Cincinnati Bengals  

 

Paul Guenther, Hue Jackson taking torch for Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther opened his first training camp as an NFL coordinator by doing something he never does. The successor to Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati showed his defense another team's tape.

Once the players got through seeing 23 Seahawk snaps from Super Bowl XLVIII, the message needed no translation.

"Look, they played three or four different defenses in those 23 plays -- the whole time," Guenther said on Tuesday. "They ran to the ball, they were violent, they were fast. And Denver had a hard time. It was 22-0 after 23 plays. The first play was a safety. They intercepted the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. My point to the players: It isn't all about the call, and who's calling it. It's about you guys executing and how you guys play together."

Those are words to live by this summer in Cincinnati.

It's rare that an NFL team goes through simultaneous coordinator changes for any other reason than an en masse firing. But after Jay Gruden was poached by the Washington Redskins, and the Minnesota Vikings gave Mike Zimmer his head-coaching shot, Bengals boss Marvin Lewis was sent into a staff reset on the heels of a third straight playoff berth.

The good news is -- with expectations rising in Southwestern Ohio -- it wasn't hard for anyone to see this coming. Zimmer was long considered overdue for his own corner office, while Gruden's pedigree put him in the candidate pool from the time he landed with Lewis three years ago. The Bengals were ready, identifying Guenther and Kevin Coyle (who had spent 11 years as an assistant with the Bengals before leaving in 2012 to be the Dolphins' defensive coordinator) on defense, and Hue Jackson and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese on offense, as potential heirs.

But being ready to simultaneously replace both coordinators is one thing; actually pulling it off is another.

For his part, Lewis had seen how it's done. Two decades ago, he took the inclusive model Bill Cowher employed with assistants in Pittsburgh and applied it when he left the Steelers to become defensive coordinator in Baltimore, which helped a string of his Raven successors uphold a standard and, eventually, get head-coaching jobs of their own.

"All the coaches were gonna have a part and a role," Lewis said, in an emptied-out locker room Thursday. "And eventually, I was gonna have to make a decision on what we were gonna include and not include, and how it was gonna come off the sheet and be called. But it was inclusive that way. I know that's how we did it when I was in Baltimore.

"I know for Rex (Ryan), for Mike (Nolan), for Jimmy Schwartz, for Mike Smith and Jack (Del Rio) and those guys, we were always inclusive in what we were doing. And so hopefully that was helpful to them when they got opportunities."

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Normally, in these situations, the new coordinator is chasing a high standard, which is why the old coordinator got the opportunity to leave in the first place. During this particular training camp in Cincinnati, the focus has been on raising that bar -- and it starts with Jackson, a straightforward leader who took the Oakland Raiders' offensive ranking from 31st to 10th and doubled the team's point total upon getting the coordinator job there in 2010.

Jackson says the goal for his group is simple: "To be the best there is. I mean, we're not trying to be a number, we just want to be the winningest offense in football. And whatever it takes to be that, that's what we're gonna do."

While Guenther used the Seahawks' defense as a model, Jackson holds up Michael Jordan to his players as an example of a competitor who had to struggle through a process -- needing to find ways to get past the Celtics and Pistons and Lakers -- before winning a championship. And the roadmap Jackson's giving them to get there is grounded in fast-moving, honest, teeth-rattling practices that he hopes will produce more physical offense. It doesn't mean not throwing the ball. Rather, it's doing everything with an edge.

"Oh yeah, there's no question about that," Jackson said. "I don't think football should be played any other way. You can't play this game with a sweetheart approach. I just don't believe in that. I think our players understand that. It's been rough. It's been physical out here. But it's gotta be that way every day, because if it's not gonna be, then we're not gonna get to where we need to go. We need to be that kind of football team."

Just the same, on defense, there's purpose. The Bengals ranked seventh in 2011 on that side of the ball, sixth in 2012, and last year, despite losing its best player at midseason (Geno Atkins), the group rose to third.

So when Guenther shut that Seattle tape off, he made it clear to the guys where the goals should be.

"My expectation, like I told the defense, is to be the No. 1 defense in the NFL and go to the Super Bowl," Guenther said. "That's our expectation. Otherwise, what are we doing here? We have to get better. We have to be more efficient. We have to be better with our technique to get to those things. We have the players to do it. We just gotta go do it."

Guenther then repeats it: "No. 1 defense and go to the Super Bowl. That's it. First day." The reaction from his players? "They agreed."

Lewis does, too. He's set three goals for the Bengals each year: win the division, go undefeated at home and win the Super Bowl. Last year, for the first time in a quarter century, Cincinnati checked two of those three boxes. And while Lewis keeps telling his team those two goals have to come first, the Lombardi Trophy-adorned camp workout shirts his players are wearing show he's not shying away from talking about the third one.

That means not using changes as a crutch. And as Lewis sees it, change could bring benefits. Guenther turned down opportunities to join Gruden in D.C. and Zimmer in Minnesota to stay, because he felt like he had unfinished business with his players here, so now he'll put to work the handful of notebooks he kept as Zimmer's right-hand man. Jackson, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to build on all he learned as a coordinator and head coach in Oakland, before an ownership change short-circuited his work there.

On both sides of the ball, there's been tweaking. The changes haven't been wholesale -- the Bengals have won 30 games over the last three years, after all -- but the hope is new voices can help push a loaded group of young players to the next level. Lewis himself has seen it before.

"The expectations are very high," he said. "But sometimes it takes somebody to push you, urge you on, and let you know that you can do it. Hell, it was Brian Billick walking into our defensive meeting room in Baltimore, and telling those guys, 'If you keep playing the way you play, you'll win six games and we'll send six guys to the Pro Bowl. Or you can play 11 guys together and we can win 11 games, and maybe one of you go to the Pro Bowl.' Sometimes, it takes someone with a different voice to get that to sink in."

Lewis, of course, is referencing the 2000 Ravens in that anecdote.

Based on how that year ended, it's probably not a coincidence that's the story he chose to tell.

Three and out from Bengals camp:

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1) Much has been written about Andy Dalton's situation -- in regards to both his contract (he told me he's confident it gets resolved) and playoff record (0-3). So I asked Lewis whether he believes Dalton can lead a team to a championship. As you might expect, he was resolute: "No question. I feel Andy is the quarterback that can lead this team into the playoffs, through the playoffs, and win the ultimate game. When he does that, everyone will shut up. And that's what every quarterback has to do. Unfortunately. That's where they're held. They're held in such high regard, he's being compared to some guys who, as far as skill set and so forth, didn't have to do what he had to do, come in and play like he had to play, and play without an offseason, and all the things that occurred with him. But he's handled it very well. All he's done is continued to play better and better, and all he has to do is keep doing that."

2) One X-factor for the 2014 Bengals is the schedule. Among the quarterbacks on the docket: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Joe Flacco (twice) and Cam Newton. Guenther, for one, approached it head on with his group. He told them a story about going to wrestling tournaments when he was a kid. He explained: "You fill out the form, and they ask you what your record is, and they seed you 1 through 30 or whatever. You may be the third seed in a tournament, where you're wrestling the 27th-best guy. You go in, you pin the guy and you sit around on the bleachers all Saturday and Sunday waiting for a match. I told my dad, 'I don't want to do this, waste my whole weekend. Next time I come to a tournament, I'm gonna write down that I'm 0-21, so I can wrestle the best kid in the gym on the very first day. That way I know. If I can beat him, I can beat all the rest of these dudes.' That's what I told all these guys on defense. We want to play the best teams." The way he sees it, having to endure that road should make Cincy a tougher team in January.

3) With the emphasis on getting rougher on offense, the development of the offensive line will be important. Things came together last year when Anthony Collins took over at left tackle, kicking Andrew Whitworth to guard, where he became a road-grading force. Collins is gone to Tampa now, meaning Whitworth will be back at left tackle. And that means the Bengals have to replace his presence inside. Jackson and Co. are hoping to get it from former first-round pick Kevin Zeitler, who has shown big improvement at right guard. Right tackle Andre Smith, another former first-rounder, has also impressed. How this all plays out will be as important in developing the attitude Jackson wants as the tailback derby, between Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jeremy Hill. One other key weapon in Cincinnati's drive to become more physical? Mohamed Sanu, a versatile chess piece at receiver that the Bengals hope can be their version of Hines Ward.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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