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Bengals counting on continuity in wake of coordinator raids

Posted Jan 15, 2014

In less than a week Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has lost two coordinators that anchored three straight playoff runs.


Paul Guenther

Updated: 3:10 p.m.

In less than a week Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has lost two coordinators that anchored three straight playoff runs.

But it took him about only a half-hour to replace each one with the same system because he went down the hall and made linebackers coach Paul Guenther defensive coordinator Wednesday six days after promoting running backs coach Hue Jackson to offensive coordinator.

"Continuity is good. We had a plan in place on both sides of the ball. We lost Kevin to Miami last year," Lewis said of secondary coach Kevin Coyle's departure to become the Dolphins defensive coordinator. "But we had another guy we were grooming. I feel as strongly about Paulie. He knows what we do. He knows the players. It's great to be able to turn to a guy like that."

It was clearly a day of mixed emotions when the Vikings made Mike Zimmer their head coach Wednesday. Or as cornerback Leon Hall called it, "double-sided." Coaches and players were delighted Zimmer is finally getting his chance to be a head man after 20 seasons in the NFL and six brilliant years as the Bengals defensive coordinator.

But there is also the specter of losing a man that coached the unit that was the backbone of four playoff appearances in five seasons with four top 10 defenses. The Vikings, who gave up the most points in the NFL this season, are in for a culture shock. It was Zimmer's infamous tart tongue and exhaustive focus on technique that dragged the NFL's sixth-worst defense to No. 12 in his first year on the job in Cincinnati.

"You can't replace him," Hall said. "Same system, same guys. On paper it sounds good. But it will definitely be different. We have to work harder, study harder, and we really have to play better. You're not going to have him in your ear with his play calls at certain times. We definitely have to work harder."

Nickel back Chris Crocker, beckoned off the couch three times in the past five years by Zimmer to help install his scheme on the field, thinks Lewis made a good choice with Guenther even though he's a first-time coordinator.

"Why not? There's a lot of questions is Zim ready. I'm sure he's ready, too," Crocker said. "It's a great move. It keeps the ship sailing. You just can't replace him. But it gives you a chance to continue what you were doing. You can't crash outside the walls and start over. The guy's very bright. He's well respected in the locker room. He knows what he's talking about and he sat behind one of the greatest while in Cincinnati. I'm sure Marvin has been grooming him for some time. Why not?"

The players liked the sound of continuity.

"I think it's a good move for everybody," said Taylor Mays, who converted from safety to nickel linebacker this past season. "Paulie will do well wherever he is because he knows the game and works hard. He taught me a new position in basically a weekend."

After six seasons with Zimmer that turned the defense from punchlines into the punch behind teams that won the rough-and-tumble AFC North in 2009 and 2013, Lewis is looking for a coordinator to lead a unit that finished third in the NFL and has all but one starter under contract. Lewis said last week that he'd keep the same defensive system whether Zimmer stayed or not.

Guenther, who got heavy production from a unit that saw three regulars suffer season-ending injuries, is a close confidant of Zimmer and pondered moving with him. But it was Lewis that brought him from Washington. Guenther, 42, has been with the Bengals for nine seasons and since Zimmer arrived in 2008 he served as an assistant backers coach and secondary coach before becoming the linebackers coach in 2012.

Guenther had two other options once Zimmer got the nod from the Vikings and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden became head coach in Washington last Thursday. But Gruden didn't have a coordinator's job available and Zimmer didn't have Lewis or 10 out of 11 starters signed up from the NFL's No. 3 defense.

"I think he had some loyalty to me. I got him started," Lewis said of their year together in Washington in 2002. "I saw that he was a smart guy that worked hard."

Another ex-Lewis assistant could be headed to the Vikings. Ray "Rock" Oliver, a former Bengals assistant strength coach now the director of basketball performance at the University of Kentucky, has close ties to Zimmer.

It's believed that Zimmer, 57, is the NFL's oldest rookie head coach since the Bengals named 63-year-old Dick LeBeau in 2000. Zimmer becomes the third Lewis coordinator to become a head man and the second defensive coordinator in Minnesota. Leslie Frazier was let go by the Vikings after the season following three-plus seasons in the Twin Cities.

"He'll work his tail off, I know that," Lewis said of Zimmer. "He's waited along time for this opportunity and I think he'll be fine. He'll do well in that job. The defense played so well here and he did a great job in developing young players to keep it going and that's what you have to do in the NFL."

Logic follows that Zimmer's son Adam, the Bengals assistant secondary coach, is headed to Minnesota as well. That means Guenther is looking for a linebackers coach and another secondary coach. A league source said Wednesday that former Bengals assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi is working on a deal that sends him to Tennessee as the Titans secondary coach.

Defensive end Robert Geathers, one of three players on the defense here before Zimmer, says he's ready for the job.

"Hopefully he gets it. I would hate to lose him," Geathers said earlier this week. "I think he definitely deserves it. If anybody deserves it, it is Zim. For what he's done. His track record. Even his time here, he's grown a lot. I think he can definitely be a head coach. One of the things a head coach has to do is deal with different personalities and he can do that."

At age 25, Guenther became the youngest college head coach in the country at his alma mater, Division III Ursinus in Collegeville, Pa., in 1997 and during his six seasons he led them to two playoff berths.

Zimmer used Guenther as an assistant for both linebackers and DBs before making him the linebackers coach in 2012. Zimmer had him do a lot of work with the nickel package and they've spent so much time together Crocker says, "When you spend so much time around a guy like that, you start to look like him. I'm starting to sound like (Zimmer)."

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