Bengals.com is devoting this week to honoring the best in Bengaldom this past season: MVP, Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and Assistant Coach of the Year.
The last is always the most difficult to bestow. In the world's most visible sport, NFL assistant coaches are an anomaly. They are so anonymous and yet so vital. They labor in a spare, almost beautiful obscurity and in any given year each team has a slew of possibilities to win such an award.
Look at the Bengals this season and you can start with first-year coordinators Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther and their yeoman efforts to get the Bengals back to the playoffs despite a crush of injuries.
Both were aided by first-year position coaches. Cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph came over from Houston and guided the maturation of youngsters Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard while the back end helped the defense finish in the top ten in several passing categories, such as No. 3 in defensive passer rating. Linebackers coach Matt Burke moved from Detroit and in his first season had to deal with the loss of Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for most of the year, among others, in varying stints.
In his fifth season with the club, offensive assistant Kyle Caskey was promoted to running backs coach and saw second-round pick Jeremy Hill become the first Bengals rookie in 17 years to rush for 1,000 yards.
But you'd be hard pressed not to give the award to Darrin Simmons, the only special teams coordinator Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has had in his 12 seasons and it looks like both are coming back for their 13th.
Under Simmons' watch this past season, punter Kevin Huber made his first Pro Bowl, returner Adam Jones made his first All-Pro team, kicker Mike Nugent launched the franchise's longest field goal in the season's most critical moment, and the Bengals special teams nearly won its second NFL title in three seasons in a compilation of the 10 major kicking categories. They lost by a point to the Falcons after leading virtually the entire season.
Until Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in the season finale.
Which underscores Simmons' obsession with preparation, an area where he's helped by assistant Brayden Coombs.
"One play," Simmons said the following week, "that just shows you that you have to be consistent all the time in a full season."
Jones should be going to Arizona next week for the Pro Bowl but because of the all inadequacies of the game that include selection, he's not. After he led the NFL in kick returns with a 31.3-yard average and finished tied for punt return with an 11.9, he was the only player to finish in the top eight in both categories.
Since Jones played nearly 70 percent of the snaps at cornerback, many of them on third down, Simmons couldn't use him for every return and he had to make a snap judgment whether or not to put him back there while interpreting the flow of the game and Jones' status.
But when things got tight, Jones was the answer. He had just one kick return against Carolina and it came with 4:50 left in a game the Panthers had just taken a 31-24 lead. Jones wanted the ball. He got it. And 97 yards later the Bengals were three yards away from the tying TD in a game they would eventually tie, 37-37.
But not without Jones.
Simmons also tapped him against Baltimore in the opener and New England for only one punt return each and it must have been the right time because Jones responded with returns of 45 and 47 yards, respectively.
As spectacular as Jones was, Huber was as consistent, leading the NFL for much of the season in net average until he finished fifth at 42.1 yards and fourth in gross with 46.8. Those are club records, breaking the marks he set in 2012.
From the day he tied the club record with 11 punts and set the record with 558 yards on Oct. 19 in Indianapolis, until he pinned the Bucs on the two-yard line in a 14-13 victory in Tampa Nov. 30, Huber put together a streak Simmons would later say was hard to duplicate anywhere. In games the Bengals went 5-2, Huber was never below 41.3 yards in net while putting 16 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Huber often praised the work of his gunners and Simmons had the luxury of running two first-round cornerbacks in there in Kirkpatrick and Dennard, as well as college special teams maven James Wright, a rookie wide receiver out of LSU. With their help, the Bengals finished 10th covering punts after a season they were usually in the top five until they ran into the Steelers' Brown.
Nugent went from the goat of the Carolina tie when his 36-yarder went wide right to the hero of the Wild Card Game when his 57-yarder near the halftime gun in Indianapolis snuck in with the help of an upright and pulled the Bengals within 13-10 with what would be their last points of the season. In between, Nugent was 15 of 16 down the stretch.
As always, special teams bear the brunt of injuries. It was no different here as Simmons and Coombs took the trickle-down effect. For instance, the Burfict injury promoted special teams co-captain Vincent Rey and put him on the field for nearly 1,000 scrimmage snaps, meaning he didn't have one teams tackle a year after he tied for third with ten.
The season also saw the Bengals lose their top team's tackler from last season halfway through the year, linebacker Jayson DiManche. So of the top seven teams tacklers for 2014, three were new additions (Dennard, Wright and running back Rex Burkhead) and two (Kirkpatrick and safety Taylor Mays) moved up.