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Turning over a new leaf?

With a framed Hall-of-Fame picture of Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik drilling Giants running back Frank Gifford looking down from the wall, Bengals linebackers coach Mark Duffner spoke about his promotion to defensive coordinator with Geoff Hobson of

HOBSON: Congratulations, Coach. You're known as a pretty animated guy. I guess this means you'll be getting into the faces of everyone on defense now.

DUFFNER: What you see is what you get. I'm excited about the opportunity. I'm going to do all I can to serve the ballclub and Coach (Dick) LeBeau.

HOBSON: What are your priorities?

DUFFNER: We've got to get more turnovers. (The Bengals were last in the AFC this season in forcing just 21 turnovers). That's going to be a real focus. More interceptions. More fumble recoveries. I think the takeaways you get on defense are a key to winning games.

HOBSON: How do you get more?

DUFFNER: It has a lot to do with your mentality you have as a defensive team. It's an aggressive style of play. How you hit physically, an attacking force. Teams that force turnovers are an aggressive, fiery football group. Our team has not been lacking in effort to the ball, or that type of thing.

We just want to keep emphasizing that, practice it more. Give it more than just lip service. Turnovers are on everyone's pre-game checklist. We have to get it.

As we get talking about scheme tied into strengths of our players, I really just want to improve what Coach (LeBeau) set in motion. We've gotten better at keeping people out of the end zone and we're looking to impove on it.

HOBSON: You gave up 359 points this year, the lowest this staff has allowed (in four seasons).

DUFFNER: The lowest in eight years here, isn't it?

HOBSON: Right, 1993. There has been some talk with the emergence of some of your linebackers this season in the wake of (MLB) Brian Simmons' injury of getting four linebackers on the field. Are you going back to the three-man line? And you remember why you went back to a four-man line in the middle of the '99 season?

DUFFNER: You don't have to tell me. We had trouble stopping the run. It's too hard to say at this point. One of the priorities for us is to do what our players do best. Does that mean tinker with the scheme a little bit or implement more of a 3-4? It's too early for that. All I can say is we'll implement according to our players' strengths.

HOBSON: The strongest position on the team is linebacker. Can you get four backers on the field?

DUFFNER: That will be one of the challenges for us. Not only did (rookie MLB) Armegis Spearman play well, but Adrian Ross is a productive guy who also started inside for us. Our charge is to get the best guys on the field.

HOBSON: Some people think outside backer Steve Foley is your best defensive end given his pass rush on third down. If you put weight on him, can you put him in a three-point stance and make him a full-time end on first and second down?

DUFFNER: He's a special athlete at 260 pounds right now. He's one of our better rush ends (team-leading four sacks), but the thing is, he's a productive guy for us at a few spots. A rush end in nickel. An outside backer. (Will he become a full-time end?) I don't see it.

HOBSON: This past year, you guys dropped plenty of money ($6.6 million in bonuses) on two 4-3 players in end Vaughn Booker and tackle Tom Barndt. What happens if you go to a 3-4?

DUFFNER: We're looking for Tom Barndt to get healthy. We didn't see the real Tom Barndt. We saw an effort-filled guy, but a guy hampered by a (torn pectoral muscle). Vaughn Booker really showed some flashes last year, but he was hurt, too. We think these guys can help us when healthy.

HOBSON: Could you switch from a 3-4 and 4-3 during a game?

DUFFNER: A possibility, but we're still reviewing last year and haven't made any calls yet.

HOBSON: It sounds like you don't want to give up coaching the linebackers.

DUFFNER: I put a lot of effort into getting these guys going, No. 1, and I think coaching a position will help me keep a pulse on what's going on, so to speak. That's just an opinion. I think it will help my coaching and coordinating.

HOBSON: But you'll bring in another defensive coach?

DUFFNER: That's the direction we're going at this time.

HOBSON: Since defense already has a quality control guy, can it be assumed you'll bring in a guy to help coach a position coach already in place? Such as yourself, or on the line or in the secondary?

DUFFNER: I think that's where we're going.

HOBSON: This defense struggles on third down. Would you call it the combination of poor pass rush and bad coverage?

DUFFNER: The best defense, and this is a cliché, is pass rush. The more pressure you put on the quarterback, the more you allow your defensive backs to make plays. Any quarterback who can sit back and ponder the field leaves the secondary out to dry.

HOBSON: Are these DBs as bad as they look, or is it the rush?

DUFFNER: The DBs didn't look bad, I thought, as the season went on. Again, you need a consistent pass rush and if you get time, any quarterback can make plays.

I thought our secondary made more plays late in the season. (Rookie corner Mark) Roman made a lot of tackles against Jacksonville. I think he was in on about 10 hits. (Cornerback) Artrell Hawkins finished the season on a positive note. We have high hopes he can contribute. (Safeties) Chris Carter and Darryl Williams came in and helped our team at that position. We have high expectations there. Our goal is more consistency back there.

HOBSON: Can you see starting (rookies) Robert Bean and Mark Roman at corner on Opening Day?

DUFFNER: It's too hard to project. I saw some good things from both. I was encouraged by Roman's hitting against Jacksonville. I saw Robert Bean from the time he walked in here have a knack to make plays. Both of them are young players that learned a lot this season, but it's way too early to tell if they'll start.

HOBSON: The biggest needs are a pass rusher and cover corner. Will you push for that first pick (fourth in the NFL) in the draft?

DUFFNER: Yeah, those are the needs. And for about 30 other teams, too. I'll push for what's best for the team. Every coordinator in the league wants a rusher and cover guy.

HOBSON: This job in this town is kind of fitting for you since you were the youngest defensive coordinator in the country at the University of Cincinnati 23 years ago.

DUFFNER: Real fitting. In fact, it was in late December of 1976 when I found out I was going to Cincinnati (after two years as a graduate assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State) and it was late December of 2000 I found out I'm the Bengals defensive coordinator. And it was in late December (of 1991) I took the head coaching job at the University of Maryland and it was late December (of 1980) I went to Holy Cross as defensive coordinator.

HOBSON: At least one of your three kids must have been born in Cincinnati.

DUFFNER: My oldest, Christy. Right here at Good Sam Hospital.

HOBSON: You haven't responded to reports that said you deferred to Dick when (Bengals President) Mike Brown offered you the head coaching job when Bruce (Coslet) resigned. Whatever, your relationship with Dick seems to have blossomed since he took over.

DUFFNER: No, it's always been strong. Ever since we got here (in 1997). It hasn't changed at all. I really think very highly of Coach LeBeau, first as a man and the way he conducts himself. He's a brilliant guy in the sport of football, but he's also very well read, and I've learned a lot from him in many areas.

HOBSON: Like what?

DUFFNER: We talk about life. Talk about family. Talk about people.

HOBSON: Do you talk about books?

DUFFNER: I'm way behind him on that. He gets bored talking to me about books. We always talk about people, and instances in life.

HOBSON: Do you see any of Woody in Dick?

DUFFNER: I see a lot of Coach Hayes in him. He's his own man. Tremendous competitive spirit. Great deal of intensity in him. Like Coach Hayes, he's very well read when it comes to history. He's very good with people. Coach Hayes was high energy, like Coach. A lot of similarities. Tremendous desire to win.

HOBSON: I could see how if you were drawn to Woody, you'd be drawn to this guy.

DUFFNER: He's a teacher. A terrific communicator. He can deal with a lot of different people. He knows how to push the right buttons, if you will, and that's a real gift.

HOBSON: Do you have a Woody story?

DUFFNER: I've got chapter and verse. Here's one I'll share. No, I've got a couple. The first one is I had the privilege 12 to 15 times to drive him all over the state of Ohio to speaking engagements, banquets, coaching retirement dinners. Not one time did I ever see him take a check. He would sign it over to the library, or to the athletic program, or give it to something like a coach's retirement cruise. He was phenomenal.

I'll never forget the speech he made my first year there after the Michigan game. We were 11-0 and had just beaten Michigan at Michigan. We came from behind to beat them. It was Nov. 22, 1975 and he spoke about how much the players had sacrificed and given to the team so it could win this game.

And he said 12 years ago that day, an assassin had felled our president and the county hasn't been quite the same since then. And if they could take the attributes of what they put forth to win this game back into our communities and our lives and our society, they could help the country.

HOBSON: Right after the game he's saying this?

DUFFNER: Right in the locker room. More roses than you can shake a stick at. It was phenomenal.

Then that night, we get back to Columbus Airport and there's probably about 10,000 Buckeye fans there. Instead of taking in the applause of the crowd, he stole away into the night with a bunch of roses under his arm and he goes to Riverside Hospital in Columbus and visits everyone he can before his 11:30 TV show.

Awesome. Awesome. That's just a flicker of the quality of that guy. And the same with this guy (LeBeau).

HOBSON: Your players swear by you. Is it because you don't take any guff from them?

DUFFNER: I don't know. You'll have to ask them, I don't like them, I love them. Great kids, really.

HOBSON: Do you like coaching college players or the pros better?

DUFFNER: I like them both. The thing I like about here is you have more time with these guys. One year with a pro player is about four years with a college player because of the time you have with them. I love to be with them, to see them develop on and off the field.

They all called me on Christmas, or the next day. That's why you coach. The relationship with your players.

HOBSON: Did they give you a hard time about your promotion?

DUFFNER: Brian Simmons says to me, 'So you'll be too big time to coach us now,' and I told him, 'No, your wish didn't come true.'"

HOBSON: Your record at Holy Cross as head coach was 60-5-1. How do you lose five games in six years?

DUFFNER: Tremendous team effort. Coaches. Players. Administration. A lot of unselfish people.

HOBSON: You were the defensive coordinator for five years there and then got the head job after head coach Rick Carter committed suicide. That had to be the toughest situation of your life. Wasn't it in the offseason?

DUFFNER: Right. February. Feb. 2, 1986. It's not the way you want to become a head coach. We were all devastated. Then to have the kids bounce back like that. The fact we go 10-1 and our only loss of the season is to Boston College. And we were up on them, 14-0. It was our kids' only home loss in six years. Just a lot of guts that year.

HOBSON: How do you think taking that job in that situation has affected the way you coached the rest of your career?

DUFFNER: Nobody saw it coming. What I took out of it was, nothing can be that bad in life. You can't get too high, you can't get too low. Obviously he was feeling pain and I wish I could have helped him. It was something internal. What I took out of it was to keep looking ahead and know there are going to be good times, too.

HOBSON: Did you ever think about staying at the Cross forever instead of going to Maryland after the '91 season?

DUFFNER: Sure, I was there 11 years. There were a lot of good people. The fact we were able to have two undefeated seasons and have a graduation rate second to none, it was a great situation. We had 114 kids graduate in four years out of 118. It was like that before I was the coach, too, but it shows you what a tremendous time it was.

I always challenge our players to be the best, to get the most out of their abilities. It's not like I felt we had stopped achieving at Holy Cross, I just wanted to follow through on what I tell players to take the challenges.

HOBSON: Did you think you got pre-empted a bit at Maryland? (After leading the Terps to their best back-to-back seasons in more than a decade with an 11-11 record, Duffner got fired after the 1996 season).

DUFFNER: Clearly there was unfinished business there. We had a winning season, then went 5-6 and we felt the program was finally getting some stability and wanted to see it continue. But it didn't happen.

HOBSON: They say one door closing opens another. Now you're here and the next step up from a NFL coordinator is a head coach.

DUFFNER: I'm not even thinking about that. I just feel very lucky. Very fortunate. You have to do well no matter what you are.

HOBSON: I see you've got that picture up there.

DUFFNER: That's from Kim Wood, our strength coach. It's probably the most recognizable picture of defense ever taken. When Chuck Bednarik hit Frank Gifford. Two great football players. It shows the toughness of the game. Better than what words can say, that picture shows what it takes to be a linebacker.

HOBSON: What do your players think about it?

DUFFNER: They see it. They know the names. They know what it means. It has an impact on them.

HOBSON: That hit took Gifford out of the game for a year.

DUFFNER: Chuck Bednarik was the last of the 60-minute men. Last of the two-way players. When I was at Holy Cross, we had Gordie Lockbaum who was going both ways for us.

When we played at Penn Stadium, the day before the game, someone was watching us practice from outside the stadium.

It happened to be Chuck Bednarik. He wanted to meet the only two-way player in college at the time. Gordie Lockbaum got to meet the last two-way player in the NFL.

Someone said he was standing outside the gate. I told them he deserved to be standing in there and watching us and we met him. That was a neat situation.

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