A tree grows in Cincinnati

Posted Dec 31, 2015

The Bengals are still looking for a top seed in the AFC playoffs, but heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 19) against Baltimore, there are other trappings surrounding one of the NFL’s most successful franchises. Such as saluting two of their former assistant coaches for joining them in the postseason as head coaches.

Before he went to Minnesota to change the Vikings culture, Mike Zimmer changed the Bengals defensive culture.

The Bengals are still looking for a top seed in the AFC playoffs, but heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 19) against Baltimore, there are other trappings surrounding  one of the NFL’s most successful franchises.

There is the buzz of preparation for another home playoff game, their second in three years. The team tied with the NFL’s fourth best record since 2013 is planning five Pro Bowl trips and probably more. Andy Dalton, third in the NFL, could win his first NFL passing title without throwing a ball Sunday. If the Bengals hold the Ravens to 20 points or less, it will be the fewest points ever allowed by a Cincinnati defense in 16 games.

And during their weekend stay in Denver, they watched two of their own, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, head coach their teams into the playoffs just two years after leaving head coach Marvin Lewis’ staff.

Solid coaching hires by an administration headed by Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown are just some of the reasons the Bengals’ 51 wins since 2011 are behind only New England (61), Denver (57), Green Bay (56), and Seattle (52).

Lewis says Brown’s outlook on coaching, so unique as the son and confidant of Paul Brown, the first coaching tree in the modern football garden, has helped make branches grow at Paul Brown Stadium.

 “I just think it’s how Mike feels that the coaches are an extension of his family. He always has, and I knew that before I came here,” Lewis said. “How special they are to him, and his loyalty to people that way. We’ve been able to continue to develop our guys from within.”

Lewis hopes to see one of them quite soon.

“You have to be so happy for both of them to earn their way in the playoffs their second season,” Lewis said at his Wednesday news conference. “Jay wins the division and Zimmer is playing to win the division, and that’s awesome. I’m so happy for them and what they’ve been able to do. I’d love the opportunity to play one of them this year yet.”

That would mean, the Super Bowl, of course, with Gruden in Washington all snuggled into the NFC East title and Zimmer’s Vikings trying to win the NFC North against the Packers after securing the Wild Card last Sunday.

“When you really look across the league, Marvin Lewis what he has done in football is an understatement in my opinion,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. “He’s churned out head coaches from here and people don’t really even talk about it.  I’ve been a head coach, I’m off his tree.”

Jackson has been saying all year the Bengals themselves are one big understatement.

“I think from drafting to playing to coaching, this is one of the model franchises,” he said. “There are several others, but you have to put this one up there with rest of them in my opinion.”

You could a step beyond and say that Jackson spread the acorn that planted the Marvin Lewis tree in the NFL. Jackson, on more short lists than milk and bread, figures to be the next Bengals assistant coach to get a head coaching job in the NFL’s exclusive club of 32. He was there for Lewis during a tough moment after the Bengals 2007 season ended in 7-9.

 Here was a defensive head coach looking for his third defensive coordinator in five years. Jackson, Lewis’ good friend and former receivers coach, had left in 2007 to become Bobby Petrino’s offensive coordinator before that all ended badly in mid-year with Petrino’s resignation and middle-of-the-night flight to Arkansas.

But not before Jackson got an up close look at Zimmer, the Falcons defensive coordinator he had become close with through their common bonds of laser intensity and take-no-guff edge. Jackson told Lewis he needed Zimmer yesterday and Lewis pondered the recommendation. It wasn't a cold call. The ubiquitous Lewis knew Zimmer from their Big Sky days in the '80s in college coaching.

The rest is Bengals’ lore.

With a short, crusty fuse and professional urgency, Zimmer transformed the defense’s culture and turned a franchise known for offense into a defensive power in the AFC North bedrock. In Zimmer’s last three seasons the Bengals were ranked seven, six, and three in NFL defense before his top aide, Paul Guenther, moved into the job and has the Bengals on the verge of their first NFL scoring defense title. It’s an effort that could have teams inquiring about the 44-year-old defensive coordinator someday soon.

Jackson says it’s not just Lewis’ philosophy to let his coaches coach that have spawned head coaches, but also the  long view taken by Mike Brown. In the dark days after the Raiders fired Jackson as head coach after just one 8-8 season in 2011, Brown and Lewis made room on staff for Jackson as a defensive assistant even though offense is his game.

“Mike Brown has done numerous things for coaches and players that people don’t even know about,” Jackson said. “More than that he’s fostered an environment that the head coach can grow coaches here and have coaches get better and leave here and have opportunities other places and look back and say where it all started for them. This will be my biggest growth since I’ve been (coaching) is being able to come back here and coach on defense and working my way back up being a coordinator again. Are you kidding me? That doesn’t happen in an organization you’ve been at before. It normally doesn’t work like that. That says a lot about Mike Brown.”

Before Jay Gruden stood by Kirk Cousins in Washington, he stood by Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.

No one in Bengaldom wants to see Jackson, 50, go anywhere. Not after turning Dalton from a top 12 quarterback into a confident MVP candidate who can execute Jackson’s myriad of formations blindfolded. The Bengals haven’t scored points like this since Sam Wyche invented the no huddle.

“I don't get caught up in all this. I've been a head coach before, as you guys know. I know what that is all about and I think those things are going to take care of themselves,” said Jackson, fired in Oakland after his only season at 8-8. “I don't go to the phone. I don't go to the sites and look and see who's saying this and who's saying that, because at the end of the day. If somebody really wants you and thinks you can help their organization, then they're going to come find you and they're going to offer you an opportunity. No one's done that. The most important thing I can do is help this organization, this team win and be the best they can be.”

But like left tackle Andrew Whitworth said before Wednesday’s practice, there are no secrets: “If there is an NFL team out there that’s not looking at Hue Jackson in their top three they are crazy. I think he’s an exceptional football coach.” 

With his connections to Bill Walsh (a minority coaching intern in the late ‘80s when Walsh coached in San Francisco) and Brian Billick (his head coach in Baltimore), Lewis is probably from the Bill Walsh tree, which is really the Paul Brown tree. But Lewis gets uncomfortable with something called “a Marvin Lewis tree.”

“I don’t think I have a tree,” Lewis said. “Hopefully they learned one thing here that they think has been helpful.”

The stability that has been so important in this run of the last seven seasons of three division titles and six play-off berths (one owner, one head coach, one director of player personnel, one special teams coordinator, two quarterbacks, three offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators ) is virtually unheard of in the 21st century NFL. Lewis says that’s a product of a family-run team that grew up in the game.

 “I think our people look at it differently, because they know if we have these chairs here, they’re not just chairs, these are people,” Lewis said. “Emotion and everything that goes into this, and what it takes. That group in your meeting group, the players and so forth. The emotions and pressures that are on them. It’s just not interchangeable like that. Every time you make a change, the ramifications of that change are down the line in personnel and everything like that. You are continually starting over, but we were able to continually build, and that’s been big.”

 Zimmer, a 20-year NFL vet before he got the call from the Vikings, had that presence the minute he walked in the door in 2008. Gruden, best known as an arena league Hall-of-Fame quarterback and exec, proved his worth when he stuck by the red-headed TCU quarterback in the draft when he arrived for his first NFL coordinator’s job in 2011 without a quarterback.

At the NFL scouting combine that year, one assistant coach from around the league pointedly asked someone from the Bengals, “How’s that Arena league coordinator working out?”  Five years later, Whitworth thinks they’re both proof the Bengals are on the right track.

Bengals president Mike Brown has a unique seven-decade view of NFL coaches.

“That we are doing things the right way. That we continue to find a formula that works,” Whitworth said. “It’s hiring people like that who have the character to push not only themselves but their football players. Everybody is a little different. Jay was more of a laid-back guy and finding ways to put guys in really good situations and the pieces you need. Zimmer was a guy that was that upper echelon of he knew when to push on guys, when to pull back, when to speed them up. He knew all that. He knew when to push and pull his players. One of the best I’ve been around with that.”

By the time Gruden got here in early February of 2011, the Bengals personnel department had scouted Dalton as a possible successor to Carson Palmer. When Gruden went to work studying that crop of quarterbacks, he was adamant that Dalton was the perfect fit for what he wanted to do. Much like he stuck by Kirk Cousins early on this season in Washington.

“To me, that says a lot about him. He didn’t do what people said was the popular thing. He did the right thing,” Jackson said. “He did what he felt was right. And to me as a coach, those two guys that we’re talking about, that’s what they are. . .. You’re not going to tell Mike Zimmer how to win. He’s going to tell you how to win. You’re not going to tell Jay Gruden that you can’t do this. He’s going to prove to you that he can do that.

“And to me, all really good coaches have a side to them. They’ve got a little swag that’s a little bit different than everybody else because you have to. You have to be able to believe and be able to see beyond what’s there, and both guys have that.”

Give that to Brown and Lewis. In an era dominated by control freaks, they let their coaches have that swag.

“I think what Marvin has acquired and what Mike Brown sees is that there are talented coaches,” Jackson said. “There are coaches who don’t have aspirations to be anything but the position coaches they are. Then there are coaches who have talent that you can push who have the right stuff to ascend on. To me Marvin has identified those guys. Mike Brown has identified those guys, and those guys are out coaching other teams right now.”

Jackson and Zimmer may be the two most prolific Baby Boomers when it comes to texting. By 4 p.m. Wednesday, they had already had a couple of conversations that started in the morning.

“We communicate quite a bit. We kind of chide each other a little bit,” Jackson said with a laugh. “He tries to pick me up. He knows that was a tough game for me on Monday night. We wanted to win that game. We wanted it bad. When it doesn’t happen you’ve got some people to turn to pick you up and he’s one of those guys for me.”

They may see each other soon enough. And they won’t be texting. They’ll be watching the other guy on tape getting ready for the big one.

“He just says, ‘Hey, keep your head up. You’ll get it straight, and you guys will win,’” Jackson said. “He knows what’s here.”



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