For most of the 60 years of his life, Jim Haslett has been in the game of football. Whether as a player, garnering Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro designations, or coaching at the college and pro ranks since 1988, the guy knows the sport intimately.
It's in his extensive resume and track record of success that had the Bengals calling him for their open linebackers coaching job this offseason. Haslett accepted, taking on a talented position group with the task of bringing a sense of redemption and discipline to the group.
And, as minicamp kicks off this week, it sounds as if the relationship between Haslett and his players has been going well through the spring. Whether it's taking the position group to dinner at Jeff Ruby's, bowling, or going to a spin class, both sides have acknowledged that communication has been strong in a short period of time.
"Other than the way he walks and the way he looks, man, he’s so into communicating with the players, seeing how everyone’s doing, asking how our weekend went," Rey Maualuga said via Bengals.com. "Everybody respects the hell out of him. Not to put down the other coaches I’ve had. It’s just that you understand a person more when they’ve actually gone through what you’re going through."
The "way he walks" joke Maualuga made was in Haslett's trademark limp formed from his playing days, helping to create a nickname of "Old School" among the group. And while Haslett is bringing the ferocity that old coaches always have engrained in their DNA, he has also learned to adapt to the modern game with film study and subtle tweaks to his coaching style.
Haslett actually had an opportunity for a defensive coordinator spot this offseason before agreeing to coach in Cincinnati. It was the overall talent on the Bengals' roster and what he believes are the high chances of a championship here that had him take a positional coach role with the Bengals.
"I just didn’t think they had the players," Haslett says of the coordinator job he eschewed for the opportunity with the Bengals. "I’ve done that too many times. The last two times I gambled in Washington and it didn’t work out and I gambled in St. Louis and it didn’t work out. It still comes down to this: there are still 11 guys on each side of the ball. Everybody can be masterminds and do what they want, but you only have 11 to do it. Over the years, everyone has done it."
Haslett admitted to his reputation of being a bit of a dirty player back in his own playing days, and true to his throwback nature, he might have a favorite player in the group he coaches. When asked about which NFL player reminds the veteran coach of himself when he was on the field over 35 years ago, he named Bengals linebacker, Vontaze Burfict.
"I understood what people were doing. I was big and I played with a mean streak. But I think," Haslett said with a smile to Geoff Hobson, "I was faster than him, though."
Both Burfict and Haslett have their stances of villainy with the Pittsburgh Steelers, too, further strengthening their blossoming relationship. While Burfict is a great player, part of Haslett's job in 2016 is to rein in Burfict's sometimes-reckless play.
"He’s really smart, really instinctive. I think that gets him into trouble at times," Haslett says. "He’s an active player. He understands the game. He loves the game. I think what gets him in trouble is he sees the game too fast at times. He reacts to things that he thinks he can get away with sometimes but that he’s not going to get away with nowadays."
Even with Burfict's three-game suspension to start off the season, the group and entire defense looks as if it's going to dominant once again in 2016. While Burfict and Maualuga reported to OTAs overweight, Haslett still seems to have both control and a good relationship with the players in the group. We'll see if the high-profile hiring of Haslett ends up paying dividends on the field this year--what he does with Burfict will be a big part of the equation.