Darrin Simmons, who goes back home to Kansas and the family farm each summer, is the only special teams coordinator Marvin Lewis has ever had till all ends of the roster. Now that director of player personnel Duke Tobin is out in the open Simmons may be the most underrated figure on staff and that's why we sat down with him recently for a Hobson's Choice Podcast.
A few highlights of an interview Simmons reveals the best NFL kickers and returners he has seen as well as suggesting a rules change to make kicking field goals harder:
Before Lewis arrived, the Bengals had been to the postseason seven times. Since 2003 Lewis has steered them there seven times himself while giving birth to four head coaches in Leslie Frazier, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson.
Two defensive coordinators and two offensive coordinators. And yet even though Simmons deals with every player on the roster and both sides of the ball in giving the Bengals three All-Pros and Pro Bowlers on special teams and a slew of top ten rankings during this run of six post-season berths in the past seven years, he's never had an interview for a head coaching job.
"There's a little (stigma)," Simmons says. "Special teams coaches can't be head coaches because they don't know offense and defense as well. Which is true. But that's why they hire coordinators. We play one in our division twice a year with one (Ravens head coach John Harbaugh) who has been very successful. I think it got a couple of guys interviews. You have to have another guy that breaks through. It is frustrating some times . .. I don't think special teams coaches in general get the due respect they deserve."
In those 14 seasons Simmons has also had to deal with a culture change on special teams in the NFL's player safety drive. No more wedges or bunch formations on kickoffs and the ball is now kicked off at the 35-yard-line instead of the 30. And this year touchbacks are encouraged even more by putting the ball at the 25 instead of the 20. He says teams have had to adjust with smaller, faster guys to the changes geared to cut down on big collisions.
"There's going to be a big feeling out process," Simmons says of the ball going out the 25 and the ensuing strategy.
But he doesn't think special teams are an endangered species.
"Not at all," he says. "I'm all for player safety. I want our guys to be healthy and stay healthy … I want them to live plentiful lives after their careers are over.
"I think there needs to be real clarification on what the extent of these injuries are and how they happen and what the true numbers are. Sometimes I don't think that ever gets expressed. A lot of people just say there are more injuries or more concussions that occur on special teams. But what is the number of concussions that actually occur divided by the number of plays and how is that different from what happens on a regular offensive play or defensive play?"
He's bullish on this year's draft class and its potential to contribute to teams, particularly third-round linebacker Nick Vigil, who he says "can be a fantastic player in this league." He also says second-rounder Tyler Boyd is going to get a shot to return punts in the preseason.
Simmons, 43, married, and a father of three, also talks about his annual vacation at the end of the month on the family farm in Elkhart, Kan., where he has helped his father with the 1,200-acre wheat harvest since he was 17. It can be a dicey proposition since the farm lies in the heart of the 1930s Dust Bowl and this year the farm has been racked by storms.
"It's good to be out there with family. At some point I'd like for my kids get involved to see what it's like," Simmons says. "They already love going out to the farm because it's their chance to get out and run and ride four-wheelers and do the things that farm kids do."
"It's a good stress relief. I can get away from football and never have to think about it," Simmons says. "Never once do I think about the Ravens' punt return. Nor will I think about the Jets."
The Bengals, of course, open the regular season against the Jets in New Jersey.
Cincinnati Bengals end OTAs with a team visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.