Posted: 11:50 a.m.
As if to symbolize this past season of flux and transition Darrin Simmons heads into his eighth season as the Bengals special teams coach as confident as he's ever been about an emerging core that includes an All-Rookie punt returner led by an ever-elusive blend of talented and experienced backup linebackers.
If special teams are the first indication of a team's depth, then the Bengals look pretty good heading into a season that none of their top 10 special-teams tacklers are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
The Bengals didn't overwhelm the NFL rankings in punt (25th) and kick (13th) coverage, but their punt and kick returns appear ready to take off.
"Look, we've got a lot to improve on but I'm as happy as I've ever been here with what we have going on from top to bottom," said Simmons last week as he prepared to scout this week's Senior Bowl practices. "The key now is to keep the continuity going. That was the big difference this year. The last two years I dreaded going into Coach (Marvin) Lewis' office because of who I couldn't have because they were injured."
While rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby finished fifth in the NFL with 11.9 yards per punt return, rookie running back Bernard Scott racked up one AFC Special Teams Player of the Week and added a crowd-pleasing 56-yard kick return that opened the Wild Card game. Plus, rookie Kevin Huber's net average of 36.3 yards was the second best by a Bengals punter in the last 11 seasons.
Simmons isn't happy with how the Bengals started out the season on kick return and how they covered punts and he's looking to generate more turnovers.
But he knows the biggest question revolves around the only field-goal kicker he's ever had in Cincinnati. He says Shayne Graham's two missed short field goals in the Wild Card loss to the Jets have put his future with the organization under the microscope.
Graham, who came into the game with 12 straight made field goals and 17 of his last 18 tries, heads into free agency after a season he was the club's franchise free agent with a one-year deal of $2.5 million. If the Bengals decide to designate Graham again, he would cost close to $3 million and Simmons knows that's a bit pricey for any kicker, particularly one who had such a high-profile disaster a month after turning 32.
"Snaps were good. Holds were good. There's no excuse. He picked a hell of a time to have a bad game," Simmons said. "It's something the organization has to take a look at. Obviously, Shayne's been a productive player for seven years and you have to take into account his body of work. It's been solid. It's tough on everyone; his teammates, and no one feels worse than Shayne. I'm sure we're going to be talking about it."
Simmons is quick to point out that Graham had several big field goals in a season the Bengals went to the playoffs winning six games by seven points or less. He hit a huge 40-yarder in Green Bay to put the Bengals up 10 with 1:56 left. His 31-yarder with four seconds left in overtime won the game in Cleveland. He hit two of his four field goals in the 18-12 win in Pittsburgh during the fourth quarter, the last from 43 yards with 1:56 left. His career-tying long of 53 yards came at the halftime gun in the home win over the Browns that had the Bengals breathing easier at 13-0.
But Simmons knows the drill.
"Those were big kicks he missed and he gets paid to make them," he said. "We're in a bottom-line business."
Graham also struggled early in the season with the field-goal snapping of long-time snapper Brad St. Louis and when St. Louis was cut after five games, he had to adjust to Clark Harris when he joined the club four days before the Oct. 18 loss to Houston. After missing three field goals and one extra point and getting two field goals and one point after attempt blocked with St. Louis, Graham didn't miss a PAT the rest of the way with Harris while making 19 of his final 21 field-goal tries in the regular season.
Harris is another reason Simmons is confident heading into 2010. For the first time in his career Harris, a tight end, practiced exclusively as a long snapper and responded in pressure situations.
"He should only get better," Simmons said.
So should Simmons's backup linebackers that form the core of his cover teams. The Bengals had five players who had double-digit special-teams tackles (starting with Rashad Jeanty's 14) and four of them were backers. Brandon Johnson tied with safety Kyries Hebert for second place with 12 while Abdul Hodge had 11 and Dan Skuta 10.
"I can't say enough about those guys. Our backup backers are better from top to bottom than at any point since I've been here," Simmons said. "A guy like Rashad plays so hard and hurt and Brandon knew he was going to be a backup when Keith Rivers came back (from a three-week injury) and he accepted it and played like a pro."
Simmons is raving about Skuta, the 6-2, 251-pound rookie free agent out of Grand Valley State who didn't get promoted from the practice squad until the fifth game and was inactive for four others. In his third NFL game in Pittsburgh, Skuta contributed two special-teams tackles while getting in a block on Scott's 96-yard touchdown on a kick return.
"The guy really had a big rookie year," Simmons said. "And he only played in half the games. With one season under his belt, it makes you wonder what the guy can do with experience and more time. He can make a real impact. He made as many plays as I've ever seen a free-agent rookie make."
The rookies have Simmons excited. He loves Huber's mental toughness, but he is also intent on making sure Huber cuts down on his 10 touchbacks and improves his work in the plus-50 area. And even though Scott only returned 16 kicks, his 31.5 average bodes well.
"Everyone knows what Bernard Scott can do. He's an explosive guy that can score from any point on the field so you know he's your kick returner," said Simmons, who has been searching ever since a hip injury cut short Tab Perry's brief run in 2006. "That's a big question mark to fill."
But Scott needs experience. Simmons says he should have scored on the kick return in the playoffs and would have if he kept going down the middle instead of giving the Jets the angle when he took it to the right sideline.
The Bengals also know his backup. After wide receiver Andre Caldwell fumbled away the Oakland game, Cosby stepped in to return 13 kicks and while he averaged just 18.4 yards, he did have a long of 31 and didn't fumble. Cosby doesn't wow with shake and bake, but he's one of those sure bets not to get you beat. He's sure-handed, sure-footed, and sure-headed. After some bobbles early, Cosby ended up fumbling just two of the 59 punts he handled and he didn't lose either of them.
"He's a young player but he's old if you know what I mean," Simmons said. "He obviously made good decisions most of the time and he really helped us making sure he got up the field after he caught it. That's an extra first down for the offense."
Cosby, who turned 27 last month, also logged the Bengals' highest punt return average since wide receiver Mike Martin led the NFL with 15.7 in 1984 and has Simmons wondering what he can with those 40 returns of experience.
Simmons is also comfortable with the key role of Huber's personal protector even though he went through three during the season because of injury. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones seamlessly filled in because it requires what he does when he calls the defensive signals and another rookie free agent, Tom Nelson, also capably replaced Simmons' main man, starting safety Chris Crocker.
It was Crocker who alertly executed a big punt fake to run for a 21-yard gain in the first Pittsburgh game. Huber did have a punt deflected against Kansas City with Nelson in the lineup but Simmons said that was because of a lack of communication up front.
"The big thing there is you need a smart a guy and all three of those guys know what they're doing," Simmons said.
But Simmons has plenty to work on. He'll definitely be on the lookout for speed in Mobile. The odds are the Bengals won't end up with a kicker out of that all-star game since they're not coaching it. The only time they've tapped a Senior Bowl specialist in the Lewis era is when they coached the North and ended up signing Nebraska punter Kyle Larson in 2004 and drafting Huber in the fifth round last year.
Simmons is very aware that the spcial teams forced only two fumbles and didn't recover one.
"We need to get faster. We need to have more speed so we can make more impact plays. Big hits," he said. "We're looking for some blowup plays."