Don't get Mike Zimmer wrong. He loves this defense. Heck, he built it. He's also thinking about building a house on the 43-acre ranch he just bought in Independence, Ky. And with family around, this just may be the most comfortable he's ever been in years.
But as he again goes through the process of interviewing to become a head coach later this week, there's no doubt the 57-year-old Zimmer is eager for a job that has eluded him despite a tenure that has been at the center of the four Bengals playoff runs in the last five seasons with four rankings in the NFL's top seven.
"When there are 32 of these jobs and there's a bunch of coaches in the world and guys that you know, they're looking for something, it may not be me," Zimmer said Monday. "But if it is, they'll get a full day's work and a good football coach.
"That place out there … all of these guys laugh at me—and my kids, too—because I tell them how much I love that ranch and it is a nice spot," Zimmer said. "I'm getting ready to build a house on it. I've got the architect plans done and all of that stuff. But, in coaching, this happens almost every year now; if I keep waiting to do something or what if or what if, well I'm just living each day as it goes."
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is off on the same junket, confirming Monday he has interviews in Washington, Tennessee and Minnesota. Zimmer would only say he had multiple interest and on Monday there were reports he had an interview set in Tennessee, and several reports have already linked him to Minnesota.
After his two years in the NFL as an offensive coordinator, Gruden, 46, had been hesitant about going into the market. Now he sounds as if he's ready and reports have him on the verge of being named the head coach in Washington, citing his relationship with general manager Bruce Allen and their days together in Tampa with brother Jon Gruden.
"I've been in the league now three years as a coordinator and obviously with my brother for a lot of years. If that challenge were to come about, I think I'd be ready," said Gruden, who went on four interviews last year after turning them down following his first season. "They're all different and they're all looking for something unique. They're looking for somebody to come in and bring something different than what they had. … I think the most important thing when you go to any interview is to be yourself and not try to be somebody you're not."
Now begins the fascinating game of musical chairs once one of these jobs falls. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis no doubt has lists of possible replacements, but he's sentenced to other teams' timetables. A departure by either or both could cause Lewis to not only fill their jobs, but also some assistants that may follow them. It's believed both Zimmer and Gruden are still under contract to work in Cincinnati next season, and with Zimmer commanding the NFL's No. 3 defense and Gruden the No. 10 offense it wouldn't be tough duty. There was only one player in Sunday's wild card game that was here when Zimmer arrived in 2008 and all the offense's skill players have been developed under Gruden.
"I'm at a point in my career where I could stay here the rest of my career and be happy, you know what I mean? Who knows?" Zimmer said. "If I get offered one of these jobs and I don't feel good about it, you know me. I'm going to do what I think is best. So I do think this team, this defensive team with the pieces we have, if we can keep them going, has a chance to be something really special."
In Gruden's first days on the job in 2011, he scouted the guys who would be his quarterback and he never backed down from his belief that he felt Andy Dalton was the best fit for his West Coast-style scheme based on what he did at TCU.
"It would be different. It's been the same offense ever since I've been here. Jay's been here the whole time. I don't know what it's going to be," Dalton said. "I don't know, obviously, who would come in. All that stuff is going to take care of itself. I've got faith in the guys here; I've got faith in the staff. Whatever happens is supposed to happen. God's got a plan and I've got a lot of faith in that."
On Monday, Zimmer couldn't help but think what might have been. His defense had statistically its best season, with six touchdown returns, as well as a remarkable effort following turnovers.
Including the wild card game, the offense suffered 34 turnovers this season and three went for touchdowns. Of those 31 remaining drives, the Bengals forced 14 punts while allowing just five touchdowns and 11 field goals, as well as a missed field goal. A total of 19 of those drives started at the Bengals 47 or closer and only three went for TDs. One TD drive started at the Bengals 11, another at the Bengals 1, and the other one, from the Bengals 36, was surrendered after the first drive of the season. On Sunday, the Chargers were held to a field goal despite getting the ball at the Cincinnati 3. With half that defense, the Bengals are staring at a losing record instead of 11-5.
And the defense did it without its two best players for most of the year, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall. The Bengals didn't have starting cornerback Terence Newman for the last month. But not only that, they lost their top two cover linebackers and still finished second in the NFL in third-down percentage. And, of course, the 56 passer rating against the Super Bowl four-pack of Ben Roethlisberger Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco at home.
"We also lost Robert Geathers, who was a very strong nucleus, a guy in this locker room who is great," Zimmer said of his most versatile defensive lineman who barely took a snap this year. "Emmanuel Lamur, who was our best cover linebacker who we had all kinds of plans for this year. Taylor Mays, who we ended up putting in there at the nickel linebacker because of that (injury).
"I understand everybody looks at the ranking and those kind of things are important but the quarterbacks we played this year, different than a year ago I don't know who we played, but when you are playing Brady, Rodgers, (Philip) Rivers … Roethlisberger, Flacco. We played a lot of excellent quarterbacks, Super Bowl quarterbacks. So, for us to be able to continue on I would have liked to see what we could have done if we had all hands on deck. But we did good for the people that we had and all the players they worked their rear ends off for us. They were smart, they studied hard. We've got guys in this locker room, (Domata) Peko, he came in my office today, he's a tremendous, tremendous kid. We have guys like that all over this place."
It was also the first year Zimmer worked with his son, NFL veteran assistant Adam Zimmer, the Bengals assistant secondary coach.
"It was really good. For him to come in here, No. 1 he's a good coach. He's knowledgeable and he has a good rapport with the players," Mike Zimmer said. "A very good rapport. Different from me and a lot of them have told me how much they like him. It was good to come home and do this or do that, and he helps me with a lot of the computer stuff that I don't understand.
"I''ve talked to him about these things. A lot of it is whether the club has a rule on family and things like that. He understands. My son wants what's best for me and it won't be a deal-breaker either way."