Posted: 7:05 a.m.
Mike Zimmer, the Bengals' crusty old-school coordinator with a hot new-look defense, admits it. Turned down by two NFL teams and ignored by a third, he's at his best with a chip on his shoulder.
He knows he better be because he has built his unit's psyche on it.
"Nobody wanted any of us," Zimmer is saying earlier this week, the trusty wedge at his side and the framed fame of the defensive line of the Dallas Doomsday Defense on his office wall. "OK, Leon (Hall) and J-Joe (Johnathan Joseph) were first-round picks. (Keith) Rivers, too. And (Antwan) Odom was a free agent. Teams wanted him. But that's it. Nobody wanted the rest of us."
This unit that Zimmer lovingly calls "The Little Sisters of the Poor" is suddenly the biggest and richest thing in Bengaldom heading into Sunday's 1 p.m. opener against Denver at Paul Brown Stadium. Once maligned and misfortunate, the defense is, for once, ahead of the offense and gives this team a fighting chance in September.
Until the offense can find its footing with a reconstituted line, a retooled receiving corps, and a refurbished quarterback, the defense must hold the line.
Chad Ochocinco, who not too long ago dissed this defense, says it for everybody.
"They're good," he says of the defense. "They finished 12th last year? It can only get better. It can only get better."
Use that chip to dig away under Zimmer's regime and there are more than F-bombs and GD-grenades. There are other chips, too. The ones his wife puts in her chocolate chip cookies and bakes for his players. The *Hard Knocks *cameras caught him telling his guys he had them with him but with the quick rejoinder, "It wasn't my idea."
But Vikki Zimmer laughs. If it's not chocolate chip cookies it is oatmeal raisin or Snickerdoodles. Last week she made cinnamon rolls and she wants to make sure one week she gets a massive fruit tray in there.
"Mike tells me, 'Those kids work so hard and so long. They really like it when you make them that stuff,' " Vikki Zimmer says. "They're worried about putting on weight, so I want to make it a little bit healthy but he tells me they destroy whatever it is no matter what they say."
Vikki Zimmer hasn't seen Hard Knocks yet. She saw the last one when her husband was a star several years ago in the Cowboys camp. The one where he once feared there had been the wrong perception formed about his hardscrabble style and had hurt his chances to be a head coach. But other than the kids coming home from school and saying, "Daddy has a potty mouth," she thought there were no surprises to the people that know him.
"Maybe if some stranger that didn't know him saw it they might think something, but the people who know Mike know he's more than just tough," Vikki Zimmer says. "He's sensitive. I remember when one of his mother's sisters died and he was right there holding her hand."
A guy who politely finishes signing autographs at training camp with, "Now I have to go yell at people." Sensitive? The guy who told rookie safety Tom Nelson after his sack in New England off one his many pressures, "I could have got that sack."
Here's a guy that took the classic grizzled six-year veteran in defensive tackle Tank Johnson and brought him into his office for about 40 minutes to talk simply about life.
"It wasn't supposed to be taped," says Johnson, one of those guys in the process of rebuilding his image with Zimmer. "It was more than what you saw. He and I were just having a conversation about getting better at life. He gave me some great words of advice."
Zimmer feels badly the scene, such as it was, made Hard Knocks. He was talking to Johnson on the field one day and told him to come up to his office. There were some things he wanted to talk about with him. When Johnson poked his head in, Zimmer put aside what he was doing but forgot to turn the camera off.
Johnson didn't think the ensuing minute or so clip, in which they talked about how both had a tendency to be negative, was an accurate portrayal of the discussion. But Zimmer's approach was.
"Zim cares. That's the thing. He cares about you, me, that's what's important. Any time somebody loses sight of that, well," says Johnson with a shrug. "It's pretty impressive that a coach takes time out of his schedule to talk to me about life and how they can be successful."
It is that sensitivity that gives rise to the chip on the shoulder.
The son of a high school coach in Illinois, Mike Zimmer was told by Bill Zimmer never to call him "Dad" on the field. A disciple of future Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, Mike Zimmer still picks at "The Tuna" about the best ways of getting to the passer. Once one of the hot offseason names, he turned down the Nebraska head job believing he would soon be an NFL head coach, maybe with the legendary Cowboys themselves.
But NFL. As in Not For Long. He went from hot to not in the time it takes to call a corner blitz. Zimmer was soon on the corner looking for a job in the wake of the Bobby Petrino mess in Atlanta.
Always something to prove to somebody. At 53 years old on an Opening Day he faces an opposing head coach that is 33, he can't help but wonder if the window is shut.
Mike Zimmer, an all-conference quarterback in high school, once came off the field during a conference title game after throwing an interception and his father drilled him in the chest. "Get the GD ball there," he seethed.
"I would hear in high school, 'He's only playing in baseball because his dad's the football coach,' " Zimmer says. "The deal with Parcells is that I wanted to prove to him I was (Bill) Belichick."
He proved enough to Parcells that earlier this week the head of the Dolphins returned a call within the hour when he discovered the subject was Zimmer. When Parcells arrived in Dallas as the head coach in 2003, he chose to retain Zimmer as defensive coordinator, and with their offices side-by-side he would often give Zimmer quick vignettes on what to do as an NFL head coach during their four seasons together.
Maybe Parcells' biggest influence can be seen in how the Cincinnati defense plays. Zimmer uses a 4-3 alignment, but many of his rush principles come out of his time with Parcells in the 3-4.
"We were running Jimmy Johnson' s 4-3," says Zimmer of his first of 13 seasons in Dallas in 1994. "We evolved a little bit and we were kind of doing what Tampa did. When we went to a 3-4 (under Parcells) and it evolved into 3-4 principles. Here, we're still a 4-3 base team for the most part. Our pressure packages are a little bit more evolved. We studied a lot of teams and we got some of those ideas from Parcells."
Zimmer's constant admonition to the defensive backs to "disrupt and disturb" the receivers come straight from Parcells, and the textbook example can be seen in Belichick rerouting the Rams receivers from glory to obscurity in the Patriots' first Super Bowl victory.
"I really liked working with Mike," Parcells says. "Coach's son. He really gets it. The work ethic that he has really comes through. He gets down to the details of it."
It helped that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recommended Zimmer to Parcells. But, as only Parcells can say, "I make my own judgments."
"When I came to Dallas, my staff had dispersed, mainly to New England, and Jerry Jones was an influence there," Parcells says. "He told me Mike was an eager young coach with a lot of experience who knew what he was doing and that's what I discovered when I sat down and talked to him."
When Zimmer wasn't sure Parcells was staying or going before the 2007 season, he took the defensive coordinator's job in Atlanta under Petrino. Parcells did leave a few weeks later and Zimmer still wonders if Jones might have tapped him for the job. He's also interviewed in St. Louis and San Diego recently and Parcells told him to hang with it.
"Sure he can," Parcells said when asked if Zimmer can be an NFL head coach. "Nowadays you just have to make sure it's the right situation. It's a team thing with ownership all the way down. Some of these places, you can go in there with one hand tied behind your back."
Zimmer says Parcells told him a bunch of times that they shared the same temperament. Asked if he sees a bit of him in Zimmer, Parcells laughs.
"I don't know about that," Parcells says. "You know, some people would tell you that's not a good thing."
If there's one thing Zimmer took from Parcells, it is how to push the right button with players. When to ride them. When to back off. Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, who retired this offseason, never felt like Zimmer liked him. After the Bengals tried to trade for Shaun Rogers and DeWayne Robertson, Zimmer would grouse at the other defensive linemen that the 31-year-old Thornton he would call 36 was running rings around them.
But he was impressed when he saw quotes at the end of last season about how much Zimmer respected his professionalism.
"He's a really good motivator. He's the kind of guy that when you screw up, you don't want to face him yelling at you," Thornton says.
Thornton and defensive linemen Jon Fanene are the only guys that played for all three of head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive coordinators, Lewis, Leslie Frazier and Chuck Bresnahan. He's not sure why it didn't work with Frazier and Bresnahan, but he does know Zimmer's strengths.
"He really gets into the technique of things of what everyone is doing," Thornton says, "and he made everybody accountable. He was an outside guy. A new set of eyes. He's a guy that could look at the whole defense and not just through one position."
One former player said he doesn't coddle, particularly the linemen.
And Adam Zimmer has seen it from another set of eyes. Zimmer's oldest child has followed him into coaching as an assistant linebackers coach for the Saints. For him, the best vacation is going back home, playing golf every other day with Mike and then watching film with him the rest of the time.
Over dinner recently Vikki asked her husband, "How honored do you feel that your son wants to be just like you, idolizes you and even has your mannerisms?"
Adam watched his father go around the league this year, picking brains about how to get better on the pass rush. It looked familiar.
"The last time he did that was in 2000, after his first year as the coordinator in Dallas," Adam Zimmer says. "They really had trouble against the run and he went to guys in and out of the league to see what he was doing. That's how he first met Marvin."
Vikki Zimmer says her husband is extremely comfortable working with Lewis. Whenever she runs into Peggy Lewis, she tells her that her husband can be heard saying at times, "I love Mike Zimmer."
"He really likes it here. He really likes the kids," she says.
That's the one thing that Mike Zimmer has been saying this preseason.
"I really like the guys we have here," he says. "They're good guys that play hard. That's what good defense is. Eleven guys playing together."
The advice Zimmer gave Johnson?
"Look at the positive perspective every day," Johnson says. "Look at every day as a positive day. If you do that it makes other people feel the same way too."
Parcells has some advice for Zimmer, too.
"Tell him to get the guy with the ball," Parcells says.
His Little Sisters are ready.