The Minnesota Vikings will name Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as their next head coach, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter broke Wednesday morning. Ian Rapoport with the NFL Network and Jay Glazer with Fox Sports have since confirmed the hiring.
It started to become a foregone conclusion that the Vikings would proceed with Zimmer after two of their favorites, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula was headed to the NFC Championship game against the Seattle Seahawks. Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was listed as a finalist, but no second interview was ever conducted.
Zimmer joined the Bengals in 2008 as the team's defensive coordinator. Virtually overnight, he converted a defense that ranked No. 27 or worse in four of the five seasons preceding Zimmer's arrival, into a defense that would go on to rank in the top-seven in four of the past five years, including 2013 where they ranked third in the NFL (and first in the AFC).
Why Zimmer is qualified as a head coach? Just watch as players praise Zimmer, not only as a coach, but as a mentor for many. Players want his love and they try to earn it by playing with ambition in the hopes of making their defensive coordinator proud. An inspiration that draws internal motivation is a powerful attribute.
As a defensive play-caller, Zimmer is aggressive. He's creative enough that losing lost multiple starters (Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Taylor Mays, Emmanuel Lamur, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman) didn't cause any degradation. In fact, his defense finished the season as the third-best in the NFL -- his personal best.
Who are the Bengals top candidates?
Paul Guenther: A veteran on Marvin Lewis' coaching staff, Guenther has been an assistant since 2005 working with special teams and linebackers before becoming the full-time linebackers coach in 2012.
He gained significant notoriety last year when Thomas Howard tore his ACL. Guenther worked with rookie Vontaze Burfict for two days prior to the next game against the Cleveland Browns. They would study in a gym when the team completed their sessions to prepare the undrafted rookie. Burfict led the Bengals in tackles last year and was awarded the Pro Bowl in 2013.
Guenther is also noted for helping develop undrafted free agent Emmanuel Lamur, who was projected as a starting linebacker this year before a season-ending shoulder injury wiped out his season. Much like he did with Burfict when Howard went down, Guenther spent day and night with Taylor Mays, converting him from a roster bubble at safety into a productive contributor as a hybrid linebacker.
Also consider that with Guenther, the Bengals won't have to change their philosophy, terminology and structure after spending the last six seasons under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. All the pieces and players are already in place and if Zimmer leaves, the Bengals essentially have an understudy replacing him, limiting the impact in that scenario.
Jim Schwartz: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Jim Schwartz have a special relationship. When Lewis was hired as Baltimore's defensive coordinator in 1996, he hired Schwartz to coach the outside linebackers. Schwartz was fired in Baltimore by head coach Brian Billick, who wanted to hire Mike Smith to replace him. Lewis, who calls his former protege "Jimmy" during virtually every interview when Schwartz is the subject, was instrumental in getting him another job.
"Jimmy was out a job and so I did the same thing with Jeff and Greg in order to convince them to give Jimmy an opportunity to interview with them in Tennessee," said Lewis. "And then later they thanked me."
Within two years, Schwartz was the defensive coordinator of a unit that ranked in the top-ten during his final two years in Tennessee before his eventual promotion to head coach in Detroit.
If you've ever worked in corporate America, or virtually any job in the country, you've probably experienced someone in management hiring a friend to help them out.
Make no mistake, Lewis and Schwartz are friends.
"When you work together like we did you spend a lot of time together," Lewis said in Oct. "When you come from the bottom like we did you really grind together. You really are that close.
"He’s got a great family. My wife and I and our kids know their family really well, but none of that matters once you get to Sunday," said Schwartz the week of the Bengals and Lions game.
One concern here though is that Guenther could take it personal for being overlooked (aka, Bill Walsh and Paul Brown... not that this is anywhere NEAR that). However, that's total speculation.
Knowing Lewis, who tends to stick with what he knows rather than adventuring out, it wouldn't be a shock if he tried helping out a friend in Schwartz.
However, not necessarily as a defensive coordinator.
Maybe the Bengals hire Schwartz, but stick with the likely promotion Guenther as the team's defensive coordinator if Zimmer leaves. The promotion leaves a vacancy for Schwartz as a linebackers coach -- considering that he's coached linebackers at in Baltimore ('96-98), Tennessee ('00) and in college at Colgate ('92) and Maryland ('89), it's not far removed from a possibility.
This gives Schwartz an opportunity to stay on defense and rebuild his defensive resume, eventually finding a home as a defensive coordinator -- maybe he stays and replaces Guenther if he leaves. Or maybe he leaves for a vacancy in the NFL the next year. There's always a plan.
It wouldn't be unlike Hue Jackson, who returned to Cincinnati as an assistant defensive backs coach, sliding into the running backs coach before becoming an offensive coordinator earlier this week.
However, this scenario seems the most unlikely. According to Jason La Canfora, two weeks ago, Schwartz was receiving some looks at defensive coordinator in Cleveland once their head coaching search gets squared away.