Position coaches don't get much media attention. There's lots of talk about coordinators, but their underlings, the middle management of the football world, largely goes unnoticed. Yet it seems to me that these poor saps are vital to a team's success and failures, and, in the Bengals case, were greatly responsible for the turnaround of last year.
Take for instance secondary coach Kevin Coyle. This is a guy who has molded two first-round picks into Pro-Bowl caliber players. That might not seem all that impressive on the surface, as we tend to expect such things from first-round picks, but Coyle has also developed sixth-rounder Morgan Trent into a good third corner as well. Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall weren't automatic locks to become the players they are. Hall isn't the fastest guy, but makes it up with excellent technique; Joseph is the fastest guy, but has had to polish his technique. Coyle has brought along each in expert fashion.
Then there is linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald. If you have ever seen this man work in person then you know he is slightly nuts. This is the type of person that goes about mundane tasks like grocery shopping with fervor and aggression. He chews out the breakfast cereals for costing too much and praises the stock boy for his knee-bending skills, slapping him on the butt as he passes; it probably embarrasses his family. On the practice field, however, his amped-up approach to all things is welcomed and he is comfortable, and it shows.
Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga didn't quite explode into the superstars we had all hoped for, but they were solid overall and were huge in run support. Brandon Johnson made the most of his opportunities, especially in the Wild-Card game, and even Rashad Jeanty contributed nicely once Maualuga went down. The litmus test for Fitzgerald will be how Rivers, Maualuga and Johnson improve even more this year. Once Rey-Rey gets more of a handle on the nuances of the pros, and once Rivers gets a little angrier, these two can be wrecking balls that propel this defense into the ranks of the elite. With a human pit-bull like Jeff Fitzgerald in their proverbial shit-all training camp, I expect a surly bunch of linebackers to emerge from Georgetown, Kentucky this year.
One of my favorite position coaches is Paul Alexander. An offensive-line coach has perhaps the most pressure of all the position coaches from the outside world. When the secondary is getting beat, and the linebackers are missing tackles, fans tend to blame the coordinator. But when the quarterback is getting smeared almost every time he drops back to pass, fans cut right through play-caller and identify the real culprit behind the problem as the offensive-line coach. Yet when four undrafted linemen contributed heavily to an impressive showing all season long last year for the Bengals, there wasn't much praise raining down on Alexander. His job is to lead around a herd of elephants and show them how to be as nimble and fleet-of-foot as possible when working with so much girth. Not an easy job. But his guys are gritty, versatile and seemingly well-coached. Once he molds Andre Smith into the player he can become, the real fireworks will begin. That process should begin to show this season.
The last coach I feel is worth praising is Jim Anderson. No one other than Mike Brown himself (and that guy J.B.) has been with the Bengals longer. Anderson's coaching history is filled with bell-cows. First there was Corey Dillon; a taller back with a great combination of speed and power and an excellent stiff-arm. Then came Rudi Johnson, a surprise success who ran straight ahead and occasionally resembled a bowling ball. And now there is Cedric Benson, the total package who is determined to master this league before his huge upcoming payday.
With all the headliners, though, Anderson has also made the most of his backups. We saw early flashes of Bernard Scott's ability in 2009, demonstrating some sweet complimentary skills to those of Benson. Brian Leonard hard-nosed his way though some key plays last year too, and even Larry Johnson got the hang of things pretty quickly under Anderson. He also helped DeDe Dorsey develop his skills and become a potentially electrifying player.
Without these coaches, the Bengals would not be playoff contenders. There have been teams assembled in the past that have been big on talent but small on organization--the Washington Redskins come to mind---but last year's Cincinnati team was the opposite of that. By the end of the season, the lack of talent became impossible to hide and the team fell short; to even make it to such a stage with so many "average" players on the roster is a true testament to the men laboring on the practice fields and in the meeting rooms. This year, those same unsung heroes return with an upgrade in talent and high hopes throughout the city. So while Marvin Lewis, Mike Zimmer and Bob Bratkowski remain in the media spotlight, it will once again be their minions that will make or break the Bengal's season in 2010.
Mojokong--peaking under rocks.