The Cincinnati Bengals have long struggled to put together a quality coaching staff. There are still question marks about their 2009 staff, but there is also reason for optimism, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
It all starts with the man at the top, and for the Bengals, that’s seventh-year head coach Marvin Lewis. The former defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens (1996-2001) and Washington Redskins (2002) has a career record of 46-49-1 with the Bengals.
Lewis became a hot commodity after helping lead the defensive-minded Ravens to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. He had several interviews for head coaching positions—including in 2002 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who chose Jon Gruden instead—before landing the job with the Bengals in 2003.
Lewis, 50, has experienced a roller coaster career in Cincinnati up to this point. He was considered a savior by fans early in his tenure when he immediately helped turn the Bengals from laughing stock into contender. His best season came in his third year, when Cincinnati finished the 2005 regular season 11-5 and won the AFC North championship.
Since then, it’s been steadily downhill for the Bengals, who had their first losing season of the Lewis era in 2008 at 4-11-1. In fact, many believe he is on the proverbial hot seat entering the ’09 season. The Bengals cannot suffer another embarrassing season under Lewis’ watch or it could be his last in Cincinnati.
However, when analyzing the job he’s done overall, Lewis has been solid with the Bengals. It cannot be forgotten that he inherited a mess when he was hired. Lewis is certainly not in the upper-echelon of NFL head coaches, but he’s also not a liability.
Bratkowski returns as offensive coordinator
Ninth-year OC Bob Bratkowski has been in his current role with the Bengals longer than Lewis has been in town. Bratkowski was Dick LeBeau’s OC for two years in Cincinnati (2001-02) and was retained when Lewis was hired.
Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, Bratkowski—who is the son of former NFL quarterback Zeke Bratkowski—was the WR coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers (1999-2000) and was the OC of the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98).
Bratkowski, 53, was lauded early in his career with the Bengals for being somewhat of an offensive guru. Whether the quarterback was Jon Kitna or the current gunslinger, Carson Palmer, Bratkowski usually had the Bengals among the NFL leaders in offensive production.
Their best season under his direction was the playoff year of 2005 when they ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense (358.1 yards per game). They backed that up with a No. 8 total offense ranking the following season (341.4 yards per game).
However, the Bengals hit rock bottom in 2008 when they ranked 32nd (last) in the NFL in total offense (245.4 yards per game). Yes, much of that can be blamed on the loss of Palmer for the majority of the season with an elbow injury, but Bratkowski also received a lot of criticism for being predictable with his play calling.
Many followers of the team were mildly surprised that the Bengals retained Bratkowski following last season. However, due to all the injuries (in addition to Palmer, the offensive line was banged up), the team decided to give him another shot.
Alexander Leads O-line
Paul Alexander is entering his 16th season as an assistant coach for the Bengals, including the last 15 as offensive line coach (he was tight ends coach in 1994). Alexander has also held the title of assistant head coach since 2003.
Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, Alexander served as the New York Jets’ TE coach for two years (1992-93).
Alexander, 49, is a serviceable coach and the Bengals usually give him plenty of talent to work with via the draft. In 2009, Cincinnati selected OT Andre Smith with the No. 6 overall pick and also took center Jonathan Luigs in the fourth round.
Starting LG Andrew Whitworth was a second-round pick in 2006 and the possible starter at LT—Anthony Collins—was a fourth-rounder in 2008.
The Bengals’ offensive line is young and Alexander’s coaching acumen will be put to the test this season. He’s never been considered a great coach by Cincinnati fans, but is obviously well-respected by the organization since he’s been around for so long and earned the assistant head coach distinction.
Wide Receivers in Sheppard’s Hands
Mike Sheppard, a coach with experience as an NFL OC with three different franchises, enters his third season as the Bengals’ WR coach.
Sheppard, 57, was the OC of the San Diego Chargers (1997-98), Buffalo Bills (2001), and New Orleans Saints (2005). He was also a college head coach at Long Beach State (1984-86) and New Mexico (1987-91).
Sheppard has dealt with a lot of turmoil during his first two seasons in Cincinnati. When he arrived in 2007, everything was copacetic with Chad Ochocinco, who went by the surname of Johnson at the time. In fact, the Bengals were thought to have among the best tandems of wide receivers in the NFL with Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
However, by the end of the ’07 season, Ochocinco was demanding a trade. This reportedly had nothing to do with Sheppard (Ochocinco was upset with his contract, as well as what he perceived as Lewis using him as a “scapegoat”) but he certainly had a front row seat for it all.
Ochocinco’s request was never granted, and he’s still around. But Houshmandzadeh is not. He was signed as a free agent by the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, but the Bengals immediately addressed the void he left behind by signing Laveranues Coles.
Sheppard certainly has his work cut out for him this season. First and foremost, he has to try and keep Ochocinco in line and get him to mesh with Coles. Also, the Bengals have a pair of second-year wide receivers in Jerome Simpson (second-round pick in 2008) and Andre Caldwell (third-rounder in ’08) that they will be counting on to produce this season.
Zampese Leads the Quarterbacks
The Bengals’ seventh-year QB coach is Ken Zampese, son of longtime NFL assistant coach Ernie Zampese.
Ken Zampese, 41, is considered one of the rising stars of the coaching profession and has interviewed for a handful of OC positions during his time with the Bengals.
Kitna once said that Zampese was “the best quarterback coach” he’s ever had, and Palmer has also praised Zampese on several occasions.
Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, Zampese was the WR coach with the St. Louis Rams for two seasons (2001-02). He joined the Rams in 2000 as an offensive assistant. In 2002, in addition to being WR coach, he held the title of passing game coach.
The Bengals are in good shape with Zampese as their QB coach. In fact, they are fortunate they’ve been able to keep him around this long. He will likely be an NFL OC in the near future.
Anderson Is Longest-Tenured Coach in NFL
RB coach Jim Anderson enters his 26th season with the Bengals in 2009. Among active NFL coaches, Anderson has the most years with his team. He earned that distinction in 2007 when Pittsburgh Steelers’ running backs coach Dick Hoak retired after 35 years.
Anderson, 61, came to the Bengals in 1984 after 13 seasons as a college assistant coach. He has coached four Pro Bowl running backs during his tenure with Cincinnati (James Brooks, Harold Green, Corey Dillon, and Rudi Johnson).
In 2009, Anderson will get his first full year to work with Cedric Benson, who the Bengals signed off the street four games into the 2008 season. In fact, it looks like a complete overhaul at the running back position for the Bengals. They traded for former second-round pick Brian Leonard and selected Bernard Scott in the sixth round of the ’09 draft.
Hayes Directs Tight Ends
Jonathan Hayes is in his seventh season as the Bengals’ TE coach. He played 12 seasons in the NFL as a TE and was the Oklahoma Sooners’ TE coach and special teams coordinator from 1999-2002.
The TE have not been very productive during Hayes’ tenure. Not all of that can be blamed on him, as the talent hasn’t been great at the position in recent years. However, that could change in 2009. In addition to veterans Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht, Cincinnati adds third-round pick Chase Coffman this year.
Hayes, 46, has the talent to work with; it remains to be seen what he gets out of it.
Hayes’ older brother—Jay Hayes—coaches the Bengals’ defensive line.
Zimmer Leads Defensive Turnaround
DC Mike Zimmer’s approval rating could not be higher in Cincinnati right now.
Zimmer, 52, came to the Bengals in 2008 and immediately turned what had been a moribund group into the No. 12 total defense in the NFL. Cincinnati is used to finishing near the bottom of the league in defense, so 12th was quite a refreshing change for fans.
Zimmer uses a base 4-3 defense with the Bengals, but will switch to a 3-4 on occasion. He is an aggressive coach and is frankly the best DC the Bengals have had in quite some time.
D-line Looks to Shine under Hayes
The aforementioned Jay Hayes is Cincinnati’s defensive line coach, and he is entering his seventh season with the team.
Hayes, 49, broke into the NFL in 1999 as special teams coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After three seasons there, he moved on to be the special teams coach of the Minnesota Vikings for one season (2002).
He and Lewis were childhood friends in Western Pennsylvania, and the defensive line has struggled at times under his direction. Therefore, there have been some Bengals fans that have questioned whether Lewis has kept Hayes around just because of their friendship. (The same goes for Jonathan Hayes.)
However, truth be told, the Bengals haven’t had much talent up front in recent years. In 2009, they are expected to be better with defensive tackles Domata Peko, Pat Sims, and Tank Johnson, as well as ends Robert Geathers, Antwan Odom, Frostee Rucker, and Michael Johnson.
The Bengals look decent on the defensive line on paper; the question is whether Hayes will get the most out of them when the season rolls around.
FitzGerald Brings Intensity to Linebacker Corps
Jeff FitzGerald enters his second season as Cincinnati’s LB coach, and he was hand-picked by Zimmer soon after getting the job.
FitzGerald, 49, was the Baltimore Ravens’ LB coach from 2004-07, and he is a fiery coach that meshes very well with Zimmer’s aggressive style.
The Bengals’ LB are young, but talented. Their first-round draft pick in 2008 was outside LB Keith Rivers and he will be paired with ’09 second-round pick Rey Maualuga. Cincinnati does have one veteran in Dhani Jones, but the rest of the group has four years or less of experience.
The good news for Bengals fans is that FitzGerald usually finds a way to get the most out of his players, regardless of their experience level.
Coyle Guides the Secondary
Kevin Coyle enters his seventh season as the Bengals’ defensive backs coach and has been on the staff for a total of nine years (he was corner backs coach in 2001-02).
Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, Coyle, 53, was a college DC at Fresno State (1997-2000), Maryland (1994-96), Syracuse (1991-93), and Holy Cross (1986-90).
He is known for his ability to work well with young players and the Bengals have had plenty of them in the secondary in recent seasons. However, they are beginning to get older with acquisitions like strong safety Roy Williams, and it looks like Coyle will finally get a chance to coach somewhat of a veteran group.
He is a solid NFL coach and the Bengals’ front office has a lot of faith in him. Most teams choose to have a corner backs coach and a safeties coach (and Cincinnati used to do that as well), but Coyle handles both roles.
Special Teams Still Struggling
The Bengals’ special teams have been better under Darrin Simmons than they were prior to his arrival, but they are still average-at-best for NFL standards.
Simmons, 36, is an energetic coach and is entering his seventh season with Cincinnati. The struggles of the Bengals’ special teams have largely been due to the fact that the front office does not spend money on return specialists and special teams standouts in general. However, some of the blame has to go to Simmons as well.
The Bengals are still looking for reliable kickoff and punt returners, but have a good kicker in Shayne Graham and used a fifth-round pick in the 2009 draft on punter Kevin Huber.
Simmons had the Bengals’ special teams going in the right direction early in his tenure, but the group has tailed off the last two seasons in particular. The jury is still very much out on him as a coach at this level.
Simmons was the Carolina Panthers’ assistant special teams coach/assistant strength and conditioning coach from 1999-2002 and held the same position with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1998.
Overall, the Bengals have pieced together a solid, yet not spectacular, coaching staff.
Lewis looked like a gem the first three years, but now fans aren’t sure what to expect. Many followers of the team have also lost confidence in Bratkowski as an offensive play caller. Zimmer appears to be the star of the staff and the defense is in good hands with him.