It's not like Darrin Simmons is going back to the future or anything like that Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium when his Bengals special teams put their No. 1 ranking on the line against the most famous special teams coach of them all facing Bill Belichick's Patriots.
If Simmons isn't the best special teams coach in the NFL, then it's Belichick. Belichick is going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the head coach that led the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles, but he famously cut his teeth in the kicking game with the Colts, Lions and Giants of the '70s and holds special teams dear to his heart.
And Simmons has a past, albeit fleeting, with Belichick that stretches back a quarter of a century to the 1994 training camp of the Cleveland Browns. Simmons was a 21-year-old junior to be at Kansas, where he was a quarterback/punter, who came to Berea to help out his uncle, Browns strength coach Jerry Simmons, and get ready for his own training camp in Lawrence, Kan. During Belichick's fourth season as the Browns head coach, Simmons was allowed to sit in on the specialists meeting chaired by special teams coach Scott O'Brien, where he was able to commiserate with Browns punter Tom Tupa, another college quarterback/punter.
"Very little," Simmons says of his interplay with Belichick back then. "It was the first time I could see the importance teams put on it. The way they practiced and they had a bunch of guys that played only special teams like Bennie Thompson and Eddie Sutter. The long snapper, Brian Kinchen, was one of the last offensive players to do both."
O'Brien was in the process of becoming a mentor to Simmons, a relationship that would take them to Baltimore and Carolina before Simmons became the only special teams coordinator Marvin Lewis had in his 16 seasons in Cincinnati. He was immediately exposed to a different way of doing it with O'Brien taking the players who were only occasionally used from scrimmage and putting them through individual kicking game drills because that's where they had the biggest impact in the games.
"Then when they worked as a group, the team period was much shorter," Simmons says. "It's still an unconventional way of doing it. I would be shocked (if Belichick still didn't do it). Scott had done a lot before he got to Cleveland and I think they probably learned from each other. After Cleveland, they didn't work together until the end (of O'Brien's career from 2009-2014)."
But Simmons saw the best up close right away. Some say those '94 Browns were among the best special teams units of all-time. They scored on three kicks and blocked a punt for a touchdown (one of each in a game against the Bengals) while Matt Stover missed just two field goals. Belichick is still blocking punts. The Pats have blocked four this season. The Bengals have kept Kevin Huber clean in his comeback year he's amassed his best net punting average since he went to the Pro Bowl five years ago.
But there are no secrets. For instance, the Patriots could play with you by running their kicking units on late and Belichick knows Simmons knows because he said in a conference call this week that Simmons "is as good of a special teams coach as there is."
"It's a great challenge. I've told our guys we have to prepare as hard as we've ever prepared," Simmons says. "We have to understand what they're thinking and try to give our guys an idea. Historical perspective matters when you play this team. How they did it in the past. How did they react? What's unique about them is the level of play they've sustained over time. They're very aware I know a lot of the things that are being taught there just like I'm sure they are with me. They're too smart, too experienced to make mistakes. There have been so many big games they've played in over their career there and taken everybody's best shot week in and week out."
The Patriots don't have near the Bengals' numbers in the kicking game. While Football Outsiders ranks the Bengals No. 1, the web site has New England 19th. In the only stat that Simmons truly values, drive start, the Bengals are third when they receive kickoffs and second when they kick while New England is 15th and 16th respectively.
But Simmons doesn't buy that. Numbers be damned, he says, because it can all be blown up if you give up just one big play that hides the big picture. He looks at the Pats' experience, stability and past success of their core players. Perennial Pro Bowl cover man Matthew Slater is in his 12th season, safety Nate Ebner and running back Brandon Bolden are in their eighth. Starting safety Devin McCourty, in his tenth season, took 10 teams snaps last week.
"I can take out the scouting report from '16 and it's the same guys," Simmons says. "Each of these guy has a role and they understand the importance of it."
That's what Simmons has seen from his guys this season. He begins by pointing to his three veteran specialists, Huber, kicker Randy Bullock and long snapper Clark Harris. Bullock has been solid, missing just two kicks between the 40s and hitting all four field goals in Cleveland last Sunday. The eye opener was he hit three of them into the direction of the Dawg Pound, where the wind had swallowed up ten tries this season before Sunday.
"They couldn't do their job if Clark didn't do his," says Simmons of spots even more stable than New England with Huber and Harris in their 11th seasons here and Bullock in his fourth.
And the coverage has been terrific with the gunners teaming with Huber to be ranked sixth in punts and fifth in kickoffs with linebackers like Hardy Nickerson making a big hit on their first crack on kickoff in Cleveland.
They're looking to avoid that big play without their playmaker Brandon Wilson. Before Wilson broke his hand, he was having a Pro Bowl season not only leading the NFL in kick returns, but the Bengals in special teams tackles. Wilson had teamed with cornerback Tony McRae and rookie wide receiver Stanley Morgan to provide some elite punt cover play.
"It's a good group of guys that stay together," Simmons says. "The thing I admire about all these guys is they go from play-to-play, they take it very seriously and their hearts are into it."
WREN GROUNDED: Wilson was the ninth Bengal to go on injured reserve late last week and it's growing after rookie nose tackle Renell Wren went on the list Friday with a tear in his hip he got running Wednesday in what head coach Zac Taylor called "a freak," injury. He joined wide receiver Auden Tate (knee) as the Bengals join the Pats with 11 on IR.
Wren, a fourth-round project out of Arizona State, has come on as of late and had played a career-high 35 percent of the snaps in Cleveland. He was showing why the Bengals took a shot at him. He's a very large man (6-5, 318) and is one of those trio of nose tackles (fourth-year man Andrew Billings and third-man Josh Tupou) that has impressed defending the run.
"He was quietly getting better, improving in technique. A young big guy in a physical division," Taylor said after Friday's practice. "We knew he made a really big move last year and he's a guy that really started to come into it. He's got a lot of potential. The more reps you give these guys the better."
One of those guys he's talking about is rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt. Also rookie left guard Michael Jordan. It's why they waited so long to put rookie tight end Drew Sample on injured reserve.
"They need every snap they can get so in the spring they can make corrections," Taylor said. "There's no better teacher than experience. It's one thing to watch someone do it. It's another thing to go through it yourself, good or bad."
GOING AFTER IT: Taylor has seen his first year implode in the fourth quarter. That's topping his off-season agenda.
"We have to be better in the turnover battle and situationally. Third down and red zone," Taylor said. "We're not the team making one or two plays in the fourth quarter that turn the game. It's the team playing us. That's what I want to see is this team find ways to get over that hump. Start earning the win instead of waiting for it to come to us."