Mike Zimmer is starting to think he's got a future in the cut-throat world of cable TV.
Zimmer, the defensive coordinator who has an HBO vocabulary to go along with a Best of NFL Films résumé, is making his third appearance on the Emmy Award-winning Hard Knocks as the Bengals appear for their second time later this summer when training camp begins at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I'm looking for my screen actors' guild card," Zimmer says. "Sometimes these shows only last a year. I'm on my third season, so something must be going on here."
What's going on is that Hard Knocks remains a tough sell for teams because of the ever-intrusive eye of any documentary. Plus, since the Bengals remain one of the more remarkably accessible teams in the NFL's Iron Curtain era that began about the time of the huge success enjoyed by Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick with the Giants of the late '80s, they are always on what is a short, short list.
"It's not necessarily something you want to do, but it's part of it," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I remember the last time I was impressed with how they do such a great job of disappearing, getting out of the way and being in the corner and hidden and you forget that they're there."
Whitworth is one of only a dozen Bengals that were around the first time HBO knocked four years ago and is one of the reasons why it shouldn't be such a hard assignment. The veterans of the 2009 film, such as Whitworth and cornerback Leon Hall, are mainstays of a team that has since secured three playoff berths in the last four seasons with a roster that has kept growing in character and maturity.
"Generally speaking we're a young team, but we're still mature," Hall says. "A lot of guys in their first or second years are mature beyond their years and should be able to handle it. Guys will try to blend in and keep doing what we've been doing and not play to the camera. We don't have any guys like that, if any.
"That's just kind of our personality as a team. Chad (Johnson) was pretty funny on that show. I don't think we have any Chad Johnsons on the team as far as personalities are concerned."
The Chad Johnsons are long gone. They stopped being the Reality Show Bengals once they remade their team during and after the 2011 lockout and suddenly became the C-Span Bengals. The T.O. and Ocho show has been replaced by Playbook Journal.
"I don't think anybody on this team is real worried about it," Whitworth says. "That team handled it well and this team doesn't have anybody that worried about the camera at all, even though we might have had a couple then. I don't think many guys are affected by it. I think our ultimate goal is way more important than being on camera and I think that's what guys are focused on."
Whitworth, the Bengals rep to the NFL Players Association, doesn't see his team's promising season getting blasted right out of the gate in a series of nuclear sound bites overheard and overplayed.
"Sometimes with shows like that they can spin things and put things in perspective maybe a little differently than you want," Whitworth says. "So you just have to make sure you get out the message you want people to know about your team. We live in a smaller market, so I don't think we worry about things as much as the big markets do.
"Maybe some of your bigger market teams, it can have a worse effect on because they're kind of used to those things and they're used to being on TV and they're making sure they worry about their image. But in Cincinnati it's very rare that we have a marketing deal or those kinds of things. I don't think we're all that concerned being on TV and being on camera and all that good stuff."
Despite the fear of the clubs, HBO plays ball with the NFL thanks to the enduring and indomitable personality of the late Steve Sabol. There is an exhaustive attempt for realism but not embarrassment and, at least in '09, they gave the Bengals the right to make cuts.
Zimmer found that out in his first appearance with the Cowboys and, like a good coordinator, adjusted in '09.
"The people on Hard Knocks are very professional people. Very outstanding, to be honest with you," Zimmer says. "The only thing I adjusted is I knew when to turn the (camera) off."
There were times in '09, Zimmer says, when he walked into a meeting and the crew asked if they could mike him. Sensing it wouldn't be good for his players to be aired out publicly in those particular cases, Zimmer says he'd offer a polite, "Not today, fellas," and they would tell him, "No problem."
But the one time he wished he had turned off the camera in his office, he says, shows that coaches and players don't have the lens in the forefront of their thinking. Zimmer called tackle Tank Johnson into a one-on-one meeting that covered a personal and sensitive issue and a good chunk of it landed in the show.
"That's my fault for not turning it off. It was personal and it shouldn't have been public," Zimmer says. "That's the one thing about it. There are so many other things going on. The least important thing at that point in time is thinking about turning off the microphone. I've done it a few times, but the bottom line is we're going to do our job."
There's no question that Zimmer is still smarting over his first Hard Knocks series. His colorful language and hard-driving style overshadowed one of the smartest and most engaging coaches in the NFL.
"I feel like people think I'm an uneducated, vulgar person because they had me swearing on those shows because they can portray you however they want," Zimmer says. "The bottom line is I'm only that way within the walls of the building. I don't walk down the street swearing at every person.
"I try to portray an image to the players that we're trying to be physical, aggressive, give 100 percent all the way. That's how I am."
Hall is probably like a lot of his mates and the viewing public. He's a fan of the show because of that Zimmerism. Or realism. Hall hasn't missed a Knocks episode during the last five or six seasons, but he also says he's "indifferent" getting the call again.
"I've never been disappointed with Hard Knocks," Hall says. "It's kind of neat when they go on the inside, which is really interesting … I think '09 was pretty good. The year they did ours I was obviously probably more interested. I thought it was well put together. The people they do stories on ever year (are) good."
The Bengals became such a compelling watch because of the fascinating storylines that unfolded during training camp. Rookie fullback Chris Pressley's rise from abject poverty. Safety Corey Lynch rescuing people in a car wreck. The sudden end of veteran tight end Reggie Kelly's season because of a torn Achilles in a haunting and touching training room scene.
And undrafted rookie defensive back Tom Nelson's successful bid for the roster. That turned out to be Hall's favorite.
"I kind of liked the whole Tom Nelson thing," he says. "I've always liked Tom Nelson. I thought he was a good player. It was kind of exciting to see him out there on TV and getting up close as they say."
There are even more storylines now, just starting with the draft's second round. There is rookie running back Giovani Bernard, the son of struggling Haitian immigrants whose mother died when he was seven. And rookie defensive end Margus Hunt, an Estonia native that didn't play football until he was in college. And sixth-rounder Rex Burkhead's friendship with seven-year-old Jack Hoffman has become a national lightning rod for pediatric brain cancer.
And there are plenty of veteran stories. Hard Knocks missed most of Andre Smith last time because he was a rookie holdout. Now he returns as the only minicamp no-show. And there are the two Pro Bowlers dominant at their positions in wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
But how about this one?
How about a storyline about a guy that never gets a story? How about a close-up look at the most underrated cornerback in the NFL? A guy that just does his job?
"That would be boring for the viewers. I don't know if I'm exciting enough," he says. "You never know with that. It will be interesting to see who they choose."
Which is why HBO has gone to C-Span.