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Seeking a blueprint

Posted Feb 11, 2013

It was one of those Super Bowls where Darrin Simmons could be categorized as an impartial yet interested bystander.


Andrew Hawkins

It was one of those Super Bowls where Darrin Simmons could be categorized as an impartial yet interested bystander.

The Ravens are one of the natural and fiercest Bengals enemies in the wilds of the AFC North. But Baltimore's head coach is one of Simmons's own, John Harbaugh, a nine-year NFL special teams coordinator. Simmons admits there is no blueprint for how a special teams guy makes the jump to head coach, but Harbaugh's Lombardi Trophy has to help.

"I would hope so. I would hope it would raise (the profile)," Simmons says. "He's probably worked his tail off to get where he's at and to win the Super Bowl; it's a pretty unbelievable thing."

Simmons is coming off arguably the best of his 10 seasons as the coach of the Bengals special teams. The Bengals secured the No. 1 ranking in the NFL's 10 major categories, as well as a No. 2 ranking in the Dallas Morning News survey where columnist Rick "Goose" Gosselin cooks 22 different categories into what is considered the gold standard of special teams rankings.

And yet while defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden got calls about head coaching vacancies, Simmons didn't and that's not exactly breaking news league-wide.

Special teams coaches like Harbaugh get a shot to be a head coach once a decade. If that.

"These guys can't catch a break. I'm hoping what Harbaugh has done cracks a door for them," Gosselin says of the special teams brethren. "But owners are looking for flash and that means offense. Look at this past year. All but one of the new head coaches are offensive guys."

Gosselin, who has been doing these rankings for the past 33 seasons, has seen men who began their NFL careers on special teams grow into Hall of Fame-caliber head coaches, none more famously than Dick Vermeil, the league's first designated special teams coach when George Allen tapped him with the 1969 Rams. But there has also been Marv Levy, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and now Harbaugh, a guy that has never missed the playoffs in his five seasons as the Baltimore head man.

"But all those guys had to go to one side of the ball or the other before they became a head coach," Gosselin says. "Harbaugh had just one year as a secondary coach after he was a (special) teams coach all those years and whether that's the case, it is the reality."

Simmons, 39, heading into his 16th NFL season, has watched it.

"It’s a good question," says Simmons, asked if he'd ever go to offense or defense in an effort to get to the next level. "Maybe you have to to get rid of that stigma. I think ultimately every coach at some time or another thinks about becoming a head coach. Is there a blueprint for a (special) teams coach? I haven't seen it."

But Simmons thinks a special teams coach has in-bred requisites to be a "no-brainer" on a short list of head coaching candidates.

"You work with the entire team," he says. "Just the game management stuff more than anything. How to handle different situations. Just as important as anything is knowing all the rules.

"I'm biased obviously. I think (more special teams coaches should get chances). I don't know why it doesn't happen."

Gosselin says he's not sure who is the next Harbaugh now that former Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub didn't get hired by his old club. Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said he turned down an interview request from the Bears so he could focus on the playoffs.

"A lot of the performance of special teams is based on how your team regards the importance of special teams," Gosselin says. "I think Darren and the Bengals do a good job. Marvin (Lewis) gets it. Most defensive head coaches understand the value of field position and the impact it has on both offense and defense."

Simmons has steered the Bengals to two very solid back-to-back seasons. They were 12th last year in Gosselin's rankings and were in the top 10 in the 10 major categories.

The Vikings won this season's Goose Hunt with 253.5 points, a number derived from their rankings in the 22 categories added together. The Bengals were second, a point ahead of Harbaugh's Ravens with 276. The top five had a fourth playoff team when No. 5 Seattle's 302 points put them behind Miami's 296.

"Goose's rankings are a little broader than others and that's probably why they're seen as so important," Simmons says. "Plus, he was the first one to put it together like offensive and defensive rankings and gave special teams a value."

Simmons tips his hat to his core players from the last two seasons, the kind of little-known backups that make special teams hum, such as linebackers Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey, running backs Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard, and safety Jeromy Miles.

"Obviously all of these guys are committed and care deeply about what they're doing," Simmons says. "The rankings show that."

WIDE-EYED: The NFL seems to be kicking around the idea of widening the field, a la Canada, in the name of player safety. Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, a two-year veteran of both the CFL and the NFL, says it would be safer if they're trying to curtail the magnitude of the hits.

"It would prevent a lot of the severe collisions," Hawkins says. "Guys are getting faster every year. We know that. But with the NFL spacing being more confined than the CFL, there are a lot more big hits. There are a lot more tight windows. It would prevent not all, but a larger portion, of big hits."

The numbers: The Canadian field is 195 feet wide. The NFL is 160 feet. The Canadian field is 30 yards longer. And they play with an extra man in Canada.

"I wouldn't imagine the NFL would go to the CFL spacing right away," he says. "There is an extra player there. It would almost seem if they go to that size with 11 players it would be almost impossible to stop an offense. I could see them making (the field) somewhere between the two."

The 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins isn't lobbying for either side. "I just want to play," he says.

He has played both games and he can attest that the NFL, overall, is a faster league.

"There are more big hits here," Hawkins says. "I don't care how fast you are. If a field is a certain size, you're not going to be able to get there by the time the ball gets there.

"With the offenses in the NFL, it's all timing. Those bang-bang plays are designed that way because you realize what kind of tight windows there are. It's called 'a seam' because the reasoning is if you can get the ball along that line, nine times out of 10 that safety is not going to be there. There's enough space for the ball to get there and you catch the ball cleanly before the safety takes your head off. With a bigger field, the seams get a little bigger."

 

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