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Hobson's Choice: Track record

Q: What's the reason for all the buzz around Mike Zimmer? The Falcons defense last season was mediocre at best, and the Falcons basically told him to shop around. Why would we settle for him? What about Monte Kiffin? That man is a defensive guru! Your thoughts please.
--Eric, Dent, OH

ERIC: Gee, don't make him sound like Don Zimmer. Is he the answer? Who knows? They've got to change a lot more than the coordinator. But Zimmer is no fly-by-night guy.

The concern is natural and understandable. But holding him responsible for anything that happened in Atlanta is like holding firemen responsible for a two-alarmer they tried to douse.

This is no shot at you, Eric, but I'm just reacting to other stuff I've heard. Since his name isn't plastered all over web sites and ESPN doesn't fawn over him every other adjective and he hasn't been anointed a guru by someone who isn't, then he's automatically seen as a stiff.

The only thing he's got going for him is a solid, thorough resume. Remember when that used to count for something?

Here's a guy that has turned down the Nebraska head coaching job, been interviewed for top jobs by two NFL teams (St. Louis and San Diego), and been hooked by The Tuna in Dallas.

Look, the Bengals didn't stumble over him at a Division III playoff game.

Can't judge a guy off what happened in Atlanta last season. The Chad Johnson soap opera and the Bengals 7-9 finish is Saturday morning cartoon stuff compared to what happened down there in that Man Bites Dog news cycle.

The Falcons told all their coaches to shop around, which is a new lease on life and not a death sentence.

The offense was a mess without Michael Vick and the defense was on the field nearly an average of 32 minutes per game. Plus, the Falcons lost their two starting defensive tackles at the beginning of the season, played a rookie defensive end in Jamaal Anderson, a rookie corner in Chris Houston and, yes, they never found a replacement for Ed Hartwell at middle linebacker and had to put in an out-of-position Keith Brooking.

We've all got problems, right?

But in Dallas, Zimmer coordinated two playoff defenses, two top five defenses and the 2003 edition led the NFL. That was the year Bill Parcells, one of those anointed gurus, arrived in Dallas, deduced defense wasn't the problem, and retained Zimmer.

As the Cowboys secondary coach from 1995-99, Dallas finished in the top eight three times against the pass in a backfield that included at one time or another Pro Bowlers Darren Woodson, Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith.

That '95 club won it all and one of Zimmer's guys, cornerback Larry Brown, was in the right place at the right time for two interceptions to pluck the Super Bowl MVP trophy courtesy of Neil O'Donnell.

Just had a great conversation with Woodson, now an ESPN analyst. He loves Zimmer and said he turned him into a smart player rather than a guy that just played on sheer ability and Woodson oozed both by the time he was done.

Zimmer always had Woodson's respect since the '94 NFC title game against the Niners. It was Zimmer's first year in the NFL and he ran Dallas' nickel package. At the end of the half, as Woodson recalls it, Brown was matched up on Jerry Rice one-on-one and the Niners scored on a bomb.

Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin wasn't pleased with a matchup that offered Brown no help against the great Rice and apparently let Zimmer know because the next thing Woodson knew Zimmer was nose-to-nose with Irvin in an R-rated scream fest.

"Here's this new guy in the league right in the face of a future Hall of Famer throwing F-bombs," Woodson said. "I'm thinking, 'Wow.' Zim didn't back down. He stands up for his guys. He doesn't care. Me. Deion (Sanders). We had some great arguments in the film room. Those guys better get ready. They're going to be hitting in practice. No arm tackles. It will be a game-time mentality. The guy can get it done."

OK, so you've got a solid, proven guy. That's not the question. The questions are if they keep doing the same stuff, if they are going to rip it up, and how much of Zimmer's system will Lewis let into the mix?

The players, who openly talked about expecting change on defense that last month, have to be a little disconcerted to hear Lewis talking about keeping a foundation and Zimmer talking about learning terminology that is still here.

That was the mystifying thing to me about Wednesday's announcement. Why keep the foundation of something you've had to change twice?

The players are looking for more change than that. But with Zimmer's personality and the fact he is the most experienced coordinator Lewis has hired, it sounds like there is going to be.

Certainly in tone and tempo. In fact, the veterans may be a little uncomfortable about Woodson's prediction of hard-hitting practices.

Monte Kiffin?

Hell of a coach. But he turns 68 at the end of next month and it sounds like he's trying to reunite with his son.

Q: How do you think (Mike Zimmer's) style will fit within a Marvin Lewis philosophy? (Was) it not still possible we could (have) promoted an up-and-coming assistant from another team? Marvin would be able to "mold" this person more to his philosophy. Also, do you think we may be interviewing Hue Jackson as an assistant head coach? Possibly to free up time for Marvin to "cure" this defense? Or, to just get him back in the mix?
--Matt W., South Vienna, OH

MATT: The fact that Marvin went with such an experienced guy would seem to suggest that he's looking for ideas other than his own and he's looking to break the "mold" he has created here the past five years rather than preserving it.

Both Eric and Matt e-mailed before Zimmer was officially named, but they're on topic. The hire indicates Marvin is growing as a head coach in recognizing he needs an infusion of new thoughts and blood. His admission that things have gone stale is a great step, and I think the players are now waiting expectantly for him to follow up on both sides of the ball.

I'm not sure this is a move about matching philosophies. Heck, like Zimmer said, how much of this stuff is really different?

But I think Marvin, and the players, too, seek simply a different approach. Maybe more black-and-white and maybe more up-tempo and physical.

Marvin's pretty much on record as saying he doesn't think he can immerse himself in the defense if he's going to be an effective head coach. Certainly the hiring of a guy who has as many years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL as he does confirms that.

Having Jackson back in the mix would be huge because he has such a fine rapport with these receivers and quarterback.

But given that he's been an NFL coordinator for a year and that he's been interviewed by at least one other club for that position, the question is if he'd come back here to coach a position without a title. Certainly if no one on the offensive staff leaves there won't be a move.

Yet the fact the Bengals asked for permission to talk to him even though they don't have a slot open shows how much they value him.

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