Jim Anderson says he's not "The Bridge."
OK. But maybe he's the "Double J.A. Highway." Along with the current offensive assistants, he's going to be one of the bridges from the old system under Bob Bratkowski to the one under new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
But since Anderson has coached the Bengals running backs from head coach Sam Wyche's first season of 1984, he's also the bridge from the old West Coast scheme to the 21st century version that Gruden has brought from his days with brother Jon in Tampa Bay.
"I'm not the bridge; I'm just one of the workers," Anderson says from his Paul Brown Stadium office, where a row of Christmas cards from some of his former Pro Bowlers provides a sentinel for his desk. "We're all working to construct the bridge from the last offense to this one."
If he sounds like a throwback, he is. At 62, Anderson is the dean of NFL position coaches for length of service with his team and the last Bengals coach who interviewed with Paul Brown. And after 27 years of 13 different 100-yard rushers, 10 Pro Bowl seasons, nine different changes in the structure of the playcalling, six different 1,000-yard rushers, and four head coaches, Anderson is staring at Gruden's what-goes-around-comes-around playbook.
He says it will be easier in this scheme to get two running backs in the game like it was in the old days, but before he can get Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard in the same huddle they have to get contracts. Anderson also sees other West Coast staples:
Gruden trying to get the ball quickly out of the passer's hands in a tight end-friendly offense favoring play-action passes out of formations teeming with tons of personnel groups. He thinks the scheme fits the pass-catching abilities of third-year scatback Bernard Scott because "it's something he's been in and it will be more natural for him." Although Anderson says "a running game is a running game," it is going to be a key piece of the puzzle because both Gruden and head coach Marvin Lewis are saying they want the running game to mirror the passing game.
"I was talking with J.A. about that the other day when I got a look at it," says Eric Ball of the new playbook, one of his former players from the early '90s and now the club's director of player relations who helps with the fullbacks. "I told him, 'This reminds me of when I played.' And he said, 'Pretty much.' A lot has changed. The terminology is different, but the concept is the same."
But it is different.
And Anderson will remind you that under Bratkowski the Bengals had some success.
"We won two division titles in that system," Anderson says. "At one point a quarterback went to the Pro Bowl, a running back went to the Pro Bowl, and a couple of receivers went to the Pro Bowl."
But there has been a change because there wasn't enough scoring and wins to match the talent of the quarterback. And there has been massive change in the West Coast itself in the decade since it was last employed here.
"The system has evolved because the defenses have evolved," Anderson says. "The blitz has become so frequent that the major change has been the pass protections."
Different enough that he says the 1988 playbook he keeps in a large orange loose leaf notebook on a shelf above his desk and Gruden's evolving manuscript in a burgeoning black binder on his desk are two distinct languages. It's not Spanish 101 and Spanish 405. It's Spanish 405 and French 405.
But it is what football coaches do and it is why Anderson is always hopping around like a spring chicken after all these years. His user name should be Coachedup and his password should be Dontcurbyourenthusiasm84. On the practice field, it never looks like he's having a bad day.
"Your mind has to go back and say, 'It's not called that now.' It's a different language," Anderson says. "But everyone has a different language. We're catching up to (Gruden's) wheel. There's no comfort level. Believe me. You've got the adrenaline going. You've got to learn it and then learn it well enough to teach it. That's exciting. Teach it to these guys and watch them go execute it."
Jay Gruden's staff is no stranger to West Coast concepts. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander broke into the NFL of 1992 under Wyche disciple Bruce Coslet with the Jets and came with him to the Bengals in 1994. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese is fluent enough in the West Coast from his days in Green Bay and Philadelphia that he can teach Bratkowski's scheme using West Coast terminology. Tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes played in it at Kansas City in the late '80s and '90.
Even Monday's hire of Eagles assistant offensive coordinator James Urban to coach the receivers is steeped in the West Coast. Jon Gruden learned at the foot of Eagles head coach Andy Reid and Jay Gruden learned from Jon Gruden and...
"This is Jay Gruden's offense; and that's what we're going to be," Anderson says. "He's creative, he's enthusiastic. He loves football and he loves to coach it. He's ready to go."
It was Anderson that was there at the creation with Wyche. And before he came to the Bengals, Anderson was the running backs coach at Stanford just after Bill Walsh, the godfather of the West Coast, was succeeded by Paul Wiggin running the same system. He's got Walsh notes and Wyche playbooks. He can go over to another bookshelf and pull out the 1995 Bengals playbook authored by Coslet in his second season back in town after the four-year stint in New York.
"A lot of the routes are the same. Shallow crosses. The play-action. But you can't say in general that it is the same thing," Anderson says. "That's not right. When Bruce came back from the Jets, it was already different. He had a lot of different stuff to counter the blitz game."
For instance, there had to be a jab to the counter of the defense putting a linebacker in the A gap to blitz right up the center's nostril. So the shotgun formation that Walsh disdained so much had to become part of the offense.
Anderson says the difference isn't how many players are used to protect on the blitz, but how they do it. There could be more chipping with the back than the Bengals have been used to under Bratkowski, or more tight ends in the game, or fewer spread formations. Anderson won't say, not just because he wants to keep defenses guessing, but also because it's a work in progress.
"The big thing is that more players have to be more multiple," he says. "You don't want to throw hot all the time. You want to give people a flow ... it may not always be ruled out the way you want it to be ruled out. There may be a rule breaker as a pass protector and a receiver, and you just have to adjust and play football."
Ball says the key to Anderson's longevity is adjustment. And not to the Xs and Os. Just look at the guys he's coached. From the chip on James Brooks' shoulder to Corey Dillon's volatility to the enigmatic Harold Green to the fiercely proud Cedric Benson.
"J.A.'s been able to reach out to all of them, even the lesser-known guys," Ball says. "They always come back. They always keep in touch."
Green, who had an odd dustup over a contract with the Bengals, sent Anderson a Christmas card this year with his family photo. The Dillons' 2010 Christmas card with a photo of their three daughters is on display, as is a picture of Rudi Johnson's daughter Jasmine hugging the back of her dad's shoulders. Dillon got himself traded, but when he and Anderson trade messages seven years later, they still get in touch.
But you probably won't see any Dillon cutups soon. Or tape of Brooks and Ickey Woods exploding out of the same backfield.
"Good coaching means you're always open to ideas," Anderson says. "But right now we've got our hands full with what we're doing right now."
He does like to keep the keepsakes close. The '88 playbook. The winning scouting report from the '88 AFC title game. The pictures of the kids' kids.
" '88 was special," he says.
The pictures tell him the players make the 28 years of Xs and Os special.