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Bittersweet Ride For Bengals' Longest Serving Coach As Darrin Simmons Oversees A Very Special Postseason

Evan McPherson kept a special postseason rolling in KC.
Evan McPherson kept a special postseason rolling in KC.

With a farmer's radar squint and a harvest's work ethic to match, Darrin Simmons watched the biggest cash crop of his winding quarter century in the NFL come in fewer than 500 miles from the family farm.

After rookie kicker Evan McPherson blanketed Kansas City in silence with a 31-yard walk-off field goal that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl and Simmons' special teams in the record books, McPherson grabbed him and told him, "That was for your dad."

Simmons, the NFL's longest tenured special teams coordinator in 19 meticulous seasons with the Bengals that have stretched from Myles (Reggie) to Flowers (Tre), had already planned for that, too.

"On my mind every second," Simmons said this week, back home in Cincinnati trying to get a bead on the eccentricities of the great Rams punter Johnny Hekker.

"I felt that presence the whole year. Especially in the late-game situations. I felt like he was there to help guide the ball through a little bit."

Cancer took Gary Simmons, 71, in training camp, a few weeks after his son did what he always does every harvest and help cut the more than 2,000 acres of wheat lining the Elkhart, Kan., farm with his razor attention to detail. Rhonda Simmons, who has been a great gunner when it comes to containing her husband's relentless perfectionism in 23 years together, could see a farmer's hand even in Gary's death.

"I firmly believe Gary had a plan and that was part of his gift to Darrin," Rhonda says. "He knew Darrin worried about him and when he passed, Darrin missed a preseason game and not a regular-season game."

It was this training camp where Simmons began to realize how good McPherson could be with made field goals stacked like firewood. His scouting and drafting of McPherson culminating in this month's astonishing assault on NFL postseason records has shone a flashlight on Simmons' two decades of work that has made him one of the more highly-regarded minds in one of the game's darkest corners of recognition.

"No one is more thorough and prepared," head coach Zac Taylor has said how many times this season?

In the 11 years since former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis re-booted the roster into five straight playoffs and Taylor took it to the Super Bowl, the web site Football Outsiders put the Bengals special teams in the top ten nine times. The site's DVOA, considered the gold standard for judging NFL special teams, put the Bengals No. 1 in 2019, the only light in Taylor's first year of 2-14.

With Simmons drawing even more attention from other teams (it's no secret that Simmons mentor Scott O'Brien has a big fan in Bill Belichick), Taylor gave him the title of assistant head coach heading into the 2020 season.

Simmons has followed it up by keeping the massive roster overhaul under control with two more top ten finishes and this incredible postseason McPherson has ruled on 12-for-12 and two walk-offs. Not only that, the Bengals have controlled the kicking game's hidden yardage in all three playoff games while Taylor has made no bones about relying on Simmons for both situations on and off the field.

As clutch as another four-for-four effort by McPherson had been in Kansas City, Simmons was just as pleased with his kickoffs. The speedy Chiefs, ranked No. 9 in kick returns during the season, had just 38 yards on two. Ranked third in punt returns, they were held to just one fair catch stalked by Simmons' new pair of gunners learning on the fly in Flowers and wide receiver Mike Thomas.

They call Simmons' system player friendly. Flowers, who showed up here in October, is playing gunner for the first time in his career because of injuries and looks like he was born for it. At least on the stat sheet, where he leads the team with three postseason teams tackles.

Cincinnati's average drive start of the Bengals 33 compared to the Chiefs 24 was decisive in a three-point conference championship win in overtime.

"Those guys have dangerous, dangerous, dangerous returners and I thought he kicked off very effectively," Simmons said. "He had one kick he mis-hit, but other than that, he helped us eliminate that phase of the game."

Rest assured those kicks were as well planned as Gary Simmons' irrigation system. McPherson smiles at the thought of Darrin Simmons carrying that white U.S. Mail bucket into a meeting with all his papers.

"That's so he won't forget any of them," McPherson said. "After every meeting, he's always wishing he had said one more thing to the group. 'Ah, I forgot to tell them this.' He always thinks he should have said something more. He thinks he's missed something when he hasn't missed a thing.

"He's wired differently. What makes him great is that he's a perfectionist. He never feels like he can do enough."

McPherson got a taste of it at his now famous workout at the University of Florida a few weeks before the Bengals took him in the fifth round, the only kicker drafted last year. Simmons is known for trying out kickers' mental mettle as well as their legs and this day was no different.

McPherson says Simmons was the only coach who asked to hold for him that day and he kicked a few through the posts.

"Perfect holds. The laces facing. Good lean," McPherson said. "Then after a couple he asked me, 'Do you trust me?' I said, 'Sure.' And he said, 'Good, that's the No. 1 thing a kicker has to have with his holder. Trust.'

"Then on the next one, he bobbled it a few times, the laces weren't right and he had it leaning all over the place. I still made it. He asked me again, 'You still trust me?' I told him, 'Not if you do it like that.'"

No doubt Simmons noted the reaction. Which is no surprise to Rhonda Simmons. She sees it every day. She's got a big car and a tight garage and she can't get away with anything. Darrin can come home, take a look at the bumper or the passenger side door and find a scratch that Rhonda has no idea she put there.

"I believe Darrin is a great coach because No. 1, he takes so much time at it," Rhonda Simmons says. "It's a lot of hard work and he's just so detailed and he's so observant."

Very much the farmer in a family of four generations of them. Simmons's great grandfather settled at the turn of the previous century in the far southwest corner of Kansas along the Oklahoma border and five miles west of Colorado. Their land ranges from Texas County in the Panhandle into Kansas and, now, into the Bengals kicking game.

"He's almost the image of his dad," Rhonda Simmons said. "From his overall appearance to his thinking and his morals and his hard work. I know that's where he learned it. Farming is similar to coaching. Its hard work, it's not a 9 to 5 job. It's something that sometimes can be out of your hands. Like the weather. The bottom line is you're dedicated to your job, you put in the work and you wait for the rewards."

After 19 years, he's getting his guys ready to play for the biggest reward. He likes their chances. And in 19 years, Cincinnati has had some talent.

"This year has been different and I don't know exactly what it is," Darrin Simmons said. "We've had a lot of talented teams. This one is a little different. This team is very unselfish. Guys play for each other. Not that the other teams didn't. This is just a little different level of it, though.

"We've been playing very good complementary football. We capitalize whenever one group makes a play. In the last two games the defense has picked off balls and the offense has moved it for a winning field goal. We're very opportunistic. When the plays present themselves, we make them. That's a sign of good teams. They win close games and that's what you have in the playoffs."

Darrin and Rhonda are Kansans, but they're raising three Cincinnatians. Their oldest, Hannah, a year younger than McPherson, was a year old when Simmons signed on with Lewis. Their two boys were born here. She recently washed a Joe Mixon jersey and a Ja'Marr Chase jersey.

"The greatest thing about it is seeing the excitement of the friends who have become like family," Rhonda said. "That's how long we've been here. And, yes, it's nice to see special teams playing at the top of its game and getting the recognition from so many people."

Simmons caught sight of his boss, Bengals president Mike Brown, handed the Lamar Hunt Trophy by Ickey Woods, and it made him feel good that the owner who watches every practice watched his team win the AFC title.

"Awesome. Awesome," Simmons said. "Talk about a long time coming. It's was a special thing to see him up there and be a part of the presentation. I know it's something he wanted more than anything in the world. That was pretty special to see."

Gary would have been there. He went to every playoff game. Any game close to the farm. KC, Dallas, Denver, he was there. He and Laurie, Darrin's mom, always came for Christmas. Laurie came for Christmas this year and didn't really leave until she went back to Elkhart after beating the Chiefs. She had plenty of company in the Arrowhead stands, the highlight of their favorite son's coaching career.

"A lot of people. Had to be in the 20s," Simmons said of the family and friends gathered.

He thinks his dad was there, too. Maybe on McPherson's winner. Or maybe on the 52-yarder that gave them the first lead of the day with 6:04 left and the old farmer saw to it that the prairie wind held off for an instant.

"I think he was," Simmons said. "I like to think he was."