Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons just got done with one harvest and his farmer's eye is squinting at another. The NFL cutdown date of Aug. 31 is now a tense two weeks away.
Maybe as tense as the annual rite of trying to get his father's wheat into the elevators before the Oklahoma Panhandle sky belches out another misfortune. A different kind of tense, but tense.
And maybe not all that different.
Simmons hasn't missed a harvest on his family's farm since he was able to drive a combine by himself at age 17. Those 23 years have included his punting career at the University of Kansas, his marriage, three children, and a decade as the Bengals special teams coach that ended last year when Cincinnati finished first in a combined ranking of the NFL's top 10 special teams categories.
Not all that different.
"The toughest thing in farming is predicting the weather," Simmons says. "You've got to do whatever you can to protect the cash crop. The toughest thing about coaching special teams is cutting the roster. Getting the best group for the team. Both of them are a little bit out of your control. So you've got to be prepared."
The NFL calendar and the unforgiving prairie of Morton County are in sync. Paul Brown Stadium is dark from mid-June to mid-July, just when Gary and Laurie Simmons need to cut more than 2,000 acres of wheat. They need their son to help get it done in time and he needs the farm to replenish the reservoir drained by a season of coaching.
"I love being out there in the fields by myself cutting," he says. "It's a great way to get away and yet at the same time you're getting something important done for your family. Haven't missed it. Won't miss it."
His hometown of Elkhart, Kan., which is in the far southwest corner of Kansas along the Oklahoma border and five miles west of Colorado, has about one person for every acre the Simmons have to cut. Their land ranges from Texas County in the Panhandle into Kansas and the roots run four generations deep.
Simmons's great grandfather set down his homestead at the turn of the last century and if you don't think he blinks when Josh Cribbs is staring down the barrel of his punt team, why should he? The Dust Bowl of the 1930s ravaged Morton County and the family stayed and made it work. Last year's drought was nothing like that, but they had to wait just a little longer to cut and that's always a little nerve-wracking because that's more time for the elements to get lined up.
"There are similarities to coaching, I guess," Simmons says. "The hours are long at certain times of the year. There is a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time. And I grew up doing it. It's something I love."
The wheat is in, but the roster is not. Three of his best players from last season, safety Jeromy Miles, linebacker Vinnie Rey, and running back Cedric Peerman, are all in tractor-pulls for roster spots. And that's the challenge of a special teams harvest. Irrigating the big picture with your needs and trying to prepare for the NFL weather of injuries, weekly roster needs, and position battles.
"We've got to have the right guys in place when we play Chicago," Simmons says of the Sept. 8 regular-season opener. "That's what we're trying to find as a team. We're building for that."
The Bengals coaching staff is like one of those gatherings at a presidential funeral. There's always that historic photo of the group of ex-presidents with the current chief and maybe a future one or two POTUS.
Such is the position Cincinnati finds itself in with its current coach Marvin Lewis, the longest-tenured head coach in franchise history, and former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson coaching the running backs as Lewis's special assistant. There is 20-year assistant Paul Alexander, assistant to the head coach.
And then there are the three coordinators also in position to take the next step.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden have interviewed for head coaching jobs the past two offseasons. But since Simmons is a special teams coach, he's still waiting for a call. Lewis didn't give Simmons the title of "coordinator" this past offseason to get him an interview, but he thinks he deserves one.
"He ought to have an opportunity. He coaches the football team. The manipulation and dealing with injuries that guy has to deal with, he deals with it as much as the head coach does," Lewis says.
"He's got a great feel for the entire deal. He understands. He's great with the kids. No one is going to outwork him and out technique him. He's deserving. We know through winning, everyone gets more opportunity."
Simmons is usually mum on this stuff. If he's got a farmer's eye he also has a farmer's superstitions. He didn't know his title changed until he read it in a news release.
"It doesn't change what I do. It doesn't change my job or how I do it," Simmons says. "Any assistant coach would love to get a chance to have an opportunity to take the next step. But you're not defined by titles, but by what you do Sundays."
The testimonials come from a top 10 pick like punt returner Adam Jones to an undrafted wide receiver that finally got his chance in Canada like Andrew Hawkins. Both say Simmons has helped their careers.
"Darrin is going to be a great head coach one day," says Hawkins, one of his top gunners. "The best thing about Darrin is that he's very good at uniquely coaching every player. Figuring out the personalities quickly and what they respond to and coaching them up that way.
"He's the kind of guy that appreciates effort. You can always coach off a guy that busts his butt. That's one thing I pride myself on and I thank God I was able to come in here and have Darrin take me under his wing from a special teams aspect. I think it's a big reason I got to stick on the roster."
Jones has often said Simmons is the best special teams coach he's ever had.
"He's helped me a lot. About ball control and going up and making hard catches," Jones says. "Just believing in myself to make the play for the team. I'm not going to say I was lacking a little bit, but he's got tremendous confidence in me."
"He's unbelievable," Jones says of Simmons's preparation for the opponent. "If anyone is half decent on special teams, he knows about him. I think Darrin does a good job breaking down film and making sure everyone understands what they need to do."
Simmons is a multitasker, a key element for any special teams coach. One minute he can be looking at tape breaking down punter Kevin Huber's steps and the next he can be on the phone to his dad back home asking about—what else?—the weather.
Gary tells him it rained just six inches from when they planted in the fall to when he and Darrin took out the combines last month, and that in the last two weeks it's rained anywhere between two to three inches already.
"We've got 230 at the East Well," Gary says and Darrin tells him about a picture that was texted to him showing a neighbor's cornfield washed out with hail and left with just stalks. His dad also gives a rundown of some lightning damage to the equipment. Yes, farmers have to multitask too.
"With both jobs," Simmons says, "you have to have as much information as you can get before dealing with (the elements)."
Huber, who first flashed his wares for Simmons when the Bengals coached the 2009 Senior Bowl, had the best season a Bengals punter ever had last year. Meanwhile, nine-year kicker Mike Nugent has enjoyed the best field-goal accuracy of his NFL career under Simmons. And Josh Brown walked off the street to win AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in December.
"He understands the technique of the swing," Huber says, "and for the most part as long as he can relate to how the kicker does it, you can help him out with everything. ... He can take their form and tweak it just a little bit to make it better."
When Huber worked with former pro punter Greg Montgomery two offseasons ago, Simmons kept in touch with both so he could adjust. But Huber says the biggest thing he's learned from Simmons is situations.
"I've become more knowledgeable about punting and what goes on in the game and anticipating things before they happen," Huber says.
When it comes to hiring head coaches, the NFL isn't exactly known for tapping special-teamers or anyone else that might be perceived as out of the mainstream. Even if long-time Eagles special teams coach John Harbaugh won the last Super Bowl as the Ravens head coach and has yet to miss the playoffs during five seasons running the show in Baltimore.
Like Huber says, Simmons works with all phases and all the players—offense and defense—all the way down to the hands team.
"The league is a copycat league," Hawkins says. "If a special teams coach just won the Super Bowl, you'll probably see other teams try it."
Simmons isn't even thinking about it.
He's too busy trying to predict the NFL weather. "It's all about the team we have for Sept. 8," he says.