Let's take a journey down a beaten road that will spark a collection of roller coaster emotions.
On January 14, 2003, the Cincinnati Bengals announced the hiring of their newest head coach, Marvin Lewis. Following a line of very unsuccessful runs by guys like Dave Shula, Bruce Coslett and Dick LeBeau -- which ended with a 2-14 season in 2002, an embarrassing 30-3 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on national television -- Lewis was tasked with restoring the team's defense, which lead the league in terrible. No, seriously. They were ranked as the league's worst defense.
In the five years between 2003 and 2007, the Bengals scoring defense broke the top-20 barrier once. In the five years between 2003 and 2007, the Bengals overall defense broke the top-20 barrier once. Why wasn't a Marvin Lewis coached team better defensively? Leslie Frazier and Chuck Bresnahan sported differing defensive philosophies, but it was Lewis that we expected to thank when the nasty defense generated a chorus of lethal collisions throughout Paul Brown Stadium.
Nothing struck. Talking points against Lewis was the lack of a Raven-like defense. In 2005, the Bengals hired Chuck Bresnahan to replace Leslie Frazier. During his first season as the team's defensive coordinator, Bresnahan led a defense that recorded a league-high 31 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles, which ranked sixth in the NFL. Funny thing about turnovers is that you can never depend on them. Bresnahan was eventually fired after the 2007 season after his defense ranked 28th, 30th and 27th respectively.
Two defensive coordinators in five seasons didn't bode well for any long term defensive development.
On January 15th, 2008, the Cincinnati Bengals announced that they hired their third defensive coordinator. Some guy named Mike Zimmer, relatively successful in Dallas with a one-year stay-over in Atlanta, came to Cincinnati with fire and brimstone. More importantly, he quickly gained the respect of his players; most notably Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, two of the team's most talented duos at any position on this defense.
His first year, when the Bengals kicked off the 2008 season with an eight-game losing streak with what would become the league's worst offense, the Bengals defense firmed up, recording a 12th overall showing when the season ended. Veterans. Roll players. Foundation players. Everyone had a roll to play. More importantly, they started showing attitude. The players took on the form of their defensive coordinator.
Within a year, the Bengals defense finished fourth overall with the league's sixth best scoring defense in 2009. This was the first time that the Bengals defense finished in the top ten in both scoring and overall defense since 1983.
Then the offseason came and the defensive coordinator that made the Bengals defense not only respectable, but the best combined unit on the team, was without contract. The team, rightfully so, believed Zimmer to be the top offseason priority. On January 11, 2010, it was reported that contract negotiations with Zimmer and the Bengals started. On January 12, 2010, it was reported that the Bengals signed Zimmer to a three-year contract. Have you ever seen the Bengals sign someone so quickly?
Mike Zimmer brought an edge to this defense; a defense that was a big reason that Cincinnati won the division and made the playoffs. And there's no reason to think that Zimmer's defense won't follow that up with the first back-to-back winning season since the 1981-1982 seasons.