*Jacob Burney (second from right) is the youngest of the Golden Gang, but is in his 22nd NFL season. *
Josh Shaw, who was born when his secondary coach wore that other orange in college as Syracuse's defensive coordinator, was aghast.
"KC is 60?" asked Shaw after practice one day last week. "He's got a lot of energy. "He's always working out, running around, lively and upbeat. I never would have guessed KC was 60."
Which is exactly what defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had in mind when he and head coach Marvin Lewis responded to the biggest facelift to the defensive staff since Lewis became the head man in 2003 and he replaced every coach but Kevin Coyle and assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi.
This time they replaced even more when secondary coach Vance Joseph absconded with linebackers coach Matt Burke after he replaced Coyle as the Dolphins defensive coordinator and long-time defensive line coach Jay Hayes opted for a change of scenery in Tampa.
While Coyle and Joseph swapped jobs, the Bengals hired 57-year-old Jacob Burney to coach the
defensive line in the 22nd year of an NFL career that began when he roomed with Hayes in the Lions 1982 training camp as a rookie defensive lineman. Then Jim Haslett, the former Steelers defensive coordinator, celebrated his 31st year in the NFL by returning to his AFC Central roots to coach linebackers. Enter "The Golden Guys," as Coyle likes to call the AARP Trio that is re-charging one of the NFL's best defenses with a heavy course load of old-school classes that has energized a bunch of twentysomethings with fundamentals, technique and stories.
Oh yeah. The stories. Mostly from Haslett. Just don't expect to hear them.
"Our coach is something else," said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. "He keeps that meeting room entertained. It's never boring. We never fall asleep. He switches it up every single time. No, you can't repeat them."
Or try "The Golden Gang," a tip of the hat to George Allen's veteran group of the1970s dubbed "The Over The Hill Gang," on its way to making Washington an NFC power.
Haslett, who turns 61 late in the season, is coaching linebackers for the first time in two decades after playing eight chippy seasons and 94 NFL games at backer, all but three with the Bills.
"I knew when I was done playing and I'll know when I'm done coaching," Haslett said. "I couldn't run anymore and ended up playing another year. I couldn't figure out why the coaches kept me. The next year I got out … I still like being with the players, being on the field, being in the meeting room."
Coyle, a month younger, is in his 40th year of coaching and his 16th in the NFL after serving as the defensive coordinator in Miami the previous four seasons. Not long ago he was regaling the iPad generation of his film work in the '80s at Holy Cross.
"We did our cutups by hand with 16 millimeter film being torn up one play at a time and we taped them on the walls and hot spliced them together," Coyle said. "They were looking at me like it was something that never existed. To them it sounded ancient."
Jim Haslett (far right) has been a Coach of the Year in two leagues and AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Burney's been around long enough to coach Pro Bowlers like Michael Dean Perry, circus acts like Albert Haynesworth and a future NFL D-line coach like Brentson Buckner.
(How good of a coach is Burney? He got his first NFL job in 1994 in Cleveland after Bill Belichick and Nick Saban put him through the grease board the only way the best NFL coach and the best college coach of the coming century could.)
"If you have questions for him, he'll have the answer. He'll get you right," said nose tackle Domata Peko, the dean of the defensive line. "He's an old school coach. It's black or white. No nonsense."
The NFL is one of the few places nowadays where age is looked upon as a resource instead of remorse. The Bengals defense isn't the only staff peppered with gray and white. In Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is 65, his secondary coach is 73-year-old Emmitt Thomas, and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs is 64.
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau famously turns 79 the first week of the season, but the Cardinals have 81-year-old pass rush specialist Tom Pratt and assistant head coach Tom Moore turns 78 during the season.
And Haslett and Burney aren't even the oldest position coaches on this season's schedule. Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole turns 62 during the season and Cowboys defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is 67, a full decade older than Burney.
But of the teams they play this season, the Bengals are the only one with their line coach, their linebackers coach, and their secondary coach all born in the '50s. Guenther, at 44, is the second youngest DC on the sked next to the 43-year-old Joseph, and he's been here before.
"When I was the head coach at Ursinus I was the youngest guy on the staff,' said Guenther, then the
Marvin Lewis Community Fund host their second edition of Countdown to Kickoff: Tailgate by the Bite event at Eddie Merlot's 8/29/2016
youngest head coach in the country at age 25. "I was looking for the best coaches I could find. Age didn't matter. Race didn't matter. I was looking for the best fit for the room. The right personality for the room. That's as important as Xs and Os."
The biggest personality belongs to Haslett, a quick-witted, highly quotable and well-seasoned eye who is a former NFL Coach of the Year and UFL Coach of the Year, not to mention the NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year in 1979, before the birth of five of his colleagues on the Bengals coaching staff. And, at one time, according to the magazine he and wife Beth dug out of the archives during their move to Cincinnati in the spring, one of the five dirtiest players in the NFL.
"I remember watching him when the Saints were on TV," said Peko the team Haslett ran for the first six seasons of the century. "He's a really cool guy. He's perfect in that room because they have characters in there with Uso, Tez, P.J."
That would be Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, and P.J. Dawson. The first two are grizzled throwbacks to Haslett's down-hill '80s. The third is a second-year player trying to find his way. It is a room not for the faint of heart.
Before he returned to Cincinnati, Kevin Coyle spent three and a half seasons as the Dolphins defensive coordinator, giving Paul Guenther two former playcallers on his staff.
"He's been in our shoes" Burfict said. "He wants the best for us. He's creating that chemistry for us that allows us to trust him. We want to play for him and that gives us more to play for than just ourselves, but for our coaches.
"He tells us things we don't want to hear and we tell him things he doesn't want to hear. That's part of our relationship that makes us close."
Burfict recalled the bowling trip Haslett organized for the backers during the offseason. Then there was that high-end dinner at Jeff Ruby's. And it turns out the former Bill who used to host a radio show with teammate Fred Smerlas outraging callers with language that would sometimes sneak past the bleep button has turned out to be quite adept at some 21st century tools.
"He's on our group text for the linebackers," Burfict said. "Everything is on there. Good things, bad things, late-night things. He probably reads it, but he doesn't always respond … If he thinks it's important, he'll bring it up the next day."
"We all respect him as a coach. He's a great fundamental coach," Burfict said. "Rey or I put him on (the group text) out of respect."
Haslett may be the first coach they put on their group text, but he's got a lot in common with a guy like Burfict. For one thing they are two of the more despised foes in Steelers history, Burfict for ending running back Le'Veon Bell's 2015 season on a clean hit and Haslett for kicking Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the head with a not so clean one. Both have been accused of going over the edge 30 years apart.
And Burfict's Wild Card glancing blow that knocked Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown out of the next game with a concussion on a hit that got flagged didn't help. But Haslett is on record as saying he didn't think the hit was that bad and that Burfict's impeccable instincts had him in the right place.
"I heard about that," Burfict said of the Bradshaw hit. "If your opponent hates you that means you're doing something right. That's the way I look at it. It's OK to hate him, hate me, hate Rey, whoever they hate. That's OK. They're our opponent. They're not supposed to like us."
Old school. Just like Haslett's limp, which drags in as early 4:30 a.m. If the tape isn't ready for a couple of more hours, he'll kid with video director Travis Brammer, "You on vacation?"
The limp is a badge from his playing days, the ankle injury that drove him out of the game after nine seasons and has become steadily worse. But he's holding off doing anything major to fix it because he loves being on the field.
"We tell him we don't want to look like that when we're done playing," Maualuga said.
Haslett laughs at that stuff. He likes tough rooms. Except for fundamentals taking a hit over the last 40 years, he sees no difference in the game. Those camp two-a-days have been banished. The live red zone and goal-line drills the morning of a night pre-season game are long gone.
But . . .
"It still comes down to blocking and tackling. Guys throw it, guys catch it," Haslett said. "There's nothing new. It's 11 on 11."
And players are still players. During training camp one of his players eyed a guy on the field and asked, "Who's that?"
Haslett loves middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's hard-hitting game.
Taken aback, Haslett said, "That's one of the offensive coaches."
"Who?" the player wanted to know.
It all reminded Haslett of when he was playing and the Bills replaced head coach Chuck Knox with Kay Stephenson.
"Where did we get him from?" the irrepressible Smerlas wanted know.
"He's been our offensive coordinator for the last six years,' Haslett told him.
"Same thing," Haslett said. "Stuck in their linebacker world. Their defensive world. That's not a bad thing."
It's a changing world. Coyle talked about it with Shaw and safety George Iloka over a meal during camp. Coyle mentioned how struck he is by the locker room dynamics in the new age.
"When you walked through the locker room you used to see guys shooting the breeze," Coyle said. "You don't see that as much anymore. Guys are at their lockers on their phones texting and reading. There's not as much old school banter. You'd like to see more of that."
Shaw and Iloka got where Coyle was coming from, but Coyle gets that, too.
"You can't question it. You have to understand how these guys were raised,' Coyle said. "There are things we never dealt with, all the distractions out there."
Guenther was looking for different personalities and he got them. The relentlessly upbeat power-of-positive-thinking Coyle, the former Yankee Conference safety, writes poems for his family and friends. He says in order for him to get on a group text, he'd need his law-school daughter to coordinate it. He'll text his guys one by one, observing, birthdays, checking on family, inviting them to his home for the occasional dinner, like next Thursday's regular season kickoff.
His video presentations are clever and crafted. He greeted the players one offseason with a slide show of how hard they had worked with a picture of cornerback Leon Hall golfing.
There's no generation gap for Coyle because, "Players are like an extension your family. That's why I got into coaching. The relationships... They know when you're genuine. You have to be yourself."
During his previous 11 years in Cincinnati, Coyle grew close with his players with a gift of what the wife of cornerback Adam Jones termed best.
"Coach Coyle has a great spirit," Tish Jones said.
When she delivered their daughter Triniti Alexandria nearly three months early back when the 2010 training camp broke, the first voice she heard the next day when she woke belonged to Coyle. He soothingly told her that she and the baby would thrive with the help of God, family, and friends and that he and his wife were there for whatever she needed.
Age was no factor for Paul Guenther when he re-tooled his staff this offseason.
It was short and sweet and he's had a bond with the Joneses ever since. But if he couldn't coach, Adam Jones, the guy that calls him, "old man," because he busts people he likes, wouldn't embrace him like he has. Coyle fits the room because his approach helped him earn his chops as one of the league's best secondary coaches when he had a big hand in developing the Bengals backfield that has been a staple of a top defense since 2009. Players like Hall, Jones, safety Reggie Nelson, and Johnathan Joseph began their careers here under Coyle and flourished.
And he did it with fundamentals, which he believes is a vanishing trait.
"I'm observing what I see," Coyle said. "I see poor tackling. The game is spread out a lot more. There are more plays that have to be made in space against really talented athletes. Guys coming in from college, there's a physical nature of the game at this level they haven't been exposed to because of the college and high school game.
"Hitting and shedding blocks and tackling. Taking on the blocker," Coyle said. "We teach fundamentals like you teach it to high school kids. It's a point of emphasis. Getting your body in better position and wrapping."
It was fundamentals that drew Guenther to Burney, as well as an impressive list of bosses ranging from Haslett, Belichick, Saban, Mike Shanahan and for three years in Baltimore in the late '90s Marvin Lewis. Guenther thought Burney's quiet storm demeanor, devotion to low-man-always-wins technique, and his varied experiences matched a defensive line that's already one of the best in the game.
"It's easy to coach the guys that are talented," Burney said. "To be honest with you, it's more managing them. Where do you fit? What is your role?"
Bengals defensive lineman Margus Hunt notices a wise ease around him.
"He's very calm," Hunt said. "The energy is his passion. Just the way he teaches drills and talks about technique. He really gets into it and is very emotional about it."
Lewis and Guenther came up with a melting pot mix. There is Haslett, the hard-boiled Pittsburgh native. There is Coyle, the up-tempo, Type A East Coaster. And there is Burney, a Tennessee native with a simmering intensity coming through in his bass voice that Hayes remembers sang gospel during that long-ago training camp.
"I have no idea what they're talking about," Burney said of today's player. "They speak a different language and to be honest, I'm not really learning it. When it comes to football, we talk the same language. Stunts. Blocks. This pass rush move.
"(But) I'm so honored when people think because of my demeanor or my experience, I can help a guy deal with a problem," Burney said. "I talk about whatever they want to talk about."
Burney, who graduated with a degree in physical education from Tennessee-Chattanooga in his hometown, remains that young guy that planned to teach gym and coach high school college coaching didn't pan out after a while.
"We're teachers. That's what coaching is no matter how old you are or the players are," Burney said. "What better satisfaction is there seeing a guy succeed using what you taught him?"
For Burney it's as basic as the day he went on the grease board with Belichick and Saban. Neither guy had heard of him. They got tipped to him by, of all guys, the old University of Cincinnati and University of Pittsburgh head coach Mike Gottfried. There was this good, young coach down at the University of Tennessee and ….
"Alignment, assignment, technique," Burney said. "There was no deal. There was no, 'You're my friend, you're my buddy.'"
More than 20 years later, Haslett is trying to tell you it's the same game.
"I don't bull crap them right or wrong," Haslett said. "That the way I wanted it as a player. Sometimes ask a hard question, you get a hard answer."
The senior sages have seen just about every one of those you can get.