Thursday-and-Long: Bengals' Mike Zimmer Perseveres
"I'm a Mom now, and a Dad and a coach," Zimmer told FanHouse in a phone interview earlier this week. "I've got so many things I have to do that I didn't have to do before, the combination of my kids and the players keeps me pretty well occupied. I'm so concerned about my kids that I'm not worried about myself."
Vikki Zimmer died suddenly and unexpectedly on Oct. 9, in the middle of what might be her husband's greatest professional season. It was a stunning development that rocked the Bengals' roster (she used to bake cookies for Zimmer's defensive players, as you know if you watched "Hard Knocks") and left a devastated coach with no idea what to do except hug his daughters and continue to throw himself into his work.
"I have some bad days," Zimmer said. "I think the coaches know when I have my bad days. But I'm doing the only thing I know how to do."
The man does know how to coach. In his second year as defensive coordinator, Zimmer has helped turn the Bengals' defense from an afterthought/laughingstock to one of the top units in the NFL. In spite of a rash of injuries that has cost them such defensive stars as Antwan Odom, Roy Williams, Chris Crocker and, most recently, Rey Maualuga, the Bengals rank fourth in the NFL in total defense. It's a huge part of the reason they have locked up the AFC North division title with a week to play, and people around the league are noticing the change in the way Cincinnati wins its games.
"They've changed their philosophy," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "They've brought in guys that are tough. When I was in Baltimore, we leaned on the fact that we were tougher than they were. You can't say that anymore. They've got some guys now that you would take into the bar with you and you'd feel comfortable in a bar fight. Before, I don't know that you'd have taken any of them with you."
That's the situation Mike Zimmer inherited at the start of 2008, when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis decided he'd had enough with finishing near the bottom of the league in defense every year and hired Zimmer to take it over. After ranking 27th in the NFL in 2007, the Cincinnati defense jumped to No. 12 in 2008. This year has taken it a step further. Zimmer credits the number and the caliber of talented players the Bengals brought in to make sure they had enough depth to get through a season, but he also thinks the mindset of the players Cincinnati has on defense is a big reason for the success.
"I actually think I came into a good situation," Zimmer said. "There were a good bunch of guys here that had been browbeaten for a long time, been cut, been told nobody wanted them. So they were able to use that as motivation, and when we started having a little bit of success, it kind of fed on itself."
Which was vital, because as the season went on the injuries piled up and the Bengal offense struggled to score points. Each week, it became more and more obvious that a team that once lit up the scoreboard with Carson Palmer at quarterback and Chad Johnson (now Chad Ochocinco) and T.J. Houshmanzadeh at receiver was going to have to win games with its defense if it was going to win games at all.
"The guys on our defense, they want to be counted on," Zimmer said. "For so long, this was an offensive club, and now I think they relish the idea of having more on their shoulders."
With the success has come plenty of attention. Zimmer, who was well regarded during his time as Dallas' defensive coordinator, is mentioned as a potential head coaching candidate as a result of his success and burgeoning reputation. He's received praise and accolades from around the league for his work with this year's Bengals. And he's heard all of that, but he doesn't think he's done anything remarkable.
"I expected it, to be honest with you, because I think I'm a good coach and I expected us to be at a certain level defensively," Zimmer said. "But it's not about me. It's about our players. It's about our coaches. It's about Marvin and the job he does getting everybody on this team to buy into what we're selling. It's about our whole organization collectively and that we all realize what we're trying to accomplish together."
That's also made it easier to deal with the injuries on defense. The loss of pass rusher Odom early in the year was tough. When Williams went down they got thinner in the secondary, leaning harder on starting cornerbacks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, who have performed brilliantly. But this latest loss, of rookie linebacker Maualuga, may be pushing the Bengal defense about as far as it can go.
"We've been hit a little harder than normal," Zimmer admits. "We're at a point right now where we're sort of doing some things we didn't want to do in terms of helping guys and scrambling a little bit. We're not the same team we were at the beginning of the year."
But this is the time of year when it's real easy to lock in and focus. The playoffs are around the corner. The Super Bowl dream is in sight. You can spend hours in the film room if that's what you need to block out anything that's going on in your life that you might not want to deal with at this point.
Zimmer is doing that, but he's not naive. He's been in regular touch with a friend who worked with the Cowboys as a therapist and has been advising him on what's to come as he continues to work through his grief. He knows that what's coming after the season ends is likely to be brutal. But all he can do right now is be a coach and a father, and that fills up pretty much all the time he has.
"I understand it's going to be harder, but I'm going to continue to try and stay busy," Zimmer said. "I've had people tell me, 'You're an inspiration,' and things like that, but I don't feel that way. My kids need me, my players need me to help them be better. I wish I could say I was some kind of martyr, but I'm really doing this for selfish reasons."
Three for the Road
NFL road teams went 6-10 last week and are just 102-138 for the year -- a winning percentage of .425. That doesn't stop me from picking three road teams I like each week, and last week was a solid one. I hit with the Panthers over the burnt-toast Giants and the Cowboys over the pack-it-in Redskins, and barely lost with the Ravens at Pittsburgh. (No, I didn't pick Tampa Bay to win in New Orleans. But have I mentioned that I picked the Cowboys to win there two weeks ago?)
Anyway, I'm up to what I think is a pretty respectable 14-13 since I started doing this, and I'll do it one more time even though it's tough this week because nobody knows who's going to play or how much for some of these teams that have their spots locked up. The three road teams I like this week are:
1. Patriots over Texans. Couple of things at work here. First, I don't believe Bill Belichick is the sort of man who will sit his players even with the division title sewn up. And second, don't the Texans always finish 8-8?
2. Jaguars over Browns. Because I feel completely certain that Mike Holmgren is going to fire Eric Mangini. And I find it hard to believe Mangini's going to finish his Browns' tenure on a four-game winning streak. Plus, I've been tough on the Jags. So even though I was right, I'll throw the plucky little overachievers a bone here.
3. Ravens over Raiders. I know, Oakland's been a beast against the AFC North, beating the Steelers and Bengals already this year. But I just feel like after spending this week on all these complicated AFC playoff scenarios, the Ravens and the Jets are going to make it all very simple by winning their games and claiming those last two spots.
It's Just a Fantasy -- Three guys I wish I had on my fantasy team this week:
1. Chris Johnson vs. Seattle. This is Sonic the Hedgehog's first appearance on this list, but only because he was on my fantasy team, and I was so grateful for it week in and week out that I cry a little just thinking about how much fun it was. Johnson needs 128 yards to get to 2,000 for the year, and the Titans have nothing to play for other than to make sure he gets it. "He'll get it," Jets fullback Tony Richardson told me Wednesday. "He can get that on two plays."
2. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Miami. The Steelers are still alive. You want to bet against this guy in a must-win game? Go ahead. I'll be right behind you. I promise.
3. Ray Rice vs. Oakland. The Raiders don't stop the run. The Ravens and Rice don't stop running. If Baltimore gets a lead, expect to see Rice a lot as the Ravens try to salt away that spot.
Staying home this week, as the big Sunday night Bengals-Jets matchup is being played 20 minutes from my New Jersey home. We'll all be on the road plenty in January, so I'll drop in and see if Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and the crew can finish off this opportunity the Colts handed them. The Bengals may hand them one as well, if the AFC North champs decide to rest some of their guys. Regardless, I'll always be able to tell people I was at the last game ever at Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium, so that'll be cool.