The story of this offseason thus far for the Bengals is how they've undergone the biggest coaching staff shakeup during the Marvin Lewis era.
Continuity and consistency have been two of Lewis' biggest themes during his tenure, which has helped pave the way for seven playoff berths under his watch, five coming in the last five seasons. That kind of success is rare, and having most of the same coaches year to year has helped that effort.
But a host of coaching departures this offseason left the Bengals with several vacancies, one of which being the linebackers coach. Instead of filling this with an in-house promotion or a lesser-known young coach on the rise, Lewis opted to hire a long-time veteran with experience as both a defensive coordinator and even a head coach.
It's not often you see a guy with Jim Haslett's background as a position coach, but that's exactly what the Bengals got when they hired him this offseason. A standout college linebacker at Indiana and NFL backer with the Bills and Jets, Haslett is the only person to be recognized as a College Football Hall of Famer (2001), AP NFL Coach of the Year (2000) and AP Defensive Rookie of the Year (1979).
After his playing days were over, Haslett went on to have many coaching stints at the college and NFL level, one of which saw him as the Steelers' defensive coordinator from 1997-99. Even though that was during the darker times in Bengals lore, there was still a heated rivalry between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at the time.
It's reached new heights in recent years, and Haslett is excited to jump into the middle of it, as he told Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson.
"It’s awesome," Haslett said. "If you can stay upright after the games you play in (the AFC North), this division beats itself up so much, if you can stay healthy you have a chance to win a Super Bowl because the team that stays the healthiest into the playoffs has a chance."
Though Haslett spent last year out of the NFL while consulting at Penn State, he still saw how fierce the Bengals vs Steelers rivalry became.
"I think it’s at its all-time high because of the way the game is played between the two and obviously there’s a dislike of each other," Haslett said. "I think it’s great for football. I think it’s great for TV. We have to play well against those types of teams and if you can win, stay healthy, you’ve got a chance."
One player who's helped make the rivalry so heated is Vontaze Burfict, whom Haslett admits has a target on his back because of his history.
"There’s a target on him or whatever you want to say," Haslett said. "People are watching him. If he just plays the game like he plays and doesn’t worry about the rest of it, he’ll be fine because he’s a heck of a player and he makes a lot of plays."
There's no question that Burfict is one of the game's best, and Haslett went as far as to say, "He’s in his own little deal right now because probably he and (Luke) Kuechly are two of the best in the league."
While many criticize the way Burfict now plays the game, Haslett thinks he can help the backer keep playing how he does and still play within the rules of the game. It's also great to hear what confidence and high praise Haslett has for Burfict.
"You can still play like that, but you have to watch the little things," Haslett said. "He should have been playing when I was playing. But like I said, the game changes all the time and he’ll be smart with it I’m sure. I’m excited to work with him. Hopefully, I can help him out in those areas."
There's really no question Burfict has the potential for greatness if he can learn to harness his abilities and play within the NFL's rules. Hopefully for him, Haslett can pass on his knowledge and wisdom to help Burfict take the next step in his career.