Mike Zimmer gone, but imprint still exists

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
9:00
PM ET
Mike Zimmer AP Photo/Michael KeatingMike Zimmer built an intimidating defense during his six seasons in Cincinnati.
INDIANAPOLIS -- There is a ghost that roams the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive meeting rooms these days.

And that is fine with Marvin Lewis.

Heck, the head coach welcomes the spirit's presence with wide-open arms, and would bottle it up and keep it around for the entirety of his Bengals tenure, if he could. If he wanted to do that, you couldn't blame him for it, either.

When Mike Zimmer left last month to become the Minnesota Vikings' new head coach, he might have physically taken with him the same philosophies and playbooks that made him a success as the Bengals' defensive coordinator the past six seasons. But he left behind his fair share, too. Even if he no longer occupies a second-floor Paul Brown Stadium office, the former assistant still remains part of the Bengals franchise.

That is because his imprint is all over the defense. Most of the success Cincinnati has in the immediate future will have roots in the not-so-distant past.

From Vontaze Burfict to Rey Maualuga to Vincent Rey to Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the proof in Zimmer's continued impact lies in the players he left behind. Whether undrafted or fourth-round picks or third-round steals, the members of the Bengals defense who came up under Zimmer will keep his presence alive and well in Cincinnati, even as Paul Guenther comes along hoping to fill his shoes.

Much like Guenther, Zimmer will be going through his own transition of sorts as he tries to groom a brand new, and much larger group of players in a fashion similar to what he did with his former Bengals pupils. Instead of rearing a 25- to 30-man group, though, Zimmer's task now is to bring up a 53-man roster and to have it buy into his wishes the exact same way.

"If you look back on those teams I had in Cincinnati when I first got there, I think everybody would say, 'They played pretty good together, they were a good defensive football team,'" Zimmer said Friday at the NFL combine. "So to me, that's really what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to take 53 guys now, and make them a good football team. And whatever that is to do it ... doesn't matter to me. It just matters about winning, playing the game the right way and making fans proud of how we play, and making the people in Minnesota excited to watch us play."

During his six seasons with the Bengals, Zimmer increased fan interest in southwest Ohio by commanding a defense that was ranked in the top 10 four times. His last defense, the one that ranked No. 3 in 2013, ended up being one of the best-ranked in Bengals history. It thrived on being physical and intimidating, and creating turnovers in the most timely of situations.

Naturally, with a new defensive coordinator coming along, as well as other personnel changes that could be looming, "change" will end up being the buzzword in Cincinnati the rest of the offseason. So much so that Lewis joked Friday about moving around furniture and changing wallpaper in some of the meeting rooms.

"Everything is going to look different because we're not going to be the same," Lewis said. "We're going to be different, we're going to be new, and the organization is committed to doing that and I think that's important."

But even as hard as he advocates his players embracing the newness that is heading their way, Lewis rightfully also wants them to realize the importance of keeping in proper perspective their recent past. It's all about remembering the most detailed lessons that Zimmer often shared.

"The thing Mike was so good at is being able to coach everything; from soup to nuts," Lewis said, evoking his occasional references to the food-based materials that he believes comprise a team. The "soup" is the overall team. The "nuts" are the ingredients, i.e. players, schemes and other personnel, that go into making the soup come together.

"From the step of the left [defensive] end to the turn of the right cornerback," Lewis said.

To him, Zimmer could see it all and knew how to coach it all.

"As Paul continues to grow and mature as a coordinator, you have to have those kind of eyes," Lewis continued. "Offensive coaches at times want to fracture apart. Defense spends all its time together. That's the greatest lesson I ever learned in Pittsburgh [as an assistant coach]. We spent time together so I could coach any of the positions. ... Soup and nuts all the way through. Every step, every hand placement, and the way it should all be done. That's what I want to have as a coordinator.

"If it's not done right, that's your responsibility. To get the position coach to get his player to do it right, or we have to make a change. That's the impression Mike left on that room, and on Paul and the other defensive coaches. This is the way it's going to be all the time."

There is a ghost that roams the Bengals' meeting rooms these days. If the Bengals are to continue making defense one of their calling cards, they shouldn't be shy about letting him run free.

Zimmer might be gone, but his legacy in Cincinnati lives on.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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