Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Zimmer
With the low-round tender option, the Bengals would pay all three $1.4 million next season if another team doesn't reach out and try to woo them away. If another team does make a higher offer when free agency starts next week, the Bengals' tender gives them the ability to match that same offer. Normally if they didn't match the other team's offer, the Bengals would be compensated by that team through the draft. Whichever round the respective free agent was originally drafted, the Bengals would receive a selection in that round.
Since all three of these players went undrafted, though, the Bengals won't be getting draft-round compensation.
So should the Bengals try to match offers and keep these three? Or should they be content to let them go if higher offers come? We'll briefly examine each player's value here. On Wednesday, we took a look at receiver Andrew Hawkins. Up next:
LB Vincent Rey
The good: If there is a quintessential "locker room guy," Rey is it. He's well-liked by his teammates, well-respected by his coaches and admired around Cincinnati. The fact that he has gone from undrafted special teams player to rising backup linebacker star is a testament to Rey's attitude and work ethic. When Mike Zimmer was still the Bengals defensive coordinator, he spoke often about how Rey would be among those putting in extra time studying opponents' film and breaking down his own play. Because of that, more often than not, Rey was in the right position to make plays in 2013 when he was needed following an injury to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Posting a career high in tackles (47), sacks (4) and interceptions (2), Rey had the most productive year defensively of his career.
The bad: Rey has been the unfortunate recipient of poor timing when it comes to playing on defense. Since he's been in Cincinnati, there's been a "Mike" (middle) or "Will" (outside) linebacker listed on the depth chart ahead of him, forcing him to focus the majority of his attention on standing out on special teams. That actually hasn't been a bad thing. The more he has impressed on special teams, the more he has earned opportunities to play defensively when they present themselves. It's just that with commitments to Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, it has been tough for him to see much starting action.
His anticipated future role: If he remains in Cincinnati, Rey's future role won't change much from what it has been. Again, Maualuga and Burfict will be getting the bulk of opportunities ahead of him, and a healthy Emmanuel Lamur will be playing often as an extra coverage linebacker in most pass-defense packages. Still, you have to imagine that if the Bengals are able to hold on to Rey that they will have a number of plays drawn up that will get him onto the field. Not only did he impress Zimmer, but he also impressed the other defensive coaches who are still on staff, namely former linebackers coach Paul Guenther, who is the team's new defensive coordinator. Special teams have always been a key part of Rey's game in the NFL and will continue to be if he returns to Cincinnati.
Try to keep him? Rey most certainly will field offers from other teams not only because of how well he played in all of 2013, but particularly because of how he looked in relief of Maualuga across a four-game, mid-season stretch. Cincinnati likely will have to hand over more cash than the $1.4 million tender they offered him, but will only be forced to do so if indeed it plans on matching a higher offer another team makes. Last year's depth hit at linebacker proved a team can never have too many contributing players at that position. When Lamur went down at the end of the preseason with his season-ending injury, the Bengals' linebacker plans were thrown into disarray. They already were missing rookies Sean Porter and Brandon Joiner because of injuries. So, before ultimately signing veteran Michael Boley to a one-year contract in Week 5, they tested out using defensive back Taylor Mays in some Nickel packages as an extra cover player of sorts. In order to keep depth at the position, it would behoove the Bengals to keep a player like Rey who they feel they can trust.
The free-agency period officially begins March 11.
If the Bengals are able to sway either or both of their highly-priced free agents to stay, they will do so at a bargain of sorts. For example, instead of paying Johnson -- Cincinnati's 2013 designation -- the more than $13 million he would be due this coming season as a franchise player, they will now be able to lock him up to a longer-term deal that will pay him much less per year. He still could be in the $7 or $8 million per year range, but that's much more manageable than paying him $13 million in 2014, only to wonder whether to come back and try again to sign him to a longer-term deal in 2015.
With a salary cap that keeps trending higher and higher across the coming seasons, the Bengals are better suited now to work on a longer-term deal for Johnson and/or Collins than they once believed. After originally expected to hover around $126 million, the 2014 league salary cap will be $133 million, giving the Bengals more room as they try to re-sign players from this year and start looking to inking future free agents soon, too. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Domata Peko, James Harrison, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Terence Newman are among the several Bengals who would be due new contracts after this coming season.
Because of the high number and high caliber of 2015 free agents, the Bengals would like to hold on to some of their cash this year in order to start making those deals now before they get too backlogged. That's one big reason why even though Johnson and Collins avoided getting tagged, they still may not be wearing stripes this fall. The Bengals may just find that they don't have enough in their coffers to keep these two and re-sign this offseason the one or two others on the horizon.
Dalton and Green are 2015's most likely considerations to receive new contracts this offseason.
The lack of a franchise tag on Johnson and Collins also wasn't a surprise because the writing has been on the wall for some time. Even though both were raised in the organization -- Collins was a 2008 draft pick, Johnson a 2009 third-round selection -- it was starting to become clear last season that their days as Bengals were possibly nearing an end. Collins had such a strong sixth season as the offensive line's sixth man that as the year went on, his price tag went higher. The odds of him staying in the Queen City became increasingly less favorable as a result.
Johnson was arguably better in 2012 than he was in 2013, but his size, knack for deflecting passes at the line and relative youth have made him a coveted free agent this year nonetheless. It stands to reason that if he doesn't re-sign with the Bengals he'll likely follow former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to Minnesota. Zimmer now serves as the head coach of a Vikings team that has a veteran free agent defensive end in Jared Allen. As Zimmer looks to place his imprint on the franchise, who better to help than one of his top former players? Cincinnati will make as good a pitch as it can to prevent that from happening.
The addition of Margus Hunt in last year's draft also was a sign the Bengals were preparing for a future without Johnson. It's a future that, extra salary-cap money included, appears will exist.
If Johnson comes back, it will mark the second time in as many years that a Bengal returned for a longer-term deal the year after he held franchise tag status. Kicker Mike Nugent signed a two-year deal last offseason after earning the franchise tag in 2012.
If they want to spend big bucks to hold on to as many of their unrestricted and restricted free agents as possible, they can do that. If they want to throw down veteran minimum cash on a certain tailback who has spent his six-year career in Oakland, they can do that, too.
While the Bengals will be looking to make meaningful moves once free agency begins, they actually have already made a quality personnel addition this offseason. It's arguably the most underrated of the few moves the Bengals have made.
Back on Jan. 21, Vance Joseph was hired to serve as a co-defensive backs coach, after a regime change forced him to be booted from a similar post in Houston. As soon as word trickled around the league that the Bengals had snatched Joseph out of the AFC South, staffs on other teams grew a little jealous.
"We left a lot of clubs with their pockets picked a little bit by getting Vance," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said last week at the NFL combine.
One secondary coach from an NFC team who I spoke to over the weekend applauded Lewis and his staff for bringing Joseph to Cincinnati. He said he believed the Bengals were getting a sharp, smart assistant who several others had coveted.
"I couldn't tell you how many different people said, 'Oh my gosh, you hired him?'" Lewis continued. "That kind of reaction. From the time they got let go of in Houston, he was going to be my No. 1 target if we could hire him."
Joseph comes to Cincinnati after having spent the past three seasons with the Texans. Eight of his nine years in the league have been spent working with defensive backs in some capacity. He's spent the bulk of coaching career in San Francisco.
Lewis confirmed last Friday that Joseph will be coaching cornerbacks while the incumbent defensive backs coach, Mark Carrier, will specialize in the safeties. They share the title of co-defensive backs coach.
"Vance has done a great job of being a man [defense] technician, coaching man-to-man technique," Lewis said. "He's been able to go in and understand the game plan and see how best to attack an offense and defend receivers and be a great resource for [defensive coordinator] Paul Guenther. That's the twofold thing I had to get done -- another technician on the back end and a guy who could help give input to Paul from another point of view."
Cincinnati's cornerbacks earned a reputation for being physical and downfield bumpers in former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's aggressive man scheme. When Zimmer left to become the Vikings' new head coach, the Bengals were in need of back-end help. Zimmer's son Adam, who had been Carrier's assistant defensive backs coach, also left for Minnesota. Adam Zimmer was known for his relationships with the Bengals' cornerbacks and safeties.
That's why it was important for Lewis to quickly bring in an additional secondary assistant who not only had an understanding of Mike Zimmer's coaching philosophy, but who had a level of respect before he stepped foot inside Paul Brown Stadium.
"Mike Zimmer had such an influence on our back end," Lewis said. "By hiring Vance, we were able to upgrade our coaching staff."
While it was important to promote Hue Jackson and Guenther from within to their posts as offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively, it was perhaps more important they got a coach with Joseph's qualifications, despite having to go outside of the organization to get him.
Time will tell if the move to bring along Joseph was the right one, but for now it appears to be.
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.
He's barely been in Minnesota for a month, but the former Bengals defensive coordinator already has Vikings officials raving about those same abilities.
"The one thing about Mike for sure is that he'll look at a player and he'll tell us the strengths, and he'll tell us how he's going to use him and utilize his skill set within his system," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said Thursday at the NFL combine. "It's been very refreshing, and I know I'm very excited to get this team built, to add the pieces that we need to add and look forward to the upcoming season."
Zimmer and Gruden will be addressing reporters at the combine Friday.
One of the questions Spielman fielded about Zimmer had to do with reasons why he felt the longtime assistant had been passed over for so many head-coaching jobs before this one. Some have speculated that Zimmer's occasionally gruff demeanor made him lack the charismatic star power some teams have sought in a head coach. Spielman said he wasn't sure about that, but he was glad that whatever their motivations, his fellow GMs kept passing on Zimmer.
"When he's in the office and you talk to people around him, he's the nicest person in the world -- very smart, very football-minded person," Spielman said. "The gruffness part, and him not being polished and things like that, I don't know why other teams passed on him having an opportunity to be a head coach, but I'm sure glad they did.
"It was the right time, and the right fit for us."
To better understand Zimmer's demeanor, Spielman said he reached out to the agents of some of Zimmer's former players to get an indication of what their clients really thought about playing for him. They confirmed what many current and former Bengals who have played for Zimmer have told reporters in Cincinnati in the past.
Before they arrived in Indianapolis, Spielman said Zimmer has, as expected, been a vocal presence in the team's draft meetings.
"I know he did a film session with all of our scouts and personnel people just looking at specific traits that he's looking for at each position," Spielman said. "And listening to him talk football, he has a reputation of taking guys that are good football players, some guys thought that maybe they were done, and yet getting them to play to their capabilities and beyond their capabilities."
Need proof? Just ask Chris Crocker. An 11-year veteran, Crocker spent the past two Septembers fielding phone calls from Zimmer convincing him to come out of retirement.
Friday at the combine begins for the Bengals around 11:15 a.m. when former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer takes the podium. He'll be talking on a national stage for the first time since being hired last month as the Vikings' new head coach.
Some 30 minutes after Zimmer finishes his talk, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is slated to make his first public comments since Paul Guenther was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator Jan. 15. That was the same day Zimmer was hired in Minnesota.
Later in the afternoon, new Washington head coach and former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden steps before reporters.
In addition to the time with the coaches, we'll get a chance to talk to another batch of players. This time it's all about the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Only two of those positions could be of some value to the Bengals in this year's draft, but team officials haven't tipped their collective hand as to whether they'll bring in another quarterback or running back. The possibilities are there, though, particularly when you factor in starting quarterback Andy Dalton's struggles with consistency and the fact that he is coming up on the final year of his contract without a proven backup behind him.
Cincinnati might flirt with the thought of adding a running back because of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's desire to showcase a more aggressive scheme that's rooted in a more efficient rushing attack.
Here's a rundown of a few names I'll be watching Friday:
- QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama
- QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
- QB David Fales, San Jose State
- QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
- QB Derek Carr, Fresno State
- QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
- RB Andre Williams, Boston College
- RB Charles Sims, West Virginia
- RB James Wilder Jr., Florida State
- RB Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
The recognition that has come his way is well deserved, but it shouldn't end with him. In addition to the recently departed defensive coordinator who is now Minnesota's head coach, Cincinnati's business and scouting offices played a key role in bringing to Paul Brown Stadium the talent that Zimmer so masterfully manipulated.
Not all of it was elite, first-round draft choice talent, either, but it was good enough to meet Zimmer's needs in his aggressive, rush-oriented scheme.
Sometimes, spending really is winning. Even for a longtime spendthrift like Bengals owner Mike Brown.
Cincinnati's league-high cap value for its 2013 defense is far from a record. For perspective, Green Bay's 2010 defense ate more than $94 million of its overall team cap space.
The Packers, with the league's fifth-ranked defense, won the Super Bowl that season.
Even while bringing along undrafted free agents such as linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey, the Bengals since 2010 have added, at relatively affordable value, veteran free agents such as Adam Jones, Terence Newman and James Harrison. But with drafted players such as Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson panning out and performing as well as anyone at the top of their respective positions, the Bengals' defensive payroll has increased significantly across the past four seasons.
Johnson, as the franchise-tagged player this year, ate $11.2 million of the team's cap space. Atkins, who was given a massive five-year, $55 million contract extension just before the start of the season, claimed $7.1 million in cap value. Another Bengals draftee, seven-year veteran cornerback Leon Hall, had $8.4 million of it. Six of the top-10 highest earning Bengals in 2013 were defensive players.
The Bengals' defense was the only top-10 ranked unit to have spent top-10 money on its players. The other nine teams topping the league's defensive cap value had total defenses that ranged from 11th to 31st. The Ravens spent $56.1 million on their No. 11 defense. The Vikings spent $60.5 million on their 31st-ranked team that just hired Zimmer.
Seattle, which finished the regular season with the No. 1 defense and won the Super Bowl, spent about $52 million on its defensive unit. That's the 15th-highest cap value in the league. With young stars such as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Malcolm Smith nearing the end of their contracts next season, the Seahawks' defensive cap value should jump exponentially if the team plans on retaining them and the foundation of its uniquely physical defense.
Sometimes, winning has nothing to do with spending -- until you start winning.
Without a doubt, Zimmer's coaching principles, methods and his shared philosophy with head coach Marvin Lewis were major reasons the defense was so successful when he was in Cincinnati. But the Bengals also eventually had to pay to make sure they built the framework of a group that has seen relatively few changes in the past three seasons. This spring, though, with Johnson likely gone to free agency and with others possibly flirting with it, changes could be coming.
Well-paid or not, the Bengals will be leaning on their vastly more experienced group of returning players. How well it goes next season, two seasons and three seasons from now will be impacted by how well the front office negotiates this comparative offseason of transition.
The good thing for the Bengals is that they ought to be able to make whichever moves they need this season without taking any cap hits. According to ESPN's roster management system, they are currently one of 22 teams under the salary cap for next season. At $111.3 million in total cap value, they are about $15 million under this year's $126 million limit.
Zimmer left the team late last week when his father Mike became the new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Mike Zimmer had been the Bengals' defensive coordinator the past six seasons. His son only spent this past season with them.
Joseph comes to Cincinnati after having spent eight of his nine NFL seasons as a defensive backs coach, including the last three with the Texans. The first two of those years in Houston were spent on a defense that won consecutive AFC South championships, and one that beat the Bengals in the playoffs both years.
"With the continued increased emphasis on the passing game in the NFL, it's crucial for us to expand our coaching strength in this area," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release. "Vance has excellent experience and has coached a lot of good young players. We feel fortunate to have been able to sign him up for this important job."
Cincinnati's group of safeties and cornerbacks comprise the deepest position group on the team.
While at Houston, Joseph, 41, coached Johnathan Joseph, a cornerback who earned two Pro Bowl selections under his watch.
During Vance Joseph's first season with the Texans, they went from having the worst pass defense in the NFL the year before, to the third-best. In 2011, the Texans held opposing teams to a 51.9 completion percentage and a passer rating for 69.0. Despite missing the playoffs this past season, the Texans ranked third in the league in passing yards allowed and seventh in total defense.
Before joining the Texans, Vance Joseph spent the 2005-10 seasons with the 49ers. Previous to that, the Louisiana native coached in the college ranks at Wyoming, Bowling Green and Colorado. While in college, he played quarterback at Colorado before transitioning to cornerback in the NFL when he played for the Jets and Colts in 1995 and 1996.
"I'm happy for this opportunity to join a team that's on the rise," Vance Joseph said, "and this team has a great group of players to work with. I consider myself a very positive coach in the way I work with players and I put a lot of stress on great technique. I believe I can get those technique points across very well."
On Saturday, the Bengals announced the hiring of former Lions assistant Matt Burke to coach linebackers. His hiring came after Paul Guenther and Hue Jackson were promoted to defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator from previous position posts. Kyle Caskey also was promoted to fill the running backs coach opening that resulted in Jackson's promotion.
The announcement on Vance Joseph came one day after quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese reportedly interviewed for the Lions' offensive coordinator vacancy. Detroit announced earlier Tuesday that they instead hired Joe Lombardi, grandson of former Packers coach Vince Lombardi, for the job.
Just a day after being announced as the Bengals' new linebackers coach, the former Detroit Lions assistant was on a plane with the rest of Cincinnati's coaching staff, headed to Mobile, Ala., for the annual late-January Senior Bowl. On Monday, the entire crew joined representatives from the other 31 teams and watched the first day of practices ahead of Saturday's all-star game.
Apparently the quick transition has given Burke little time to get acclimated to tweaking his pronoun usage. While talking to Bengals.com earlier this week about his arrival to Cincinnati, Burke said that while he was at Detroit, he and other coaches there "looked at a lot of their film this year." He was referring to the Bengals. Then he must have caught himself because he rephrased: "I guess I should start saying, 'our film.'"
Unlike the two offseason hires previous to his, don't expect Burke to hold an introductory news conference when he finally gets back to Cincinnati. The comments he makes to those attending this week's Senior Bowl will be the way he introduces himself to Bengals fans.
Burke says his style of defense is aggressive, attacking and "up-tempo." He likes blitzing his linebackers and he likes using them in very much the same capacity new Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther did when he was in charge of linebackers, Burke added. So don't be surprised if the Bengals' linebackers next season -- all of whom, free agent Vincent Rey included, are expected to be back -- look a lot like what they did this past one.
We start this Tuesday edition of the Morning Stripes by taking a look at Burke, the latest piece on this rapidly evolving and shifting roster:
- Here's the link to Geoff Hobson's Bengals.com article on Burke. Included are quick notes on the offensive line. Among them is a note saying that offensive line coach Paul Alexander has yet to determine exactly what will happen with the left tackle and left guard positions next season. The Bengals would like to make a pitch to re-sign Anthony Collins, and aren't yet sure whether they will keep Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth at guard since their original left guard, Clint Boling, likely won't be healed from his ACL tear by the start of next season. After Boling's December injury, Whitworth moved inside and Collins came off the bench to take his spot at left tackle.
- As you can tell, Bengals.com is in Mobile. ESPN.com also has several reporters there, but representing other teams and other draft-specific reporting angles. Here is an item from Bengals.com on what to expect in coastal Alabama this week as the Bengals, like so many teams, look to find a draft-worthy gem among those competing.
- Before assuming full head-coaching duties with the Minnesota Vikings this week, former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer issued a letter to the city of Cincinnati and the team's fans. The Cincinnati Enquirer published the letter online Monday. For the past six seasons, Zimmer coached the Bengals' defense and became a beloved member of the community. He wanted to express his gratitude.
Big plays, particularly those from Cincinnati's defense, and explosive ones from the likes of Giovani Bernard, were critical to the way 2013 played out.
As is the case with most top 10 lists, determining these plays was completely subjective. They could be placed in virtually any slot among these 10, or not among them at all. Some certainly won't make the cut that many believe should. It's the nature of lists. Somewhere a cut-off has to come. Anyway, let's get to it, starting off with No. 10:
When: Oct. 20, 2013
Where: Ford Field, where the Bengals beat the Detroit Lions, 27-24.
What happened: Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer called for a third-and-4 safety blitz that put Reggie Nelson in position to pull off the momentum-turning play of the game. Before the play started, there were 40 seconds left in regulation with the score tied at 24. Cincinnati was coming off an overtime win at Buffalo the week before and wasn't looking to head to another extra period if it could help it.
As Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was making his final line checks, he was confronted by a seven-man Bengals box that looked set on sending the full arsenal toward him. Six ended up rushing, with Nelson coming off the blind-side edge, untouched. Once Stafford felt the pressure, it was too late. He rolled right and threw an incomplete pass to the turf to avoid taking a sack deep in his own territory. The incompletion came in part to Nelson's ability to hook his right arm around Stafford's throwing arm as he tried to deliver the pass.
Five seconds later, Lions punter Sam Martin shanked a 28-yard punt into his sideline to set up positive field position for Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense. Four plays and 15 yards later, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was called upon to bury his second game-winning field goal in as many weeks. This time, with the seconds expiring, Nugent slammed through a 45-yard field goal that gave Cincinnati its fifth win of the season. The Bengals were 5-2.
What they said about it: Nugent: "I love how confident everyone always is. Nobody freaks out [when tied or losing]. It all begins with [coach Marvin Lewis] because he and his staff don't get too high or too low."
Nelson: "That's just poise. We always preach poise. And we did a good job of that. We just have to keep on grinding."
Martin: "I thought they were going to try blocking the punt and I rushed myself. I was trying to put the ball on the sideline and keep it away from the returner, and I pulled it."
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap: "It means we're growing up. We're going to need this win right here down the road when we play a few other good teams on the road. Teams like this help build our confidence and make us grow up. We had a young football team last year and now we're older."
How the Bengals' season was impacted: It was clear that win gave the Bengals a jolt of confidence as they headed into their eighth game of the season at home against the Jets the following week. By winning back-to-back games in dramatic fashion on the road to a pair of teams that had snatched a few big wins of their own that early in the season, the Bengals felt some sense of validation. Like Dunlap said, they really had grown up.
After shutting down the Jets 49-9 in the next game, the Bengals were riding high at 6-2, and in the middle of a four-game winning streak that was ultimately halted on the road in a Week 9 Thursday night thriller at Miami. In the preseason, Lewis compartmentalized the season. He felt if his team could win all of its home games and take a few tough early road games like the ones at Buffalo and Detroit, it had a chance to be pretty good. The Bengals went 8-0 at home all year and were 2-2 on the road during the first half of the season.
Although he worked the last several seasons, most specifically the last two, with former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- a defensive wizard of sorts who left the Bengals earlier this week to become the Minnesota Vikings' head coach -- Guenther doesn't want the world to believe that he will be a clone of his old coaching colleague. The path the Bengals take on defense from here on out will be the one Guenther chooses.
That said, even though Lewis, a former defensive coordinator, still is calling the biggest shots in the Bengals' locker room, don't expect him to interfere or start calling plays on Guenther's behalf. According to both coaches, this is Guenther's show from now on.
But that doesn't mean that Lewis won't offer his 42-year-old coordinator a little advice. In fact, during Guenther's introductory news conference Thursday, Lewis did. The best advice he could give him was football's equivalent of the combination of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid), and don't panic.
"I'm going to tell him what Tony Dungy told me: 'Sometimes, they might make a yard,'" Lewis said. "Move on. Make a tackle, move on. That's the best piece of advice Tony Dungy gave me in February 1997."
That's not all the advice Lewis was willing to share for both Guenther and a first-time head coach in Zimmer. Those words are exactly where we start with this edition of the Friday Morning Stripes:
- As part of its coverage of Guenther's promotion from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, the Cincinnati Enquirer has this collection of notes which begin with Lewis' charge to both Guenther and Zimmer.
- Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson writes about the commonalities Guenther and Zimmer may have, but, as was mentioned above, he points out that Guenther wants to go his own direction with leading the Bengals' defense. Expect the defense to look slightly different and maybe to do slightly more than it did under Zimmer, he said.
- Keeping with the theme of it being Guenther's defense now, Fox Sports Ohio's Kevin Goheen writes about the new Guenther era and how his time is now.
- One non-Guenther item here. According to the Associated Press, former Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene could soon become the youngest cabinet member of American Samoa's territorial government. Earlier this week, the 31-year-old who spent seven seasons playing in Cincinnati, was appointed to head American Samoa's Department of Youth and Women's Affairs. His nomination is subject to the approval of the territorial legislature.
He might not like it, but from now until next September's season opener, Guenther can be assured of hearing comparisons to his ex-coaching buddy. Until Guenther's defense finally takes the field for the first time, Zimmer's shadow will loom ominously above.
With an understanding of that, Guenther wants it known early in his time as the Bengals' lead defensive assistant that he wants to carve his own coaching path.
"[Zimmer's] got his own personality and I've got my own personality. I've got to be myself," Guenther said. "I've got to coach the guys the best I know how and try not to be somebody else."
Known to combine curse words in a manner that made the foulest of foul-mouthed speakers jealous, Zimmer earned a reputation around Paul Brown Stadium for being a delightful person to know off the field but a terror on it whenever he got angry. It's that measure of intensity, though, that had Zimmer's players willing to do whatever he asked of them, and one the Minnesota Vikings were seeking when looking for a new head coach.
"It's like when parents get disappointed in their kids," cornerback Chris Crocker said. "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."
That's precisely why the Vikings offered him their head coaching job Wednesday, and why he accepted.
But none of that is part of Guenther's personality. Cursing and screaming aren't part of his makeup.
"Have you seen 'Hard Knocks?'" Guenther quipped with reporters, referring to his relative silence as juxtaposed to Zimmer's expletive-laced rant during a preseason game at Atlanta.
Guenther added that he felt comfortable being the same person he's always been and will use that philosophy while carving his own niche throughout his tenure as the Bengals' defensive coordinator.
"My job is to get the other team off the field, whether I spin on my head and spit nickles or start yelling and screaming," Guenther said. "One way or another, I've got to be myself, I've got to run the job like I know how to run it. Guys get in these positions as head coaches and coordinators and then all of a sudden they change their personalities and say, 'I'm going to be this, that or the other,' and players see through that."
Asked if he felt like he needed a person on his defensive staff to step up and fill Zimmer's role as the intense screamer, Guenther said he didn't care how his coaches acted around the players. He just wants them doing their jobs and helping the team win.
"Trust me, I'm going to do this thing and there are some expectations that I have," Guenther said. "I need the best coaches I can get. I don't care whether they yell or scream, they have to get their guys to play."
Sometime in the next 48 hours or so, Guenther and head coach Marvin Lewis hope to have their final two coaching vacancies filled; a linebackers coach and, presumably, an assistant defensive backs coach. It is believed Zimmer's son, Adam, will leave his post as assistant defensive backs coach to work with his father. If that happens, the Bengals will have to fill that spot as well as Guenther's old linebackers coaching position.
As for Lewis, Cincinnati's head coach who began his time in the NFL coaching the defensive side of the ball, don't expect him to get in the way and start holding Guenther's hand. According to Lewis, this is Guenther's opportunity to take the defense down whichever path he wants to lead it.
"I am not going to interject myself any further, but I am the sounding board and the writer of last refusal on everything in every area, so that's not going to change," Lewis said.
With that, the Zimmer era officially ends in Cincinnati. The Guenther period officially begins.
The two were going through an unofficial bidding war for the services of Paul Guenther, who has served as linebackers coach and a special teams assistant. A third team, possibly Tennessee, also was in the mix. Without divulging which team it was, Guenther admitted Thursday that talks never really were serious.
But they were serious Wednesday when the bidding hit a fever pitch following Zimmer's decision to accept the Vikings' head coaching job. As soon as Zimmer's hiring was made official, Bengals owner Mike Brown called Guenther into his office. He had one simple message for him: "You're not leaving."
Thanks to Brown's loyalty, nudges from family, and a belief that he can't walk out on his current players, Guenther decided his owner was right. He wasn't going to leave the franchise. After amending his contract and reportedly extending it another three seasons, Guenther was elevated to Zimmer's old defensive coordinator's position.
"When you looked at the whole thing, I've got young kids and I didn't have to move my family," Guenther said. "I've got good players that I really like and care for. And really, at the end of the day, that was probably the one thing I said was, 'OK, I feel bad for these guys. This guy's leaving and that guy's leaving and these guys deserve a good situation.'"
Gruden left last week to become Washington's head coach. Zimmer will be introduced in Minnesota in a news conference Friday.
"Ultimately, you can say what you want about a coach, but when you line up between the lines on Sunday, it comes down to the players," Guenther said. "And that's one of the messages I'm going to give to those guys. The defense in Cincinnati, everyone says, 'Oh, what's going to happen now?' Well, it really is up to you guys [the players]. So that was a big factor."
Guenther has been on staff with the Bengals since 2005. He once coached in Washington, serving as an offensive assistant in 2002 and 2003. Two years later, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis brought him to Cincinnati. If he had taken either of the jobs Gruden and Zimmer were offering, he would have only coached in his third NFL city. He also might have one less upset friend.
"He's kind of mad at me right now," Guenther said, referring to Zimmer.
The choice to stay might have been an easy one to make for his family, but it wasn't that way when it came to considering what leaving would have meant to his two peers.
"The hard thing for me was to tell those guys I was staying, because they are good friends," Guenther said. "They've seen me work, which is why they wanted me to go with them. It was a tough deal. Probably the hardest thing about this other than the decision."
Mike Zimmer, the Bengals' longtime defensive assistant, has finally earned his first head-coaching opportunity. And as we wrote in this blog Wednesday, his departure for the Minnesota Vikings has already left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Bengals fans.
Social media mostly reflected happiness among Bengals fans and players alike. But there was a visible undertone of sadness, too. The man who spent six years in the community and formed some of the tightest bonds of his coaching career was leaving. Zimmer should have had a head-coaching job years ago, so fans knew they were lucky to have him in orange and black stripes for as long as they did.
Well, now the city of Cincinnati doesn't have him, although that doesn't mean he may not pay a visit from time to time in the offseason. He recently bought a 43-acre plot of land in nearby Independence, Ky., and is looking to build a house there. Just before he started interviewing for head-coaching positions, Zimmer said he hadn't started building on the land, and wasn't sure if he would build if he got hired away.
He's got a big decision to make now.
The Bengals elevated linebackers coach Paul Guenther to the defensive coordinator post. Both coordinator positions in Cincinnati were filled by members already on the coaching staff. Hue Jackson was promoted to Jay Gruden's offensive coordinator spot following Gruden's departure for the Washington head-coaching job. Now, Cincinnati just has to hire a linebackers coach, and presumably an assistant defensive backs coach. The person who had been occupying that role was Adam Zimmer, Mike's son.
As we close this chapter of Mike Zimmer's coaching career, let's take a look at what others are saying about him. Thursday's Morning Stripes are all about the man who was known in these parts as "Zim."
- Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson writes about how the Bengals are relying on continuity with respect to both coordinator changes. As a team makes a transition from one coach to another, it's always best when the addition comes internally. The terminology will remain the same, the style ought to remain similar.
- Hobson also has this item on Bengals.com about how history may be on Cincinnati's side following these offseason departures. The last three teams that lost both coordinators in the same season went on to roll the following season. The 2006 Chargers lost both coordinators but went 11-5 and made it to the AFC title game in 2007. A year after losing both their coordinators, the Jaguars went 14-2 and appeared in the conference championship.
- Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty writes about how Zimmer's legacy was one that hinged on making well-polished players from raw, undeveloped talent. The Vikings, Daugherty posits, will be getting a true talent developer.
- The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Sid Hartman has this read on one former Bengal who is entering free agency with the Vikings this offseason. Receiver Jerome Simpson, Hartman writes, was excited to hear the news that he'd be linking back up with Zimmer. Discipline will be Zimmer's chief message, Simpson said. If he's able to re-sign, he'll be glad to take it.
- The St. Paul Pioneer Press' Tom Powers praised Zimmer's hiring if only because the new coach was the anti-Leslie Frazier. Some players expressed the same feelings, citing Frazier's lack of stepping up and challenging them as a reason they wanted a firebrand like Zimmer.
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.
"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.
Fired up about Coach Zimmer! As a Cincy kid he's been fun to watch there and can't wait to work with him! Welcome to the @Vikings!— Kyle Rudolph (@KyleRudolph82) January 15, 2014
According to ESPN.com 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:
Gonna miss you coach Zimmer! Wish you nothing but the best in Minnesota. You brought out the best (cont) http://t.co/6ytnHtHJ5C— Rey Maualuga (@maualuga58) January 15, 2014
I told you'll Zimm would be the Head Coach , that was a good move for the Vikings congrats to coach !!!— ADAm Pacman Jones (@REALPACMAN24) January 15, 2014
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.