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Bengals Special Teams And Huber Seek Finishing Kick

Kevin Huber keeps on kicking.
Kevin Huber keeps on kicking.

Kevin Huber's idea now is to play at least five more seasons and play the most games in his hometown team's history with a special teams group always in the hunt for the league's top ranking.

When the Bengals play in Miami Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and Huber, of the Anderson Township Hubers, punts in his 186th game, he passes the greatest Bengal of them all, Hall-of-Famer Anthony Muñoz.

In the next last game of this season in Houston, Huber, who once quarterbacked a bit for McNicholas High School, gets in front of franchise icon Tim Krumrie with 189. For Huber, whose supersonic leg caught the radar eye of Darrin Simmons at the University of Cincinnati, which leaves the trinity of Ken Anderson (192), Reggie Williams (206) and Ken Riley (207).

His net average of 41.9 yards this season is dangling with the decimal points of his career-best 42.1. His overall average of 47.2 would be his best ever and two yards more than his career average. Huber points to a new in-season practice regimen and holding off punting until June as some reasons for his big year.

But it is the names that are calling him for more and not the numbers.

"I've got to play a few years," says the usually impassive Huber as he thinks of sitting with Muñoz at the moment. "That's pretty cool in itself. To say I'm going to be fifth all-time after this game on games played, that's something I definitely thought never would have happened. It's definitely pretty cool to hear about that, talk about that.

"To play my entire career here where I grew up, that would be pretty awesome. And on top of that to play when I'm 40, that would be a pretty incredible story."

So at 35, there are things left to do. His contract is up after game No. 190 and he hopes to sign another one after the season. No rush, he says, that's the way they've always done it.

But there is something more immediate with five games left. Besides wins.

"Last year we finished as the top special teams unit in the league," Huber says. "That's something we really take pride in.

"Guys know that and guys really want to play for that. We want to be the reason we win games, not the reason we lose games. The game this past weekend really shows what we have. We can put some games together and get us back up in the conversation."

Simmons, in his 18th season with the Bengals as the NFL's longest-tenured special teams coordinator and the lone Marvin Lewis holdover, emerged from last week's duel against a platoon of special teams coaches with his reputation as one of the league' best even more elevated.

Working against a Giants team coached by a former teams coordinator in Joe Judge with a staff that also has two past and present NFL special teams coordinators, Simmons' men, along with first year assistant Colt Anderson, put together a masterpiece.

Ranging from kick returner Brandon Wilson's longest play in Bengals history to Shawn Williams' second successful fake punt in three weeks to Huber dropping three inside the 20, well, Jim Breech saw it. 

Breech, the Bengals' all-time leading scorer who kicked in both Super Bowls and also saw Huber pass him on the games list against Tennessee last month with No. 182, is a big fan of Simmons.

"They kept them in the game and gave them a chance to win," Breech says. "Ever since Darrin has been here, the Bengals have been good on special teams. And it wasn't always like that. The Bengals would struggle with that. But Marvin emphasized it and Darrin is so detailed."

But Simmons is Simmons because he's splicing the tape of the stuff you can't see. It's a clip from the Giants game and it goes with a post-game text from his captain, Shawn Williams.

The back story is that Simmons is sick to his stomach about the recent reports painting head coach Zac Taylor's locker culture as toxic. Just the opposite, he thinks, and he's seen a lot of Bengals lockers rooms that weren't as tight as this one.

There's that text from Williams. It was Williams on that last punt return who was a joy to watch. With the clock ticking under two minutes and the Bengals needing a field goal from its beleaguered offense to win it, Alex Erickson gave them breath with a scintillating 29-yard return to midfield.

It was Williams blocking the gunner out of bounds. Then it was Williams looking for somebody else to take out and he caught linebacker Cam Brown and got a piece of him, too. Brown managed to shoestring tackle Erickson at the last instant and Simmons got this text from Williams 90 minutes later:

"If I would have got 47 blocked, Alex would have scored."

"That's the guy he came off. That's the guy he was helping somebody else. That's not even his guy," Simmons says. "If Shawn Williams didn't care, he wouldn't have sent me that text. He cares. They care."

Simmons, the assistant head coach, is a caretaker of all parts of the roster. A guy like Williams is a respected veteran safety changing roles. Huber and long snapper Clark Harris (36) are the old men. Wilson, a safety, is the defending NFL kick return champ. Alex Erickson is a veteran wide receiver with an AFC kick return title on his resume. Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson are the rookie linebackers and his up-and-coming cover guys.

From what Simmons could see, they were in it together.

"I think it's pretty clear. I never questioned it," Simmons says. "I've been a part of various groups of teams that were not together as much as this group is. This group is a tighter group that way. Has everything been perfect? Has everything been executed the way we drew it up? Hell no. But I don't think the outside forces are pulling on us like that."

With five games left, the guys in the kicking game are talking about finishing No. 1 again. Or, at the very least, making a run. They are in the top ten in both return games and are in the top 10 covering kicks. When the Bengals were scoring, kicker Randy Bullock was the NFL's leading scorer.

His guys, Simmons believes, are looking at the Football Outsiders website.

"It's one of the metrics," Simmons says, "and it gets updated every week."

The site had them No. 1 last year. They are ranked sixth this week after coming into the Giants game ranked 12th. And Wilson is leering back at the goal line with three more cold-weather games and more returns beckoning. Plus, Huber is hot and the Cincinnati Kid has three December games left in The Paul's freezer and he's a mudder at heart.

"I don't think people realize," Huber says, "we play in the cold weather. In November and December, we don't play a lot of warm weather games or in domes. There are some guys, they kick almost an entire year in domes or warm weather. I think the proudest thing for me is I've done it for 12 years in a division like the AFC North and in the places where we play."

Simmons agrees with Breech. At the moment, Huber looks like he can go on indefinitely. Simmons switched his heavy day this season from Thursday to Wednesday, giving him a light day Thursday and off Friday and Saturday so he can lift or rest or do what feels right for Sunday.

Plus, COVID allowed Huber not to kick in the spring, so he began working in June and eased into training camp. He jokes that if they have OTAs in May and June next year, maybe he can skip them.

But for Simmons, Huber's career goes beyond the leg.

"He's become smarter about situations the more he's played," Simmons says. "And he's played a lot. He's learned a lot and he's used what he's learned. It's a great testament that he's been producing for so long. To be able to take care of his body like that."

On Sunday, there's another one. Huber, literally, keeps kicking.

Let's see. No. 208 would be the second game of the 2022 season.

"It would be cool to retire with the most games played in Bengals history," Huber says. "That would be a great accomplishment."