A year after undergoing their biggest overhaul ever when they implemented their largest staff in history, the Bengals are banking on coaching consistency to supplement their off-season roster improvements.
For what looks to be the first time since 2015, the Bengals are poised to begin and end back-to-back seasons with the same three coordinators. Head coach Zac Taylor won't announce changes until his staff is completed, but indications are there isn't going to be shuffling above the level of position coaches or quality control.
A year ago at this time they had just completed their first round of interviews for a head coach. That had capped some turbulence, beginning with the mid-season dismissals of offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Now Taylor is mapping out plans to coach the South in the Jan. 25 Senior Bowl that could include an early session with his new quarterback, if LSU's Joe Burrow decides to play in the Mobile, Ala., college all-star game and if the Bengals decide to take him with the No. 1 pick.
The status quo on the coaches also means that special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons returns for an 18th season running the Bengals kicking game as the dean at his position in the NFL. That's always a hot topic around this time of year because Simmons is always sure to have plenty of suitors as one of the top assistants in the league.
But he's sticking around for a variety of reasons, beginning with his family of a wife, two high-schoolers and a middle-schooler and including another run with a core of players that helped the Bengals claim the top spot in the 2019 special teams ratings from football outsiders.com, the source Simmons believes NFL coaches generally regard as the top yardstick for the kicking game.
"Family is a big part of it. Keeping the family in one place. I'm very appreciative of that opportunity," Simmons said this week as he wrapped up his grades and evaluations.
"(The No. 1 ranking) is gratifying. It speaks volumes about our players," Simmons said. "I've got a lot of respect for the way they play and prepare. How much it means to them. It's hard to walk away from that. That's all you want as a coach."
Simmons, 46, came into last season, his 22nd in the NFL, behind only five special teams coaches in terms of NFL experience: Houston's Brad Seely, Denver's Joe DeCamillis and the Chargers' George Stewart all came into the league in 1989, Tampa Bay's Keith Armstrong in 1994 and the Steelers' Danny Smith in 1995. But only Simmons, who broke in with the 1998 Ravens, has been with the same team for so long.
So it's not the first time he's been faced with helping a team rebound from a 2-14 season. That's what the Bengals did when he arrived with head coach Marvin Lewis in 2003. (Note: The Bengals were ranked last in special teams by Football Outsiders the year before Simmons, No. 15 in his first year.)
"I've been a part of it. I feel very good about Zac using me as a strong resource to help whatever ideas he has and we have to make it better," Simmons said. "That's all everyone in the building is thinking about. How do we get better? Certainly we were all embarrassed by what happened this year. That has to be our obvious calling card. How do we right the ship?
"To me, it starts with myself. I have to look at myself. Too often people look at other reasons and don't look at themselves. How can I help my guys play better? The most challenging thing about being a coach is every year is different. It's always a group of different circumstances, a different group of players, a different group of coaches. That changes year to year."
But after negotiating a jarring season his group felt the trickle-down impact of 13 players going on injured reserve that forced young players in all three phases to get experience, Simmons suddenly has an emerging core coming off a top-ranked season that reminds him of the good old days that coincided with the Bengals' regular success.
NFL kick return champion and gunner supreme Brandon Wilson returns as a restricted free agent. So does fellow gunner Tony McRae, two key guys that helped punter Kevin Huber lead the league in forcing 30 fair catches. Another gunner, rookie wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., got a top 10 kick cover ranking from profootballfocus.com and has Simmons thinking of old-time receivers named Tab Perry, Kevin Walter and James Wright.
The operation is all under contract. Huber, kicker Randy Bullock (coming off another solid season that has made him the second most accurate kicker in club history) and long snapper Clark Harris look to be starting their fourth season together. The one key free agent is special teams captain Clayton Fejedelem.
"I don't think I've ever been prouder of a group," Simmons said. "I've got so much respect for the energy, the pride these guys took on a week-to-week basis. It's hard. It's hard when a team is not being successful when they're not seeing wins week to week. The fact they never spit the bit, the fact they kept fighting no matter the record or the score, that also resonates with me."
If Football Outsiders is the gold standard for special teams, the kicking game can help lead you to the gold. When the Bengals went to the postseason every year from 2011-2015, the web site had them never finishing below 12th with four top finishes in the top eight. And they're coming off their second straight top ten finish with a No. 7 ranking last season.
"It does remind me of that a little bit," Simmons said. "You've got some consistency and the guys want to do well. They've got pride and that means it all."