Now that we know Marvin Lewis really will be stepping down as head coach following the 2017 NFL season, there is a measure of sadness that goes with his impending departure.
After all, it was Lewis who helped elevate the Bengals from a reputation as one of the worst teams in the National Football League to having one of the league’s best rosters year in and year out.
Although he has compiled an overall record of 123-111-3 so far during his 15-year reign as head coach, and has won four AFC North titles, he was never able to win a playoff game and became the only coach in NFL history to lose his first seven postseason games.
The Bengals are headed to their second straight non-winning season, and a loss in any of the last three games would doom Cincinnati to a second straight losing season for only the second time in Lewis’ career.
Now the questions becomes, who will take over? Internally, the list of candidates include Paul Guenther, who as defensive coordinator led his units to top-10 finishes in points allowed in 2015 and 2016. Cincinnati’s defense was at or near the top of the league throughout much of the first half of this season until being decimated by injuries. Even so, the Bengals still stand at No. 13 in scoring defense entering Week 15.
Another possibility would be linebackers coach Jim Haslett, who is the only member of the Bengals’ staff with prior head coaching experience. Haslett was head coach of the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League before taking over the head coaching duties for the New Orleans Saints, and later for the St. Louis Rams.
Haslett compiled an overall record of 45-51 with the Saints, and won the NFC West title in his first season with a record of 10-6. He took over as the interim head coach of the Rams four games into the 2008 season, and compiled a record of 2-10.
But one of the more intriguing candidates, and one who may have an inside track to the position, according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, is Cincinnati special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
Simmons’ units have recorded three top-10 finishes in the last five years in the special teams’ rankings produced annually by the Dallas Morning News.
But Simmons has probably faced some of the greatest challenges of his career this year, as injuries have devastated his unit and he’s continually have to plug and play.
Yet, the Bengals have still managed to hold their own among the top half of special teams units in the league. Cincinnati was rated No. 15 by Pro Football Focus after Week 13, and was pegged at No. 14 by Football Insiders after 14 weeks of the season. Clayton Fejedelem, who is now starting at safety for the Bengals, has the second-most solo special teams tackles in the league and has missed only one tackle as a coverage man.
Simmons is a former college punter, having earned All-Big Eight honors at the University of Kansas in 1995. He helped the Jayhawks earn a top-10 ranking and an Aloha Bowl victory over UCLA that year, and also was named Academic All-American.
Simmons began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Kansas in 1996, and went on to coach with the University of Minnesota the following season. His NFL coaching career began in Baltimore in 1998, where he was on the same staff as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. Simmons was assistant special teams coach and assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Ravens in 1998, and held that same position for the Carolina Panthers from 1999–2002.
Unlike Haslett, Simmons has no prior head coaching experience. And unlike Guenther, he has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator. Worse, there has been only one other primarily-special teams coach in the last two decades plus who made the leap to head coach.
John Harbaugh served as the special teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles for nine years and his units were consistently among the best in the league. But Harbaugh recognized that being primarily a special-team coordinator was a hindrance to becoming head coach, and took over Philadelphia’s defensive backs in 2007.
The next year, Harbaugh was hired as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and has led Baltimore to a record of 92-64 in the ensuing 10 years. Harbaugh’s Ravens have won the AFC North title on two occasions and have been to the playoffs six times, including in 2012 when the Ravens won their second Super Bowl.
With the exception of Harbaugh, special teams coaches rarely even get considered for head coaching positions. Despite the facts that special teams constitute approximately 22 percent of all plays in a typical NFL game, and that a special teams coach routinely works with the entire team, their coaches are routinely bypassed.
"They’re overlooked," Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio once said. "I think it has to do with some of the (media) hype. Nobody on the staff is as prepared to lead the team as the special-teams coordinator."
It was not always that way. Marv Levy, Dick Vermeil, Mike Ditka, Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick all began their careers as special teams coaches, and all went on to successful careers as head coaches in the NFL. Levy was the first full-time special teams coach in the history of the NFL.
"You got to work in every aspect coaching and evaluating offensive and defensive players," Levy said. "I got to work with just about every position."
"When you talk about the special-teams guy, he’s in front of the entire team," said Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians in 2015. "He’s not like a quarterback coach or coordinator who only has half the team. He’s got the entire team and in a very big setting as far as classroom work... They’re probably as adept at addressing a football team as anybody."
The Bengals are desperately in need of a head coach who is able to unify all areas of the team, and who is at least as knowledgeable of the offensive side of the ball as he is of the defensive side.
As a successful special teams coach, Simmons has the qualities the Bengals need. The only question now is whether he will get the opportunity to show it.
Would you like to see Darrin Simmons named as the Bengals’ next head coach?
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