Posted: 11 p.m.
Fittingly, Mike Zimmer's emotionally jangled year of where football really did become family and family really did become football ended Tuesday with daughter Corri sitting next to him in the car in Dallas.
It was there he pulled over to talk to Bengals president Mike Brown and finish off his three-year extension which, without even knowing the number, can safely be assumed makes him the highest paid Bengals assistant coach in history.
"Corri had the calculator," joked Zimmer, who got serious very quickly about head coach Marvin Lewis. "The players, the coaches, and, really, ownership have been good to me. And Marvin was worth a lot of money the way he treats people and how good he is coaching the team. And the fans were unbelievable with the support they gave me. My parents and brothers and sisters would call me and tell me, 'You should hear what they're saying about you.' "
What they're saying is this is big news in Bengaldom. The first Bengals free agent signing of 2010 and maybe their best.
"Awesome that Zimmer is back," quarterback Carson Palmer texted. "Great for team future. I know the (defensive) players are excited."
Indeed, defensive tackle Domata Peko observed, "Great news. We've got the main dude back. I can't wait to get it going again. I'm happy for him because he said he wanted to come back and the reason he wanted to come back was because he loved us and he didn't want to have to start all over again."
If Zimmer didn't want to start over, neither did Lewis. Zimmer coached in Dallas for 13 seasons, the last seven as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, before taking the same job with the Falcons in 2007. When that staff crumbled late that season with the defection of head coach Bobby Petrino to Arkansas, Falcons offensive coordinator and former Bengals receivers coach Hue Jackson recommended Zimmer to Lewis in his search for a third defensive coordinator.
With Cincinnati's first top five defense since the first year of Mike and Vikki Zimmer's marriage, the suddenly stingy Bengals swept the AFC North in six games they allowed just seven touchdowns and set team records in rushing defense while finishing among the league leaders in points allowed and fourth in yards yielded.
But after Sunday's end-of-year meeting with his unit that sparked with emotion when Zimmer started talking about Vikki, the wife of 27 years he lost suddenly when he found her gone after coming home from work Oct. 8, no one knew if he would be back to keep the roll going. Demanding, aggressive and fiery, Zimmer is admired by his players for his passion and ability.
But there is the other side.
Rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga said Zimmer told the defense not to believe any of the rumors, that he had not talked to any other teams, and if he came back it was only because of the people in that room.
"He was pretty emotional," Maualuga said. "That touched us. He said, 'You guys keep in touch with me, text me.' Then he just walked off. It was like, 'Wow.' "
Zimmer, tough and taut, blunt and bright, thought he might be in for a rocky negotiating session with the just-as-tough-and-bright Brown. The Bengals had seven days from Saturday to negotiate with Zimmer exclusively. Brown took just a day and a half, making sure Zimmer left for Dallas with a firm, fair offer. So Zimmer says he never heard from other teams. Only things like "Joey tells Jimmy and Jimmy tells Bobby," and stuff like that.
"We laughed at each other a few times," Zimmer said of the talks with Brown. "But it was good. Easier than I thought. I told my players that I wanted to be with them. I told them I just couldn't see packing up again (for the third time in four years) and go some place and start from ground zero. In the offseason, I Iike to talk to other coaches and study other teams and I really wouldn't have been able to do that if I was moving and trying to teach coaches and players the defense."
So what he will do, instead, is try to take the Bengals beyond No. 4. When he arrived in 2008, they were No. 27 and finished that year No. 12. Zimmer would like a head coaching job, but all those chairs that were supposed to be open in November are filled in January.
"The sky is the limit," said Brandon Johnson, an outside linebacker cut by Arizona who has flourished as a valued role player under Zimmer. "You know that he's going to use your strengths and he does that with everybody."
Zimmer's strength this season has been his strength.
When the bye week came three weeks after Vikki's death, he admitted the wins weren't as good. His office suddenly became plastered with Post-it notes as he became father and mother to daughters Corri and Marki and son Adam, the Saints assistant linebackers coach who turns 26 Wednesday.
"It's going to be hard. It's going to be the first birthday I won't get a call from my mother," Adam Zimmer said from New Orleans, where the Saints are preparing for their NFC semifinal with the Cardinals. "But I'm still working. I think the first part of the offseason is going to be tough for him because he's not in there every day grinding. But he likes it there and loves working for Marvin. He's one of his favorite head coaches."
Mike Zimmer also admitted that he didn't think he was doing enough for his kids and so now whenever there is a text or a phone call while he's in the office, he puts down the clicker or looks up from the computer to make sure he responds.
On Tuesday from Dallas, where the girls live, Zimmer said he continues to have good days and bad days. So do the girls. And Adam.
He had to laugh Tuesday. He has been talking to a psychologist that he calls his "doctor friend," and when the doctor texted him after Saturday night's playoff loss to the Jets to see if he was OK, he texted he was fine. Zimmer now sleeps with his phone by his side so if the girls call he's right there, and he was sleeping, but the doctor demanded, "No, I have to hear your voice."
On Tuesday, Zimmer's voice sounded a little weary and relieved, but excited about the guys that he's got coming back. So did the guys.
"If you're looking for an MVP, what about Zim?" asked Bengals middle linebacker Dhani Jones. "He had the greatest loss of his life and he still stood by us and gave us everything he had, keeping his passion and his focus, and making us better players and better people."
It is Jones that has become Zimmer's eyes and ears on the field after a feeling-out process. Jones' incessant questions and quest for minutiae can get Zimmer riled. But the mutual respect is enormous. Jones, Peko, and safety Roy Williams served as Vikki's pallbearers.
"It's hard to tell you the feeling that came over me," Jones said. "It was a very moving ceremony. The tragedy really hit home. A tragedy either separates you or brings you closer together. We became closer. It sensitized the differences around each other and made it easier to understand each other."
On Sunday, a lot of players came in and urged Zimmer to stay even though they knew in a couple of months he could be back calling them such vile names the paint will begin to peel off the PBS walls.
"We like it when he yells at us like that," Brandon Johnson said. "He's pushing us. He wants us to get it right. If you can't take that, then you can't take getting hit in the mouth on the field. And that's what it's like."
After a tough December and January in which the Bengals saw their No. 2 rush defense and No. 1 third-down defense get whittled in the rankings while they lost four of the last five games, Zimmer is convinced there is a good foundation. They did, after all, get hammered by injury in which they lost their two SAM backers, Peko, and safety Chris Crocker.
Zimmer is already musing about more blitzes and taking even more advantage of Pro Bowl in-waiting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
"We need to get guys healthy, but we need to play better, too," Zimmer said. "I was really disappointed in how we rushed the passer at the end and we're going to have to emphasize that again like we did last offseason. We need more good players. Pressure players and cover players. You can never have enough defensive linemen and cornerbacks."
Zimmer would also like to re-sign Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson and all signs point to the Bengals making a run at them.
"He likes all those guys. He built that defense the way he likes it," Adam Zimmer said. "No superstars. Hard-working guys that play good team defense. His kind of guys."
On Tuesday, his kinds of guys were having a good day.
"They did a good job re-signing him," Maualuga said. "I couldn't imagine being coached by any another defensive coordinator. I know it's only my first year, but the passion he brings and how he teaches, it's beyond crazy. With his attitude and our defense's attitude, it's a match."