Replacing coordinators has become a common practice for the Bengals in recent years. It’s a good sign, because guys like Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer, and Hue Jackson have all needed to be replaced due to their success landing them better jobs, showing just how lucky the Bengals have been to have them on staff in recent years.
Ideally, you would like to not have to replace coordinators every year, especially when they’re doing a good job, but when you do, it's ideal to at least keep the same general philosophy going, when it's working.
That’s exactly what Marvin Lewis was looking to do when Hue Jackson left town to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and the team needed its third new coordinator in three years. There was a long list of highly qualified ex-head coaches and up and coming assistant coaches from other teams that would have been very good choices for the job. But, instead, Lewis decided to go with someone who is already part of the system and knows the players.
"He’s the guy who knows the quarterback better than anybody, the guy the offense is built around." Lewis told Albert Breer of the MMQB. "Obviously, the offensive playcaller is able to put his own spin on things, and put his own direction on it."
Typically, the ‘Bengal way’ for most personnel decisions is to reward promising players and coaches with a new contract or a promotion. That’s the way that the Brown family has done things and it doesn’t look to be a philosophy that's stopping any time soon. But, a major exception to the rule was the hiring of former Ravens’ defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to be the team’s new head coach in 2003.
Lewis originally filled his staff with outsiders (not following the Bengal-way) but has since been loyal to a fault. On the defensive side of the ball, Lewis began his tenure in 2003 by bringing in a bright young defensive backs coach from the Eagles by the name of Leslie Frazier to replace Mark Duffner as the defensive coordinator. Despite some success, Frazier didn’t last long due to a rift between he and Lewis. The Bengals promoted their defensive assistant and former Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan to the vacant spot. But, he had only been with the team for less than a year at that point. He was fired after the 2007 season and the Bengals brought in former Cowboys and Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to take over. It wasn’t until Zimmer left to be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 that the Bengals promoted a guy who has been with the team for a long time (2005), Paul Guenther, to the position.
On the offensive side of the ball, Lewis did begin things by retaining offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. But, when Bratkowski was fired after an abysmal 2010 season, Lewis tapped former Florida Tuskers head coach, Jay Gruden. He moved on to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins in 2014 and the Bengals hired former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson who had previously been with the team. Like Guenther, Jackson was an in-house promotion for the Bengals. But, unlike Guenther, Jackson had only been with the Bengals for a couple of years before his promotion. Although Jackson did show Lewis how successful an inside hire could be, it wasn’t until he hired long time quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese this offseason that Lewis picked a true insider to be his offensive coordinator.
"I didn’t want to start over again, where we’re teaching a new coach, or teaching a new offense," Lewis said. "Hue was here as part of the offense when he became the coordinator so the transition was fairly smooth. This will be a smooth transition in terms of nomenclature and verbiage, which is important for our players to not have to take a step sideways. That way, we can continue to forge forward."
You would be hard pressed to find a more deserving person for this promotion. Zampese has been toiling away, largely unnoticed, as the Bengals’ quarterbacks coach since coming to town with Lewis in 2003. Since then, he has helped mold the careers of notable quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, and A.J McCarron. He even helped get some impressive performances out of Jon Kitna before Palmer was ready to take over in 2004.
Before he was with the Bengals, he helped to coach the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ in St. Louis and has been coaching at the college and professional levels as far back as 1990. There should be no question that he has the kind of experience and direction to take the Bengals’ offense to new heights. There definitely doesn’t seem to be any question about that from the head coach.
"His expertise, his vision of the offense—any time you get an opportunity to put your hands on something you’ve been a part, you get a chance to push it in new directions," Lewis said.
And while it remains to be seen how Zampese will transform the Bengals' offense, a Bengals veteran texted Breer for the MMQB story that there’s "not much difference that I can see. Some of the words are different but the general philosophy seems to be the same." So, as the Bengals have been saying this offseason, there shouldn't be too much change for the offensive scheme this season.
"The gameplan is put together by everybody, and the direction of the football team and what we do that particular Sunday kind of gets mandated out of here and we move forward from there," Lewis said. "In Ken's case, he's been here, he's been a part of it."