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Combine Quick Hits: Simmons Eyes Adding A Punter, But Has 'Good Feeling' About Robbins; Bengals Get A New, Fiery Assistant

Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Darrin Simmons during training camp on Monday, August 14, 2023 at the Kettering Health Practice Fields in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Darrin Simmons during training camp on Monday, August 14, 2023 at the Kettering Health Practice Fields in Cincinnati, Ohio.

INDIANAPOLIS _ For the third straight year in the same spot at the NFL scouting combine, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said he hopes to bring in another punter to give the incumbent competition leading up to Opening Day.

But he also said he "has a good feeling," about Brad Robbins after an up-and-down rookie season  flashed why the Bengals took him in the sixth round in the last draft.

"I think he evolved some. I certainly think there's still a lot of meat left on the bone for him," Simmons said. "If you go back and look statistically where his rookie year was and comparison like what Kevin Huber's was, it's still better. I think I don't want to overreact here. I think that's part of my job is to help develop him and make him better. I think you can do that. I think he has the right mindset. He's very open to that when we bring up techniques we might want to change a little bit to help that production. It's certainly an area we've got to get better at quickly." 

As the Bengals transitioned from Huber, their all-time leader, the past few seasons, they brought in a pair of rookie Big Ten punters in Michigan's Robbins and Ohio State free agent Drue Chrisman. Simmons indicated they could go the veteran route this trip to go with Robbins. He says he's seen some interesting names out there.

"There's a lot of factors that go into that. There's the salary cap that we have to deal with and sometimes we haven't had as much room to do that and you have a potential for some savings with everybody going the younger route if they have a chance to develop," Simmons said. "It's easy to always say there's a veteran player that's available and that's easy for me to say, too. But sometimes that's not always feasible for our team or what's best for our team. "

MONEY MAC: Simmons is more than satisfied with his kicker as Evan McPherson heads into his fourth season and a potential contract extension.

"I feel as comfortable with him in critical spots, clutch field goals, game winners, field goals in the fourth quarter, as anyone I've been around. Like the Jacksonville game. He hit a couple of huge field goals toward the end of regulation. Obviously, the game winner. The Minnesota game, too. He's as good in the clutch as anybody I've ever been around."

FIRED UP ASSISTANT: After new Titans head coach Brian Callahan topped off his first coaching staff by scooping up Simmons assistant Colt Anderson as his special teams coordinator, Simmons went to work with new assistant Ben Jacobs on Wednesday.

Jacobs had a trash-talking couple of weeks for Simmons a dozen years ago on the Bengals practice squad before he got a foothold in the league two years later with the Panthers and ended up playing 73 games. He's got a ton more coaching experience than Anderson when he joined the Bengals in 2021, but Jacobs has a good path to follow.

"That's a good hire for Brian," Simmons said. "It's important to Colt and he's got a good way with players."

Anderson, a special teams staple for eight NFL seasons, dabbled in business and high school coaching after he retired before Simmons found him. Jacobs went right to being a teams assistant with the Panthers and Commanders for the past five years.      

"Colt is a really smart guy who understood football and worked really hard at it," Simmons said. "(The biggest thing to replace) is a way to relate to players. We've probably done that in hiring Ben Jacobs. There is something to be said for (hiring) some former players, which is what we've done the last two times.

"They've been in that arena before. They know how it feels like. Other players related to that."

Anderson and Jacobs had the same kind of makeup as players, Simmons says. Tough, hard-nosed. He really likes Jacobs' mindset.

"He was talking a lot of trash talk every play," Simmons said. "But I love the emotion. I love the intensity he played with and he'll bring that to us as a coach."

COMBINE CZAR: Simmons, the longest-tenured specials team coach in the NFL by a decade, is working his 22nd combine and runs the kicking portion. The structure of the drills is largely a product of Simmons' vision as the game has changed since he arrived with the Bengals in 2003.

The meticulous former Kansas punter has made sure the punters get a chance to show everything.

"We've changed a lot of kicks that these guys do now," Simmons said. "Whether it's directional kicks, whether it's hitting end over end plus 50 kicks. A lot of these guys have specialty kicks that they hit, showing directional punt the other way. That was never a thing in the past. Now we allow these guys to do that."

If you look at the recent combine drills Simmons has crafted, you can see why he has such immense confidence in McPherson from 50 yards. No one has tried more 50-yarders in the last two years because Simmons says once the Bengals offense hits the 40, he's thinking field goal, a dramatic change in the last two decades.

"The field goal portion from 55 or 60 was never even a thought. Now, that's where we'll end up this kicking workout," Simmons said. "I expect most of them to probably make it, where in the past when I first got started in this thing, Hell, no chance from 60.

"And we kicked from the 30, I could have counted the number of kicks into the end zone on one hand for the whole combine. Now it's almost a strike if you don't put it in the end zone from 35 … Guys are just getting bigger and stronger and faster and I don't know where it ever stops."

RULE CHANGES: Simmons not only runs the kicking and punting drills here at the combine, but he's leading the coaches in their quest to get the kick-off rule changed again.

Last year's temporary rule change that allowed fair catches that would put the ball at the 25-yard line.  The kicking team lines up at its 35 and eight players within 15 yards. Double-team blocks are prohibited and touchbacks are placed at the 25-yard line.

One rule being kicked around comes from the XFL, where Simmons admits there are some holes. The kicker lines up at his 30 with the other 10 five yards away at the 35. The kicker and returner are the only players who can move until the ball is fielded and  touchbacks are at the 35.

"We're trying to come up with alternatives. There are a lot of things being discussed," Simmons said. "Obviously, something has to change. There were 22% of kicks returned last year, the fewest in history, down from 38% the year before. I don't think the fair catch is why. There were more balls hit through the end zone. I think guys are just more afraid to put the ball in play more for risk of concussions.

"It got what the league wanted. The concussion numbers are way down, but the excitement and purpose of the play was really taken out by that rule. I feel like there's a common ground we have to come to over the course of the coming weeks to get the thing figured out and make it a big part of the game. Because it's an exciting play in the game. We have to make it more exciting. We've taken it out."

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