The inevitable has happened. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, beloved by Bengaldom in his seven years in Cincinnati, has left for a head coaching job. Early Wednesday, it was announced that Zimmer took the vacant gig in Minnesota to head up the ailing Vikings and that was essentially that.
Almost every fan seems to be happy for "Zim" and wish him well in his new endeavor. After all, the coach has literally waited almost a lifetime for the opportunity and he couldn't pass it up, given how much he has done to deserve it. Much like the situation with the offensive coordinator job, the Bengals felt that they had/have a capable replacement in former linebackers coach Paul Guenther. While that may be true, the outlook for 2014 seems a bit more shaky without Zimmer on staff for a variety of reasons.
The Lack of Coordinator Experience With Guenther:
The luxury that the Bengals had when Jay Gruden waltzed his way over to Washington D.C. for the Redskins' head coaching job was that they had a guy with coordinator experience in Hue Jackson already on staff. The promotion was a natural one and some even believe that it might bring an uptick in offensive performance, though that has to actually play out on the field before that conclusion is drawn.
This was not the case with Zimmer's departure. The team's brain trust obviously thinks highly of Guenther and his nine years as one of the team's assistant coach (two years strictly with the linebackers group) as enough of a resume to promote him. There are some good bullet points on his application that warrant some optimism, but the fact of the matter is that Guenther has never been a coordinator on the NFL level. It's a huge undertaking and brings much more responsibility, so he had better be up to the task.
Cincinnati's defensive players are saying the right things about Guenther's promotion and many are confident because of his tutelage under Zimmer, but that's all ideology at this point. The talent level remains high, but the proof will be in the 2014 pudding and how the unit can perform without the old salty captain at the helm.
The Michael Johnson Situation:
One of the more important players on the Bengals team over the past two or three seasons has been defensive end, Michael Johnson. Since the failed experiment of trying Johnson at outside linebacker in 2010, the long-armed beast from Georgia Tech has become one of the most well-rounded ends in the NFL. He has amassed 21 sacks the past three seasons and is a force on the line with his patented batted balls, as well as the occasional interception (one each in the past three seasons).
Johnson was working on the franchise tag this year, after he balked at a long-term contract that ultimately went to Carlos Dunlap. It's very likely that we have seen the last of Johnson in a Bengals uniform because of the payday he will likely receive. While it might not be as big as the one-year franchise number or even the Dunlap-like deal, he'll get paid somewhere. And it very well might be in Minnesota with Zimmer.
Why? Well, simply put, Zimmer loves Johnson. "I have a ton of respect for him," Zimmer said recently and followed it up with "he's very conscientious, he plays extremely hard". To say that that love is reciprocated would be a missve understatement. With Jared Allen getting up there in age and price, coupled with the Vikings looking to get younger, Johnson could be donning the purple and gold next season. While it's not devastating because the Bengals wouldn't face him often, it would still sting to lose one of your top free agents.
The Production From Reclamation Defensive Backs:
I shouldn't narrow this down to just the defensive backs, but that is where Zimmer's effect on re-tread players has seemed to have the biggest impact. Be it through trades that aren't often talked about, price-friendly free agent deals and/or draft picks, Zimmer has guys who were thought to be at the end of their NFL careers playing some darn good football.
Reggie Nelson, Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Taylor Mays and Chris Crocker have all had career renaissances to some degree in Cincinnati. When news broke about Zimmer's departure, four out of those five spoke up on the huge impact that "Zim" had on their respective careers. Probably the best example of this comes with Crocker and his ability to step into Zimmer's defense off of the street and contribute heavily. Seeing as how Crocker is in his mid-30s, one would also need to give credit to the defensive back himself, but Crocker has been waving the Zimmer parade flag ever since they worked together in Cincy.
What's more, four out of those five (Jones, Newman, Nelson and Crocker) have all signed at least one more free agent deal to stay in Cincinnati after their initial contracts were up. You can say that Marvin Lewis had a hand in that and there is some truth there, but it goes unquestioned that Zimmer's presence pushed them to come back.
Zimmer's Ability to Remove "Motor Issues":
If you want to step away from the secondary, think back to the team's two stints on HBO's "Hard Knocks". Remember Zimmer's interaction with Tank Johnson in 2009 and Devon Still in 2013? Johnson was a good player who fell from grace because of off-field issues and Zimmer got him to be a solid contributor for almost two years. Still, who has yet to realize his potential was criticized in the draft for having effort lapses in college. His ability and build weren't questioned, but the other issues made teams shy away and the Bengals received a first round talent in the second. After their pow-wow on "Hard Knocks", you could tell that Still received a major wake-up call.
This area also plays into the defensive backs category above, but there are many other examples. The trifecta of Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther have worked wonders with Vontaze Burfict. So much so, that Burfict led the league in tackles and made the Pro Bowl for 2013--the same could be said with Rey Maualuga and the improved play we saw from him this season. What about the two above-mentioned defensive ends in Johnson and Dunlap? Those were their knocks in college and have come in to be uber-productive under Zimmer.
While Guenther had a hand in some of those examples, will he be able to consistently provide the same tough love and accountability that Zimmer did? We'll see.