The Cincinnati Bengals could be down one or both of their coordinators in a few days' or weeks' time, with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer both accepting interviews for multiple teams' head coaching vacancies.
So what has made Gruden and Zimmer so attractive? And which teams are vying for their services? Let's take a closer look.
The Contender: Jay Gruden
Teams Reportedly Interested: Tennessee, Detroit, Minnesota, Washington
Gruden, a four-time ArenaBowl MVP quarterback, spent much of his coaching career in the Arena ranks, but he was also the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator from 2002 until 2008 and has been with the Bengals since 2011.
Gruden's appeal stems from one thing: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Drafted in 2011 at Gruden's behest (team owner Mike Brown wanted Colin Kaepernick), Dalton has helped the Bengals reach the playoffs in each of his three seasons in the NFL.
His pass-heavy philosophy brought the Bengals from 20th in total offense in 2010 to ninth in 2013. Dalton has shown improvement in each year in the league, steadily increasing his passing yardage, touchdowns and yards per attempt under Gruden's tutelage.
Via TeamRankings.com. Gruden's tenure began in 2011.
That makes Gruden particularly ideal for the Lions, who have an established quarterback in Matthew Stafford who simply needs to be taken to the next level. For the Vikings and Titans, however, who don't have their quarterback situation sorted out, they'll need to allow Gruden to hand-pick his quarterback all while knowing he's the man who preferred Dalton over Kaepernick.
Because of his preference for Dalton over Kaepernick, Gruden may not be the right man to work with Robert Griffin III—unless his skill set is desired in order to teach Griffin how to better work from the pocket.
Gruden's system is West Coast style, involving vertical passing from an in-pocket quarterback. While Dalton is surprisingly mobile, rushing 61 times for 183 yards this season and having a career total seven rushing touchdowns, Gruden's ideal quarterback is a traditional one.
The run game isn't Gruden's specialty, but he managed to put together a good rushing attack in 2013, thanks to power runner BenJarvus Green-Ellis and speedy change-of-pace rookie Giovani Bernard. When it worked, it worked well—the Bengals had 10 games, including playoffs, with over 100 rushing yards this past season.
However, Gruden is often prone to giving up on the run. His traditional approach to running an offense dictates that the run game gets ramped down, even to nothing, when the Bengals have fallen behind. This is a problem when the run game is working well, as it did in the team's Wild Card playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers.
In the game, the Bengals averaged 4.5 yards per carry, with Green-Ellis averaging 5.3. The Bengals rushed 15 times in the first half and had a 10-7 lead at intermission. However, the Bengals quickly lost their lead in the second half and they opted to run the ball only 10 times.
Gruden still seems to be working out the finer points of running a two-tight end offense. The Bengals used their first-round draft pick in 2013 to take tight end Tyler Eifert to pair with Jermaine Gresham. However, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Eifert played only 681 offensive snaps on the season compared to 909 for Gresham.
He caught just 39 passes for 445 yards and two scores, while Gresham had 53 catches for 525 yards and five scores. Failing to get Eifert more involved in the Bengals passing offense this season was perhaps Gruden's biggest failing.
Because Gruden runs a more traditional, pass-first offense, Detroit seems to be the most ideal landing spot for his talents. He could also build a successful offense in his image in Minnesota or Tennessee, but that will depend on how much control he's given over personnel should he be offered either job.
Gruden is an often frustrating play-caller, however. Him moving on from Cincinnati could end up being of benefit to the Bengals and Dalton even more than Gruden could be for his new team. But what he did to develop Dalton makes a strong argument for why a team would want him as its new head coach.
The Contender: Mike Zimmer
Teams Reportedly Interested: Washington, Tennessee, Minnesota
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been contacted by Washington, Tennessee and Minnesota for their respective head coaching vacancies. Zimmer, who has been with the Bengals since 2008, is known for his brash style and his ability to turn marginal talents into household names. Any team who is looking for a disciplinarian to run the ship could certainly find its man in Zimmer.
Zimmer has been coaching since 1979, beginning first at the college level with the University of Missouri. He made his NFL debut in 1994 as the Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2000. He then spent the 2007 season as the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator before coming to Cincinnati.
Prior to Zimmer's arrival, the Bengals defense ranked 27th in yards allowed, at 348.8, and 24th in points per game allowed, at 24.1. Both numbers improved after Zimmer's first season, with the Bengals rising to 12th in yards allowed and 19th in points per game. The defense has improved steadily under Zimmer; in 2013, it ended the year ranked fifth in points per game allowed and fourth in yards.
Zimmer's biggest strength is his ability to coax impressive defensive performances from seemingly marginal players. With team owner Mike Brown not one to spend lavishly on his own veterans or outside free agents, Zimmer had his work cut out for him. His guidance has helped turn players like Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Wallace Gilberry, Michael Johnson and others into some of the best at their respective positions.
Zimmer runs a 4-3 defense that relies on rotating players situationally. This can often mean players may not have the snap counts or the stats of a full-time starter, but it also often results in a successful defense. Zimmer knows how to maximize the strengths of his players and find ways to fit them into his game plan.
Indeed, there may be no better defensive coordinator in the league at spotting talent than Zimmer. That would certainly benefit all three teams that have lined up interviews with him.
Washington will need to rebuild its defense on a budget, especially considering it'll still be giving up draft picks for moving up to take Griffin in 2012. Tennessee needs a mind like Zimmer's to get its defense back to the dominant level it was in 2007 and 2008. The Vikings have often been on the cusp of having one of the league's best defenses; Zimmer could easily be the man to tip the scales in their favor.
With Washington needing the most help on defense, Zimmer would seem at first to be the best fit. However, his personality may not fit with that of team owner Dan Snyder, who is very hands on (to say the least). Tennessee feels like a good match for Zimmer's talents, but again, personnel control could be an issue.
The Vikings present such a challenge that Zimmer may not be able to pass it up if offered the job, but their issues on offense will require Zimmer to make the right call at offensive coordinator for his hypothetical tenure there to be successful.
For all that Gruden has done to improve Cincinnati's offense and help develop Dalton, Zimmer has been the most valuable of the team's coordinators. The Bengals weren't in the worst offensive shape when Gruden came on, but their defense was a mess before Zimmer came in six years ago.
Zimmer has had such sustained success that it makes sense he's in demand for three head coaching jobs. If he doesn't get hired this year, he'll again be a top candidate in the next. The only thing that could prevent him from getting one of these three jobs is how increasingly offensively-minded the NFL has become.