How Zim guys pulled it off

Posted Jan 15, 2014

D used to stand for doubt in Bengaldom. Until Mike Zimmer arrived in 2008.

Chris Crocker

Updated: 7:40 p.m.

If cornerback Leon Hall was the eyes of this Mike Zimmer defense, then nickel back Chris Crocker was the ears. Or is it Hall that was the ears and Crocker the eyes for Zimmer, their coach that first made his mark in the NFL coaching defensive backs?

Never mind. It was, fittingly, Crocker that summed it up best when he said Wednesday, "Before he got there, Cincinnati wasn't known for defense. Now it is. I don't know what Cincinnati is going to look like now without him."

Hall arrived via the first round in 2007 to play on the NFL's No. 27 defense. The year before that it was No. 30 when the Bengals were 8-8 and missed the playoffs by a game. Heck, the year before that, in 2005, when the Bengals won the AFC North at 11-5, they were ranked No. 28. Where would those teams have gone with a half-decent defense? The defense was whipping boys and season-killers. D stood for doubt.

Until Zimmer arrived in 2008 and D stood for demanding. Do-it-right-or-I'll-find-somebody-that-will. He didn't worry about faces of the franchise. He got in faces. He was a Pro Bowl cusser and a Hall of Fame taskmaster who put hands on all positions during practice. But he could also sit down and have heart-to-heart talks with guys like middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. To this day Zimmer has hanging in his office a signed pledge by Maualuga from a few years ago.

"He addressed that when he first got here; that was one of his deals," Hall said of the low-esteem defense. "The defense was among some of the worst in the league, depending on the year. He would talk about that. He realized that. He used that as a challenge and he put that challenge on us, too. Especially in his earlier years."

It's such a shopworn phrase. "Change the culture." Owner and general manager spout it mindlessly and often this time of year while hiring and firing coaches as if they're just another tweet.

Change the culture.

Zimmer actually did it. He took a franchise founded by an offensive pioneer that put it in the hands of offensive geniuses that made household names out of quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and made it known for defense in four playoff runs in the last five years.

"I've never been around a guy who has that attitude, toughness, sense of accountability. He was just one of those coaches," Crocker said. "You hated him when he first gets there. By the time you leave, you love him to death. You appreciate the kind of guy that he is.

"He'll be a great head coach. He'll be different than he was as a coordinator. I'm speaking of his brashness, the personas that he had following him around. You have to deal with a lot more personalities as a head coach and manage more relationships and he can do that. He'll definitely bring a tough-minded structure. Guys will know exactly where they're supposed to be and what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to do it."

Hall and Crocker think the Zimattitude can survive his departure. Like Crocker says, "98 percent of the guys, Zim is all they know." And he doesn't count Hall as one of the three guys on the roster before Zimmer arrived.

"Leon's a Zim guy. Leon Hall didn't become Leon Hall until Zimmer got here," Crocker said.

Hall agrees. He thinks Zimmer's strength here is what he did with his material.

"No matter what personnel we had, he was able to work with it and get guys to reach their potential regardless of what they thought of themselves as players," Hall said. "He's been able to get a level of play out of guys you wouldn't have thought could play at that level. He's definitely a motivator. He knows how to get the best out of different people.

"Whenever he told me something, or he told anybody that I thought could relate to my position, I would literally take it to heart. I took his word as gold. I had the faith in him that he knew what was best for that given situation, play or call. There were certain times I would try and put that on other people passing the word along."

If Hall became a Zimmer favorite because of his ferocious competitiveness, Crocker became the quintessential Zimmer player in 2008.

Zimmer arrived first at the beginning of the season. He felt he had been brutally tossed aside in the Bobby Petrino mess at the end of the 2007 season in Atlanta, where his first year as the Falcons defensive coordinator blew up when Petrino bolted the head coaching job back to college. Crocker arrived halfway through '08 bruised himself. He was also left on the street, cut despite playing just six games in Miami. He was a six-year veteran and third-round pick knowing he had plenty left.

They revived each other's careers. Crocker has gone on to play 71 of his 151 games for the Bengals as the quarterback of four postseason defenses. Zimmer, appealing to second-chancers like Crocker, rallied their resilience (Adam Jones, Reggie Nelson and Terence Newman) and used it to fuel four top 10 defenses known for a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude combined with heady play.

Indeed, Zimmer called Crocker off the couch three times when injuries decimated his secondary. In the past two seasons Crocker didn't sign until late September and ended up going from the remote to the playoffs. Since he's a free agent, he had to be asked on Wednesday.

If Minnesota and Cincinnati called?

"What should I do? I'll keep it a mystery," Crocker said with a laugh. "The fans have been great to me in Cincinnati. I played my best ball there. Everyone was behind me. And you know me and my family have a great rapport with Zim. He brought me out of retirement twice. Guys love playing for him. He's one of those guys you hate at first, but right away you've got to love. Those guys in Minnesota have got a good thing going. They're going to love playing for him."

Crocker had yet to speak to Zimmer as of late Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm so happy for him. He's such a good coach. He deserves it so much," Crocker said. "I know everyone is talking to him today and wants to get at him. I'm going to wait for it to settle down. I want to be the last person he talks to before he puts his head on the pillow tonight."

They may not have talk yet. But this is what Zimmer means to one guy.

"My wife and I are going out tonight to celebrate for him," Crocker said. "My wife and I are going to have a toast to him."

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