2-6-03, 3:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' special teamers have felt unloved, undervalued, and largely ignored in recent years, and they are still waiting for one of their own to be named co-captain.
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons won't be handing out any captaincies in that first meeting, but the thick playbook he'll issue them should let them know that Marvin Lewis' new regime puts their position at a premium.
In fact, John Harbaugh, the esteemed special teams coach for the Eagles, can already see it.
One of these days, Simmons is going to follow one of his players right out to his car in the parking lot in an effort to get that one final detail down.
Harbaugh saw Scott O'Brien do that a few times when O'Brien mentored him some 15 years ago at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Marvin understands the importance (of special teams) because of the parity in the league," says O'Brien, the NFL special teams guru who coached with Lewis in Baltimore. "It's so close, he knows you can't lose games because of special teams. If anything, they have to win a couple and he understands that. And Darrin is a guy who is very meticulous and already has a knack for seeing the big picture."
Casual observers of the Bengals from Anderson Township to Zionsville proper know it's a concept they have failed to grasp for years. Many players don't blame former special teams coach Al Roberts, but instead point to an overall laissez-faire attitude about the position. Including players.
"We need to put guys out there who want to be out there," says punt returner T.J. Houshmandazdeh.
Rick "Goose," Gosselin, the estimable NFL writer from "The Dallas Morning News," who has compiled NFL special teams rankings since 1990 using 21 categories, put the Bengals last of the 32 teams in 2002.
This is Simmons' first job running the show, but his pedigree suggests he's ready to build. Simmons, 29, like Harbaugh, an O'Brien disciple of detail and deadlines, has assisted O'Brien the last five years in producing six Pro Bowl players.
The last four years have been in Carolina, but the only room Simmons has for the past right now is what flickers on his computer as he scouts his new players.
"I don't know what's gone on before and it doesn't really matter," Simmons says. "I know our guys are going to go out there with a chip on their shoulder and we're going to apply pressure and make the other team execute. We want to be the team that is aggressive and attacks. When we cover a kick, they have to worry about blocking us."
That's the O'Brien creed, which Simmons first heard as a punter at Kansas in the mid-1990s when he visited his uncle, Jerry Simmons, the Cleveland Browns' strength coach. In 1994, O'Brien, then Cleveland's special teams coach, may have put together the best special teams unit of all-time.
At least according to "The Gospel of Goose." In '94, the Browns won the rankings with one of Gosselin's lowest (best) scores ever.
In the same survey for the past three years, O'Brien and Simmons have coached the Carolina special teams to rankings of 11th in 2002, sixth in 2001, and second in 2000. The Bengals have finished 26th or lower every year since 1996.
Harbaugh, a former University of Cincinnati assistant, has led the Eagles to finishes of sixth, first, and eighth the past three seasons in the survey.
"I'm sure Darrin is going to approach it just like Scott does and that means they're going to spend a lot of time on preparation," Harbaugh says. "They might be shaking their heads at times, but it's the attention to detail that makes it work."
Simmons, a native of Elkhart, Kan., not only is a detail man, he likes it. His June vacations coincide with the wheat harvest on the family farm, where he grew up and where he goes back to pitch in and help for a good time.
"It's important to be very organized because you're dealing with the entire team," Simmons says. "You have to know what everybody does and how to coach everybody's techniques. The things Scott taught me are organization and detail and where that comes in is practice. I'm used to a very structured practice time where there can be no wasted breath or no wasted motion."
O'Brien says Simmons' college career as a punter is an advantage for him because he has the ability to communicate to players what they are going to see on the field. Simmons is an example of how the Bengals hope they can transplant success by importing coaches who have been involved in solid NFL ventures. He worked with Todd Sauerbrun the past two seasons in Carolina when he was named the NFC's Pro Bowl punter.
"His knowledge of kickers is pretty advanced," O'Brien says. "He's got good organizational skills and he's got a good feel for scheme and technique."
It's ironic that the worst game the Bengals played on special teams last year came against Simmons' Panthers. Rookie punter Travis Dorsch suffered a shaky NFL debut when his two low liners got returned for touchdowns, and he didn't get much help on coverage.
"It's a tough position to be put in, but it is a production-oriented business," says Simmons of a debut in the 13th game of the season. "I've talked to all the kickers and I've told them that they've got a clean slate as far as I'm concerned."
Simmons' blueprint for a war of special aggression strikes a chord with backup linebacker Adrian Ross. As one of the special teams regulars for his five seasons, Ross says he feels like special teams have been shoved under the rug in Cincinnati. Starting with their practice sessions, which to him seemed more designed to give the starters rest.
"It was kind of 'OK, let's chill,'" Ross says. "In my mind, some of the veterans could help the young guys out there. Maybe helping them out on blocking rushes if they see something. When we beat New Orleans, the whole thing was to stop (Pro Bowl returner) Michael Lewis and we did and we won, but nobody on special teams got a game ball. You almost don't feel like part of it."
Ross doesn't blame Roberts. He just wishes that part of the game was emphasized more here. He thought it was telling that of the six captains named before the start of the season, three came from offense, three from defense, and none from special teams.
And, when the battered special teams held off the Saints' vaunted specialists (New Orleans was No. 1 in the Dallas 2002 survey) during a 20-13 victory in the next-to-last game of the year, Ross thought it was odd there was no special teams' ball.
"It just always seemed there was negativity around it, and nothing positive," Ross says.
But Simmons didn't lug in any pre-conceived notions from Charlotte. Everybody, himself included, starts from scratch.
"I know Marvin and I know that we're going to keep the guys who give us the best chance to win," Simmons says. "One of the biggest things these guys have to do is play for each other. They have to be cohesive and be concerned about not letting down the guy next to him."