Posted: 9:25 p.m.
Mike Zimmer, off a typical animated outing in the rookie camp, gets to yell at the Bengals veterans for the first time on the field Tuesday. While their new defensive coordinator admits, "A lot of these players aren't going to like me," he is also committed to restoring the unit's reputation.
"I think we have good guys. Good people. I think they're tired of people just beating the hell out of them, from what I can tell," Zimmer said Monday, taking a break from preparing for the first voluntary session. "If we can overcome some of that outside deal and we stick together and believe in what we're doing, I think they can overcome.
"I have to see if (the reputation) is earned or if that's just the way it is. But it is what it is."
Zimmer, 51, who arrives battle-tested as a coordinator for eight NFL seasons under three different head coaches in Dallas and Atlanta and two playoff runs, has lived it all. From working under a Hall of Famer in Bill Parcells to a guy who just hauled in Bobby Petrino.
"Zim is a perfect fit for Marvin because he'll get them playing fast; that's the way they both like it," said Jackson, now the Ravens quarterbacks coach. "Teams are going to have to figure out a different way to beat the Bengals now. Mike believes that a defense is at its best when the players are confident and assured in all their moves. He subscribes to a simple is best philosophy. The guy knows defense. He can coach every position. I'd stand on the table for him."
Zimmer says this 4-3 base defense isn't going to be a major overhaul for the players, observing his scheme in Atlanta wasn't that far off what the Bengals were doing last season and that he and Lewis have married the two.
But Zimmer knows this defense needs more than a scheme tweak.
"These guys have been beaten up and beaten up and beaten up," he said. "They don't think they're very good right now. I bet if you ask them you'd find out they don't think they're a very good defense or very good players. Somehow we have to make them realize they are good players and that collectively we can accomplish what we need to do. It's a good test for us, a good test for me to see if I can get them to buy in to what we're preaching."
Zimmer holds a No B.S. degree from Old School U., and emphasizes that he has made no judgments on the previous administration because "There are so many different ways to do it," he says.
He'll be upfront with his guys Tuesday, which begins the first of four blocks of three-day sessions this month and next culminating in the mandatory June 12-14 minicamp.
"Five years from now I want to be able to say I respected these players because we got them to do what we told them to do and they played hard. I don't care about going out to dinner with them or having their cell phone numbers," Zimmer said. "I don't care. I'll find them if I need them. If they say the guy is a (jerk), but he's a good football coach, I d rather have them say that than, 'He's a hell of a guy but he can't coach.' ... "
Zimmer outlined his Old School curriculum in black and white and what he'll begin teaching on the field:
Stopping the run.
" That's the No. 1 priority," Zimmer says. "Honestly, all that means is playing unselfishly. Because if you do your job, and the guy next to you does his job, and all the way down the line, that's how you play the run. It's not just the linebackers and defensive line. Every team runs the ball well to the perimeter and if that corner isn't willing to come up and make a tackle, it's now an eight-yard gain.
"If we're not going to worry about who's got the radio show, or who's on the highlights, we're going to be a good defense. If we're going to worry about why they're talking about the offense and not talking about the defense, then we're not going to be very good."
Keep It Simple, Stupid.
"I come out of that school," Zimmer said. "I've talked to all our guys. Talk to (former Cowboys defensive lineman) Michael Myers. He knows better than anybody. I don't want our guys thinking when they're playing. I don't want them saying, 'What's my assignment? What's my check?' The coaches have heard this 100 times. I say, 'Why do we have to have this check? You've got a key. Do your job. Play.'
"I hate coming in on Monday and you start grading tape and you say, 'That dumb guy, he should have done this. That dumb guy, he should have done that.' Maybe it's not their fault. Maybe it's your fault because you had too much stuff in and they couldn't understand it."
"I hate mistakes. I hate them. Drives me crazy," Zimmer said. "I can understand if you go out there for the first time and make a mistake. That's different. But to keep making the same mistakes and keep being corrected, that gets old. We need dependable, reliable guys that have a passion for the game."
Asked if he'll bench players if the mistakes keep coming, he said, "Hopefully they won't be playing."
Contest every pass
(If there is one thing that sticks in the craw of Bengaldom, it is the 10-yard completion on third-and-nine. Zimmer feels your pain.)
"Pass rush is a factor, but if you let the receiver run down the field and allow him to break either way, he kind of likes that," Zimmer said. "They really don't want to be hit or knocked out of their lane. They have to play a lot harder. We want to make them work.
"I understand balls are going to get caught on us. But they should always be contested with an arm in there. If the guy makes a catch, he makes a catch. If you play five yards off a guy and he goes out-of-bounds untouched and it's not even close, that should never happen. We have to disrupt the receiver as much as possible in the zones."
Zimmer wouldn't comment, but said the alignment that is unveiled is going to be hard to change.
"The more you move guys around," he said, "the more they're going to make mistakes."
The players he's worked with the most are the cornerbacks, and he says Johnathan Joseph "has shown he can be a good player," and the other starter, Leon Hall, "looks like a tough guy that is going to buy in with what we do. I like those guys."
But beyond that, Zimmer said he's still figuring out if the corners can play man and if they can, how much. Or if this is going to be a Cover 2 team. Or both. He wants to see what his two young pass rushers, ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, can do at the snap of the ball.
"Parcells used to say, 'Have a vision for the players.' That means, what can a player do well? That's what I'm trying to figure out," Zimmer said. "I read this stuff about a 4-3, 3-4 and going into a nickel package. I can concoct all kinds of things, but only if the players can do it.
"If (for a hypothetical) Odom isn't a good guy to move around, then it makes no sense of making him an outside linebacker in a 3-4 look, or whatever. It's more about finding out what they can do and using them in the best way."
This is a 4-3 base, but on third down it could be anything.
Zimmer brings empathy with his Xs and Os. He seems to understand the psyche of a unit that has been perpetually publicly flogged in the five years in which it has finished higher than 27th only once.
In Zimmer's first year as a coordinator in Dallas in 2000, the Cowboys finished last against the run and 19th overall. The next season the Cowboys vaulted to fourth overall while finishing 13th against the run.
He can click off the names with a snap of the fingers. Maybe, maybe there was one superstar in safety Darren Woodson. A thrice-cut tackle in Brandon Noble. A pair of third-round linebackers in Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley. A sixth-round corner in Mario Edwards.
"We had guys no one knew who the heck we were," Zimmer said. "They were all smart guys. People weren't afraid us of us because we didn't have the firepower at that point. But when people turned on tape, they saw, 'They were well-coached, disciplined, and they don't make mistakes.' "
Zimmer knows what it's like to be on an unloved defense. Try sharing the stage with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
"We had The Triplets. Everybody knew them. Nobody really knew who the defensive players were," Zimmer said. "But we didn't care what people said. We wanted to prove everybody wrong. This is who we are and what we do. It's not changing the mindset or culture. It's just working hard every day."