Ken Zampese oversees an intriguing quarterbacks room with the Washington Commanders entering the 2022 season. There’s Carson Wentz, the former No. 2 overall pick traded by the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts in consecutive seasons after failing to live up to expectations; Taylor Heinicke, the Old Dominion student-turned almost Tom Brady slayer (within a month!) and then the team’s full-time starter last season; and finally Sam Howell, a projected top-five draft pick before an underwhelming 2021 dropped him all the way to the fifth round.
Wentz’s seemingly final chance to be an NFL starter will unfold in Washington, while Heinicke will be anxiously waiting to be called upon if necessary and Howell will look to rediscover his 2020 magic as he acclimates himself to the NFL. Guiding all of these players is Zampese, 55, who enters his 19th season as an NFL quarterbacks coach.
Ahead of the Commanders’ preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday afternoon, Zampese spoke with CBS Sports about Wentz’s potential, Howell’s continuing development and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial reaction when you found out Carson Wentz was joining the team?
“I was so excited I could hardly stand myself. My hope went through the roof, my confidence went through the roof. I just know when you add talent and you get a guy that’s accountable and you hold him accountable, good things are going to happen. When? Who knows. But we’re going to be moving in a positive direction all the time, and I knew that was a good deal. … I just know that he is a very capable NFL passer, and I’m very happy we got him here.”
What have been your impressions of Wentz since you started working with him?
“He’s locked into details. He wants to know and he wants to communicate it so that we’re all on the same page. That’s obvious from the time we started when it was just he and I. And then as we get the players into the building, you see the communication and going back to talk through a rep after it’s already been done, to come to a greater understanding so that when we go to the next time, you can anticipate it a little bit more, and you get better balls, better looks, better spots.”
Is that the main thing that has stood out about Wentz so far? Or have other things also caught your attention?
“That’s the one you want to have, because then the guy’s locked into what you’re doing and is trying to do it the way that we’re talking about doing it. And then he brings his own stuff from where he’s been to where there’s (additions) and there’s things that we subtracted, and we’re just making it our offense this year. It’s our 2022 Commanders offense.”
Any specific examples of his attention to detail?
“There are certain routes where we talk about, ‘Oh, our focus is over here,’ and he says, ‘Hey, if I can get this look on the backside, can we put this on it?’ So you know he’s seeing the whole field. And if we can do that and it works out and we can get another shot to throw it to Terry McLaurin), that’s a hell of a deal. It’s something where you’re seeing the whole field, how we’re using all the pieces, and he sees all the pieces and what we can do with them. That’s the fun part.”
What’s the biggest thing that’s going to change for the offense this year with Wentz at quarterback?
“Well he’s got his own unique style, which is different than the rest of them. He can reach the whole field easily. He’s really good at quick game. The usual things that have stood out. I mean I think he was in the top 10 in plus-20 air yard passes, something like that, so there’s some downfield elements that he brings; it’s natural to him. And then his style of leadership and communication in the building. He’s very personable, 1-on-1, being deliberate to get to each guy.”
Wentz’s accuracy has been inconsistent at times throughout camp, and coach Ron Rivera has attributed that to learning a new system and getting the rhythm and timing down with his speedy receivers. How long does it typically take for a quarterback in a new system to gain that baseline of comfortability?
“There’s no threshold. You just know it when you see it over time. The easy things stay easy. You don’t see the wheels spinning on an easy concept and it’s hard to get. Guys are getting it, it’s getting to the right spot. It’s also the quickness from one read to another, ‘Oh, shoot, OK, he’s got that one. We feel good about this concept. Let’s try and do more.’ There’s no kind of magic moment, but you kind of know it when you see it.”
Have you seen it so far during training camp?
“We’re in the process. Some days are better than other days, and that’s how training camp goes. … It’s no different than anybody else who walks into the building new. We’re not six years in with somebody. We are six months in with somebody, and even though some other guys have been here, we haven’t done it together. So we’re trying to build our sustainable winning culture within our offense.”
Wentz will start the preseason opener Saturday against the Panthers, and Rivera said he wants to see the starters get 15-20 snaps. What do you want to see from Wentz during that time?
“I just want to see the ball move down the field. It doesn’t matter to me how it works; just that it works and it’s smooth and we’re happy with the decisions and we’re finding ways to protect the football and take advantage of the defense and big plays when we get them. So yeah, just move the ball, convert some first downs, score — of course — and then just see the offense flow the way it’s supposed to, the way we’ve talked about it. And then we can come back with a greater confidence later because we actually did it on another level other than practice; we did it live.”
This is Wentz’s third team in as many years. What makes you think Washington can be a long-term fit for him?
“We’ve seen it on Sunday, him be productive on Sunday. And we have pretty good skill guys, and I think as you compare that with other spots he’s been in over time, it gives me hope that if we can get the ball out to these guys, we’ll be able to make some very, very productive plays — short range and down the field.”
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Switching gears to Sam Howell: You’ve coached a lot of rookie quarterbacks who have gone on to be long-term starters (Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield, etc.) What stands out about Howell in terms of what he brings to the NFL?
“He’s humble, he’s got a live arm, and he likes to be coached. That’s kind of Sam in a nutshell. He really gleans everything off of every meeting and wants to know, and anytime I say, ‘Hey Sam, let’s get together before or after practice,’ he says, ‘Yes sir,’ and we’re on it, we’re doing it. And that’s going to go a long way to his development toward being fast, not slow. He’s very coachable, he’s got a high motor for work and his focus is good, and he has a lot of pride. That’s the other thing that sticks out: he’s got a lot of pride. He sees himself in a very upwardly-mobile-in-this-profession way, and he should, because he can.
“He doesn’t give himself a crutch if he misses a throw. He knows he can make it because it should be easy for him in his mind because ‘I can do all of these things, and when I don’t, I’m very disappointed,’ as opposed to, ‘Yeah, you know I just missed one. Whatever.’ It’s not like that for him. He holds himself accountable very well.
“He’s not happy about it. Those things happen because guys are rookies, but when you don’t get something that doesn’t happen right, there’s a sting that goes along with it. And if you don’t use it for fuel, you don’t gain from the experience. He uses all the stings as fuel, and that’s the important part, no matter what year you are but particularly as a rookie because you get so many of them.”
What are the biggest areas you want to see him improve throughout his rookie campaign?
“I want to see his pocket moving and sliding to make a play. And then knowing when to cut your losses and run; just the natural feel of that part of the game, like to see that. We’ve seen him out here on one-hitch fire the ball around. He’s been very productive, and now we’ll get to see it in the game. I want to see the improvisational skills.”