Coaching dominoes to benefit Bengals pair

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
11:45
AM ET
CINCINNATI -- It's Black Monday around the NFL, and for a still to-be-determined number of men and their families, its arrival has good reason to be met with unwelcome arms.

For two Cincinnati Bengals assistant coaches, though, there also is reason to grudgingly embrace this day. While they certainly won't be glad to see some of their peers get booted from head-coaching opportunities, Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden do have to understand that as dark as this postseason Monday may be for some, it could help illuminate a brighter path for their own careers.

By late Monday morning, already three head coaches had been fired. Washington let go of Mike Shanahan, Minnesota parted ways with Leslie Frazier and Cleveland split with Rob Chudzinski on Sunday. During the season, Houston also cut ties with Gary Kubiak. Other firings could be on the horizon.

It has been hinted here and elsewhere all season that at long last, this might finally be Zimmer's final season as the Bengals' defensive coordinator. The longtime assistant has routinely trotted out some of the NFL's best defenses since his arrival in 2008, even bringing the unit this season to its first top-3 ranking since 1983. Constantly blitzing linebackers and safeties and relentless pressure from a physical and deep defensive line are hallmarks of Zimmer's system.

Cincinnati's defense also ended the season ranked second in third-down percentage, and in a three-way tie for first in defensive touchdowns. All six of their defensive scores came at home and in wins.

The odds of Gruden's departure may not be as high as Zimmer's, but like ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen mentioned on Monday's morning editions of "SportsCenter," the offensive coordinator's name has already started popping up on some coaching candidate lists. Since the Bengals are playing in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs this weekend, neither can be interviewed by another team until after the divisional round of the playoffs, which ends Jan. 12.

For now, Gruden maintains his focus is on helping the Bengals not only reach the divisional round, but to advance even further.

"We'll see what happens," Gruden said to reporters last Thursday. "The only thing I'm worried about is winning games here, winning the playoffs here and then after the season we'll read the newspapers and see who's hot and who's not. Just finish the season and have some fun and whatever happens, happens."

Gruden's ability to evaluate young playmaking talent, as well as his work molding quarterback Andy Dalton the past three years are among the main reasons he might soon land his first NFL head-coaching job. He has past head-coaching experience, leading the AFL's Orlando Predators and UFL's Florida Taskers before being handed the reigns of Cincinnati's offense in 2011. Gruden also is the brother of former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.

"I don't know if I'll be one of the most mentioned guys. There are a lot of great coordinators out there," Jay Gruden added, before hinting that Zimmer deserved a shot as a head coach.

Before coming to the Bengals in 2008, Zimmer served as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator for seven seasons. He spent one other in Atlanta. One of his players on that 2007 Falcons team was cornerback Chris Crocker. The veteran Bengals defender said last week that he thought his longtime coach was well overdue for a top coaching position.

"Man, I hate to say it but you just don't know," Crocker said. "Not speaking for Zim, but I think he would love the chance just like anybody else would. He's done everything he could possibly do in his head-coaching career besides being a head coach. So why not give him a shot?"

Even if this round on the coaching carousel doesn't work out for Gruden or Zimmer -- like Crocker said, there's no reason for it not to in Zimmer's case this time around -- by simply having their names brought up once again, the pair still will benefit themselves for the future. By sitting down for another interview, all they can do is increase the odds that one day the coaching dominoes will fall favorably for them.

Buckle up, Bengals fans. As exciting as this first week of the playoffs may be for you, just know that the weeks that follow could bring even more intrigue for two of your prized coaching possessions.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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