AFC North: Minnesota Vikings hire Mike Zimmer

CINCINNATI -- Chris Crocker, the Cincinnati Bengals' venerable on-again, off-again retired defensive back, spent parts of the past seven seasons playing for Mike Zimmer, the now former Bengals defensive coordinator who on Wednesday became the Minnesota Vikings' next head coach.

Zimmer was the reason Crocker pulled himself out of retirement the past two seasons and filled in when early-season injuries forced the Bengals to shore up their secondary. Because of that, a still rejuvenated Crocker feels like he owes his career to Zimmer, the 57-year-old who at long last has accepted a head-coaching gig.

So it was a no-brainer to reach out to Crocker on Wednesday to see what he had to say about the opportunity his friend, mentor and coach has waited so long to achieve.

[+] EnlargeChris Crocker
AP Photo/G.. Newman Lowrance"It's strictly business when you're around [Mike Zimmer]," said Chris Crocker.
When asked what Vikings players ought to expect when Zimmer officially starts the new job, Crocker said "attitude."

"First and foremost, it's about no nonsense behavior with Zimmer," Crocker said. "It's strictly business when you're around him. He cares about his guys, and he's fair. He holds people accountable. But when those guys meet Zim, they'll see it's definitely about attitude. That team will have attitude. I don't know what all they plan to do or how they'll try to change things, but I know they'll be a tough team."

Crocker first encountered Zimmer in 2007 when the two were in Atlanta for an abysmal 4-12 season that Zimmer tries to pretend never happened. (In 2010 he told writers in Cincinnati that he "never was even there" for the 2007 season because of the way then-Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino -- someone he referred to by three different variations of curse words -- left the team for a college coaching opportunity with three games left.)

A year after that lone dysfunctional season in the Peach State, Zimmer was hired by the Bengals. Crocker, who spent the first part of that season in Miami, came on board when Zimmer stepped up and told the Bengals' staff he thought Crocker could play.

"He took a kid who most people might have thought had a little talent, and turned him into something better," Crocker said. "I didn't put it all together until I got to Cincinnati."

Other Bengals have echoed those sentiments, calling Zimmer an effective teacher and a coach whom they don't want to let down. After a loss or boneheaded play, players would claim they felt like they disappointed Zimmer.

"It's true, that really happens," Crocker said. "It's like when parents get disappointed in their kids. You can feel that with Zim.

"You know, there aren't very many loyalties in this business. It is a business first. But if you play hard and are a good teammate, he goes to bat for you. That's why he has so much respect among players. That's why so many guys want to play for him."

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, a Cincinnati native, has been tracking Zimmer's career since he arrived in town. He was among the first on the team to welcome Zimmer and express excitement about playing for him.

According to Vikings reporter Ben Goessling, Brian Robison said players told general manager Rick Spielman after Leslie Frazier's firing that they wanted a coach who wasn't afraid to show emotion and challenge players when they needed to be.

"From the sounds of it, he's a guy that's very passionate about his job," Robison said. "He will yell and cuss at you if you need it, and at the same time praises you when you deserve it. He sounds like the kind of the opposite of Frazier -- a lot of passion, excitement and emotion."

Robison's absolutely right. Which is why Bengals players such as linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Adam Jones weren't too upset about Zimmer's departure. In fact, they might have been among the most happy tweeters when Wednesday's reports regarding Zimmer first surfaced:

Crocker, who is spending the offseason at home in suburban Atlanta with his family, called the day a "bittersweet" one for the city of Cincinnati. He knew there were a lot of people who were sad to see Zimmer go, but he believes many are excited to see him finally realize a career goal.

"He's been through so much in Cincinnati," Crocker said, mentioning the sudden death of Zimmer's wife, Vikki, during the 2009 season. "After that, the city really got behind him. People there really respected him and felt connected to him. Another part of the reason it was so hard for him to actually get another job and leave Cincinnati, to me, was because of that. It was just hard for him to leave because he had all of that outpouring of support from the city.

"He'll be sorely missed."

Cincinnati's loss will be the Twin Cities' gain.
CINCINNATI -- It finally happened. And the city of Cincinnati couldn't be any happier -- or sadder.

In a young year that has already been full of conflicting feelings for the Cincinnati Bengals and their faithful, another emotional blow was levied Wednesday morning when ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported the Minnesota Vikings were hiring longtime Bengals assistant Mike Zimmer. At long last, Cincinnati's defensive coordinator since 2008 received the job he probably could have -- nay, should have -- been given years ago.

Zimmer is now a head coach. Let the growing pains begin.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga and Paul Guenther
AP Photo/Al BehrmanIn order to maintain continuity, the Bengals may look at linebackers coach Paul Guenther, right, to replace Mike Zimmer.
The good news for the Bengals is that much like last week's hiring of former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden by Washington, they have been preparing for some time for this particular coaching change. And just like Gruden's replacement, Hue Jackson, the Bengals are expected to make the transition to their next defensive coordinator from within. Linebackers coach Paul Guenther could be elevated in the wake of Zimmer's departure, although recent reports suggest Zimmer and Gruden may want to court him for their defensive coordinator openings, too.

The Bengals won't want that to happen. To keep the growing pains down, they'll want Guenther.

If Guenther follows Zimmer to Minnesota, he likely won't be alone. Zimmer's son, assistant defensive backs coach Adam Zimmer, could be coming, too. The elder Zimmer credited Adam last week with being a key reason why the Bengals were able to weather a barrage of injuries in the secondary this season.

Whether Guenther, Jim Schwartz (a close friend to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis), or someone else becomes the Bengals' new defensive coordinator one simple fact remains: An uncomfortable change is coming to Paul Brown Stadium.

Compared to Jackson's promotion, this next hiring ought to be viewed as a downgrade. No, that's not intended to be an insult to Guenther, Schwartz or whomever becomes the new coordinator. It's instead a compliment to Zimmer's work these past six seasons in Cincinnati.

Finding a carbon-copy replacement will be nearly impossible.

Many, including this reporter, praised the Bengals' hiring of Jackson primarily because he made such a strong emphasis in his news conference last Friday on doing the one thing the Bengals failed to do in their last three playoff appearances. He vowed to run, run and run some more.

What can the Bengals' new defensive coordinator do in the immediate future that Zimmer didn't already accomplish? Very little. After all, this was a defense that ranked as the NFL's fifth-best between 2008-13, and one that finished the 2013 regular season as the league's No. 3 unit for the year. That's precisely why Zimmer's replacement ought to be concerned with sticking to the same script of an aggressive, blitz-happy defense that has been a hallmark of Zimmer's coaching style for 14 years.

Minus defensive end Michael Johnson, who likely will be too expensive to re-sign this offseason, the personnel for a continued high-paced pass rush is there. So it ought to be maintained. If it is, the growing pains that will certainly come might be eased.

If you ask the Bengals, they'll tell you Zimmer's teachings are the reasons why they should thrive even after his departure. Not long after news of Zimmer's hiring was made public, Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga issued the following message on Twitter.

Along with Maualuga, the Bengals next year will have Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a third season. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins will be coming back from ACL surgery. Veterans Leon Hall and Robert Geathers also will be back from major injuries, joining the likes of Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap, Terence Newman and Adam Jones into the regular rotation. With the same defensive blueprint and near-exact replica of the 2013 team returning, the Bengals ought to get through this change.

But they should expect challenges.

Whoever takes Zimmer's job will have to have their voice respected right away. If it's Guenther, he suddenly goes from being just another voice in the coaches' meetings to the voice of record when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. If it's someone like Schwartz, he'll have to quickly win over the trust of every other coach and player in the room, even if the head coach already has it.

One positive the Bengals have in Guenther is the fact that he has proved an ability to take risks and generate maximum rewards off them. Case in point, the weakside linebacker who he, Zimmer and Lewis took a chance on following the 2012 draft.

Few teams were willing to take a hard look at Burfict, the former Arizona State standout who showed up to the NFL combine out of shape and overweight, and dealing with numerous off-field issues. Those factors contributed, in part, to him going undrafted. When undrafted free agents were permitted to sign, though, the Bengals were right there.

In short order, Burfict showed how much he trusted and respected the three coaches by becoming one of the top tacklers on the team as a rookie. Then this year, he led the NFL in stops. His growth and maturity were impressive. That's a credit to Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther.

That's why, if you're the Bengals, you hope everything works out with Guenther. Not only does he have pre-existing relationships, but he knows the terminology and system the Bengals like to use. He might not be Zimmer, but who is?

But at least with him on board, the growing pains might not be so bad.