The inaugural Dr. Z Awards are announced.
The Pro Football Writers of America gives out awards annually to deserving players and executives in the NFL, and this year our group is adding an award to recognize assistant coaches. It’s long past time that career assistants, who don’t make the Hall of Fame and most often work deep in the shadows of their head coaches, are memorialized for what they do. PFWA leaders Ira Miller and Dan Pompei pushed to honor Paul Zimmerman in conjunction with the award, seeing that Zim for so long chronicled these men in the shadows and was constantly drawing attention to the previously invisible work of so many of them. So the PFWA decided to christen the award “The Paul ‘Dr. Z’ Zimmerman Award” for lifetime achievement for NFL assistant coaches.
The inaugural class of four winners:
- Howard Mudd, who worked for 39 years as an NFL offensive line coach with eight teams.
- The late Fritz Shurmur, a veteran of 24 years as an NFL coach, 20 of them as a defensive coordinator.
- Ernie Zampese, a 24-year NFL assistant and one of the architects of the modern passing game.
- The late Jim Johnson, a master of the disguised blitz, a 23-year assistant and defensive coordinator.
“For gosh sakes, this is unbelievable,” said Zampese, now living in retirement in San Diego. “It’s flabbergasting. To be included with those other three men who were such great coaches, I am incredibly stunned. Thank you.”
“I’m very flattered,” Mudd said. “I also really appreciate the award being named after Paul. When he interviewed me, he was fixated on my troops. I appreciate how he saw the game. I’m quite taken aback. This is such an elite group.”
Mudd was a three-time Pro Bowl guard for the Niners in a seven-year NFL career in the ’60s. In 1974, he started coaching the offensive line in San Diego, and he went to coach lines in San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle again (developing Hall of Famer Walter Jones in the process), Indianapolis (for the first 12 years of Peyton Manning’s career) and Philadelphia before retiring after the 2012 season. Well, not exactly retiring. He volunteer-coached the Mount Si High School offensive line in North Bend, Wash., last fall. “I was as proud of those as any guys I coached in the NFL,’’ Mudd said. He’s best known for his 12 years with the Colts—particularly for his patch job in 2008, when Indy had Manning coming back from tricky summer knee surgery and a dangerous infection, and center Jeff Saturday was hurt, and Mudd had to get rookie Jamey Richard ready to play one of the most complicated center positions in football, with all the changes Manning makes at the line. The Colts won 12 games. “My mantra—and I hope they put this on my gravestone—was, ‘Do a few things, and do them extraordinarily well.’ “
Shurmur, a college center at Albion (Mich.) College, broke into the NFL in 1975 with Detroit as defensive line coach, after four seasons as Wyoming’s head coach. He was defensive coordinator for Detroit, New England (breaking in Bill Parcells to the NFL in 1980), the Rams, the Cardinals and Packers before dying in 1999 at 67 of liver cancer. In 1996 his Green Bay defense stifled San Francisco, Carolina and New England—holding them to an average of 16 points—in the Packers’ Super Bowl run. He was best known for his defensive adjustments. In 1989 he invented a 2-5 defensive front with the Rams when injuries ravaged the front, using different combinations of safeties and linebackers in the middle. He often used a “big nickel” package, with safeties playing a more prominent role in coverage and nickel rushes instead of corners. “Fritz was one of the first to employ a nickel on a full-time basis,” Parcells said Saturday. “He was creative in many ways, one of the coaches who really knew how to fit the talent he had to the best scheme for them. And he was a tremendous defensive line coach. Tremendous. Very demanding. Those defensive linemen, he was on their ass. When I got to New England in 1980, Fritz taught me to two-gap. I just think he’s one of the best I’ve seen in the business, and he was very important to my career.” Ask Barry Sanders about Fritz Shurmur: In a 1994 playoff game against Shurmur’s Packers, Sanders was held to -1 yard on 13 carries.
Zampese has the distinction of running for the winning touchdown as a USC tailback against Notre Dame in 1956 (bet you didn’t know that) and being hired for two of his early coaching jobs by John Madden and Don Coryell. “A lot of times in my career,” he said, “I was in the perfect spot. You go to work for Don Coryell, and he just lets you do what you do; he lets you coach.” Coryell put him in charge of the Charger receivers from 1979 to 1983, and San Diego was the most explosive offense in football, with Dan Fouts throwing to a bevy of great wideouts and to tight end Kellen Winslow. Zampese brought lots of motion and shifting to the offense. Each of those five seasons, San Diego had the number one passing offense in the NFL. “He’s the best offensive coach I know,” Coryell once said. His quarterbacks—Fouts, Jim Everett, Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe (in New England in his stop as coordinator, in 1998 and ’99)—were always among the league’s most prolific. Aikman swore by him. “I had some great quarterbacks who ran the offense great,” Zampese said. “It comes back to being in the perfect spot so many times. In Dallas, what a great position that was to be in, with such great offensive talent.”
Johnson was still in full bloom at 68 when cancer of the spine killed him five years ago. He brought pressure with the best defensive coaches in recent history. Over his last nine years as Philadelphia defensive coordinator, his Eagles were second in the league with 390 sacks—yet only two of his pass-rushers (Hugh Douglas and Trent Cole) went to a Pro Bowl. Said one of his protégés, former Eagles assistant John Harbaugh, when Johnson died: “He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL.” Johnson figured out ways of disguising pressure and bringing it against different teams with different players—and none of the 11 men on defense was out of the pressure mix. His Eagles once sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times in a game; his last Eagle defense held the Giants and Vikings to 25 points in eight quarters in two road playoff wins in the 2008 season. He did his best work with the Eagles, but he also coached Arizona, Indianapolis and Seattle in an NFL tenure that dated to 1986.
That’s a first-class first class of Dr. Z award winners.