Old School Jim Haslett loves working with the Bengals' New Age linebackers.
Fred Smerlas, who teamed with new Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett on and off the field to give the Buffalo Bills of the early and bawdy 1980s one of the best defenses in the game, saw it before anyone else.
They may have set back political correctness a few millenniums with their Fric and Frac Show on Buffalo radio during that era when they insulted upcoming opponents. And they may have closed down a few of the bars along Lake Erie every so often before camera phones. Or, they may have flourished in the Wild, Wild West days when the NFL had no rules.
But one day during their second year in the NFL Smerlas looked over at his friend and said, "Has, you're going to be a head coach."
The old Pro Bowl nose tackle had it nailed. Haslett, the 1979 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year who was All Pro in his second season as a lethal linebacker that could run and hit, went on to be the NFL Coach of the Year in his first year as a head coach with the Saints in 2000.
Since then Haslett's career has buffeted and bounced through the league, but his knowledge of a changing game has never wavered from highly regarded. It's been 21 years since the last time he coached linebackers, which means a Clinton had only run once for president, Rufus Porter was his top edge rusher for the Saints, and his leader for his new corps with the Bengals when they open their mandatory minicamp Tuesday, Vontaze Burfict, was five years old. A broken leg limited him to seven seasons, but he's approached it all with the view of a backer.
"He's loving it. It's what he's been needing," says his wife Beth, who spurred the move to coach the backers Cincinnati when she asked him point blank if he wanted to make more money or win a ring.
"A year and a half ago I didn't know how he felt about coaching. I do have to give a lot of credit to Penn State," says Beth of the school that hired him as a consultant last season. "They were wonderful to him. They made him realize he loves the game and still wants to be a part of it. Now I see him with these players and he really enjoys it. I'll be honest. He's always been young acting and he's getting a kick out of being around them . . . I think he has a lot to teach all of these guys. His upbringing and so much of him was like those guys. I think he's good with them."
With his limp and resume, Haslett, 61, has picked up the nickname "Old School," at Paul Brown Stadium. Even before he got there, Beth and Jim began another move sifting through some old boxes accumulated through five decades in the NFL when they stumbled on old Football Digest that Haslett figures is from 1980.
"I don't know if it was a story about the five dirtiest or meanest players in the NFL, but I was on the list," Haslett says. "Different era."
Indeed, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has heard about his ankle and knee and Haslett has bared his soul to them, from telling them about the time he kicked Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the head to showing them his mangled hands.
A player who reminds Haslett of himself? Vontaze Burfict.
"Man," Maualuga says they have asked. "Are we going to end up looking like you after football?"
But true to his rabid film study that has helped him adjust through the years, Haslett has adopted new age techniques. He says he has never done so many things with a group of players. He has already taken the backers to dinner in downtown Cincinnati at Jeff Ruby's and organized a bowling outing and a spinning class. Plus he's on their group text.
"It's amusing the things that are said between players," says Haslett, grinning as he rolls through his phone. "They forgot I was on there. They're talking about going out and someone texts, 'Hey, is Coach Haslett still on this chat?' I texted, 'No,' and I got a Ha, Ha.' I deal with them the way I deal with my kids. "
Maualuga can't remember doing more than one or two things as a group in past years but Haslett has been a veritable camp counselor.
"And we went together as a linebacker group to Marvin's (Lewis) camp."
Maualuga, working in his eighth season and under his fourth positon coach in Cincinnati, says Haslett has already texted more than any position coach has texted in a season.
"Other than the way he walks and the way he looks, man, he's so into communicating with the players, seeing how everyone's doing, asking how our weekend went," Maualuga says. "Everybody respects the hell out of him.
"Not to put down the other coaches I've had. It's just that you understand a person more when they've actually gone through what you're going through."
Exhibit A of Haslett still looking at the game as a player and relating it that way: last week he thought on one play Vincent Rey was supposed to burst to the line of scrimmage. But he hesitated.
"Why Vinny? I thought you were going," Haslett asked.
"Guard pulled," Rey said.
"Ah," Haslett thought. "A misdirection. That's why he did that."
But Haslett has gone through more than your average linebacker. As the most successful coach in the history of the Saints from 2000-2005, he put New Orleans on the cusp of perennial contention with a 10-win team and a nine-win team. But Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans two weeks before the 2005 season and there was no film to study how to counter death, the loss of every home game, and a practice field that changed daily. After they went 3-13, he was gone.
"Here's a guy that can formulate a game plan and talk right to the players and understands them. He got screwed in New Orleans," Smerlas says.
Haslett is surprised another head coaching job in the NFL never came along. He did become the defensive coordinator in St, Louis (2006-2008) and Washington (2010-2014), but a 2-10 run as the interim coach for the Rams helped sour him back in January when he had a couple of choices pending. A coordinator elsewhere or linebackers here.
"I just didn't think they had the players," Haslett says of the coordinator job he mulled. "I've done that too many times. The last two times I gambled in Washington and it didn't work out and I gambled in St. Louis and it didn't work out."
But he believes there are good enough players to win it all in Cincy. And something else.
"It still comes down to this," he says. "There are still 11 guys on each side of the ball. Everybody can be masterminds and do what they want, but you only have 11 to do it. Over the years, everyone has done it."
Haslett has been working this spring against new Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, son of long-time NFL offensive coach Ernie Zampese, a guy that Haslett calls one of the best offensive minds ever in the league. And once he saw this spring a tight end run a route into the flat he couldn't help but laugh.
Haslett says Rey Maualuga is a throwback guy.
"Oh my God. Sam Wyche stuff.'" All of a sudden it's back," Haslett says. "I've been around for a long time. I've seen everything."
Smerlas knows his buddy is still the same guy that watched film eight hours a day. The same guy who took his fellow rookie under his wing.
Smerlas says he dropped out of the first round because the scouts thought he was too out of control. But when he arrived in Buffalo from Boston College in the top of second round and saw Haslett out of Indiana of Pennsylvania selected 19 slots later, he realized the Bills were going for tough, aggressive, intimidating players on defense that some would target as "dirty."
"In college, all I did was line up and beat the crap out of the guy," Smerlas says. "When I got (to Buffalo), they made me a two-gap nose tackle. I told him, 'Has, I'm screwed. I don't know how to play two-gap. Read what with the helmet?' So he sat me down and we watched film. He was always a leader and he'd help coach the kids. He'd do what he had to do to win. His biggest asset is his intelligence and ability to relay it."
Smerlas, who watched Haslett pull down pass protectors by their helmet earholes on one snap and drop into lightning quick coverage on the next, maybe using some of former Raider Hit Man Phil Villapiano's dark arts, thinks the Bengals' move of hiring him approaches genius. An old school linebacker hooked up with an old school band of band of backers trying to help them adjust to the rules of a new game.
"Has loves the game. He fuels off it," Smerlas says. "The challenge of helping out a young linebacker that has a ton of potential but is born in the wrong era . . . Has loves it. I'm happy for him."
Smerlas, of course, is referring to Burfict, a Pro Bowl playmaker and the defense's nerve center as well as the intellectual captain. Burfict is suspended for the first three games of the season because of repeated violations of the player safety policy. But Smerlas, who does radio gigs for both the Patriots and Bills, observes, "He would have been celebrated back when we played."
Haslett also believes that Maualuga's big frame and mentality in the run game makes him an old school player and, "he's a very underrated player. He's quick enough that he's pretty good in coverage and he knows the defense. He's one of these smart guys."
But ask Haslett what player in the league reminds him of himself, a 260-pound play-making traffic cop. He thinks about it. But not too long.
"Probably the guy I'm coaching," Haslett says of Burfict. "I understood what people were doing. I was big and I played with a mean streak."
"But I think," He says with a smile, "I was faster than him, though."
That's OK. Haslett and Burfict are already enjoying a healthy give-and-take. Word was Burfict offered to pay for his own dinner at Ruby's and Haslett told the Bengals' highest paid linebacker, "Don't worry. I have money. I have more money than you." To which Burfict apparently responded, "For now."
"Everybody laughed. It shows (Haslett's) personality," Maualuga says.
Burfict and Haslett have so much in common already. They may be tied as the most hated opponents in Steelers history. Haslett, a Pittsburgh native of all things who played at Avalon High School, famously kicked Bradshaw in the head at Three Rivers Stadium in the final game of his rookie season.
"I'm Sgt. Schultz," says Smerlas of the play. "I know nothing. I mean, it made Terry look better. I think Jim helped him."
Haslett doesn't say much about it. Bradshaw didn't speak to him for 20 years and he won't say what they talked about when they went behind closed doors on the occasion of Bradshaw's visit to New Orleans to cover a Saints game for Fox when Haslett was the head coach,
But Haslett admits it was "a bad decision," and recalls he did get penalized, ejected, and fined but "can you imagine what would have happened today? It would have been a million dollars. I came out of the locker room after the game and I said to my mother, 'Where's Dad and my brothers?' And she said, 'In jail.' They got in fights and my sister may have started it."
Of which is no surprise to Smerlas.
"I went to his house in Pittsburgh once and there was a fist fight at the table over who would pick up the dishes and then a few minutes later when someone tried to change the remote," Smerlas says.
Haslett is hard with Pittsburgh through and through. His dad was a window washer and he has brothers and nephews scattered across Western Pennsylvania coaching the game. One of his brothers is the head coach and athletic director at Taylor Allerdice High School, where Bengals defensive end Will Clarke played.
Burfict is on the Steelers' hit list not only because he sidelined running back Le'Veon Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season on what were ruled clean hits, but his glancing high hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown on the last play of the Steelers' Wild Card victory knocked him out of next week's AFC Divisional with a concussion.
The play also helped cost the Bengals the chance to advance because he got flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver.
But Haslett doesn't think the play is as bad as it's been portrayed.
"He's really smart, really instinctive. I think that gets him into trouble at times," Haslett says. "He's an active player. He understands the game. He loves the game. I think what gets him in trouble is he sees the game too fast at times. He reacts to things that he thinks he can get away with some times but that he's not going to get away with nowadays."
Haslett points to the play on Brown, where Burfict's original assignment was to cover the flat.
"He knew the quarterback wasn't throwing over there and he ended up in the middle of the field," Haslett says. "He had to make a decision. To go for the interception or . . . He ended up taking a shot at the wide out, which I didn't think was that bad. He's got great instincts for the ball."
But Haslett knows this isn't the same game he played.
"If I put myself in my shoes, I would have to do the same thing. I would have to reel it in a little bit," Haslett says. "Made sure I play more under control. He's such a powerful guy that if he hits somebody, you think the (other guy) is going to get hurt. He's a big powerful guy. That's the way it is. They'll look at him. He has to be smart when people start pushing him and shoving him. He knows. (If) he does it in practice, I'll say, 'O.K., got to be careful.'"
But Haslett knows all about the fine line. Expect Burfict to tone it down some, but he has said he won't change the way he plays. Haslett gets that.
"After Bradshaw, it didn't change much. I played the way I played," he says.
And wouldn't have Haslett gone to cover Brown instead of going to the flat?
"Yeah," he says and then smiled when asked what he would done on the pass to Brown. In the '80s.
"Probably launched him," Haslett says of a play long since illegal that allowed players to leave their feet.
Old School and New Age and Haslett looks like he's got enough of both left.