All I'm thinking about is being my best on the next play."