Mike Zimmer waited a long time to become and NFL head coach, and the Cincinnati Bengals wasted little time in naming his replacement.
An NFL assistant for 20 seasons, including the last six as Bengals defensive coordinator, Zimmer agreed to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday, six days after offensive coordinator Jay Gruden became the head coach of the Washington Redskins.
Despite being the first team in eight years to lose both coordinators to head coach openings and first in 16 years to lose both while retaining its head coach, the Bengals are banking that continuity, not change, will be a major theme heading into 2014.
The team wasted little time naming running backs coach Hue Jackson as its new offensive coordinator last week, doing so before Gruden had even finished his introductory press conference in Washington. And in a similarly swift — albeit not yet official — move, the Bengals have decided to promote linebackers coach Paul Guenther as Zimmer’s replacement.
The 42-year-old Guenther will be entering his 10th season on the Bengals staff, working as an assistant on special teams as well as with the linebackers and defensive backs. He was promoted to linebackers coach in 2012 and helped Zimmer mold the Bengals into a top-tier defensive unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in 2012 and third this past season.
“I like working with Zim because he’s so aggressive and likes to be on the cutting edge,” Guenther said prior to the 2013 season. “It’s important to understand the whole concept. What kind of routes they are running against the pressures? What are the protections schemes against the pressures we run? Get the players to understand the big picture.”
Guenther coached 11 seasons in the college ranks, including four as head coach at his alma mater of Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, before breaking into the professional ranks with the Washington Redskins and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis in 2002.
After taking over as Bengals head coach in 2003, Lewis brought Guenther on board in 2005.
Two weeks into his first season as linebackers coach in 2012, Guenther faced a challenge when starting weak-side linebacker Thomas Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury. Using chairs to represent offensive and defensive players, Guenther gave undrafted rookie middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict a crash course in playing outside backer in the team gymnasium.
Burfict started the final 15 games of the regular season in 2012 and, under Guenther’s guidance, developed into the leading tackler and a Pro Bowl starter this past season.
The Bengals ranked in the top 10 of NFL defenses in four of Zimmer’s six seasons, and they finished in the top five twice.
Known as a no-nonsense disciplinarian with an unfiltered vocabulary, Zimmer also had a caring side that endeared him to his players, many of whom had more than just a coach-player relationship with the man..
When news broke Wednesday that Zimmer was headed to Minnesota, Bengals safety George Iloka summed up his emotions in two words on Twitter:
“Bitter sweet,” Iloka wrote.
Added cornerback Adam Jones, who often spoke fondly of Zimmer as a father figure who helped revive his career: “I told you’ll Zimm would be the Head Coach , that was a good move for the Vikings congrats to coach !!!”
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap took a more humorous, wishful-thinking type of approach, tweeting “@ESPN yet to report Mike Zimmer to be Franchise Tagged By Bengals Defensive Players lol Jp. Happy for Zim.”
With the departure of Zimmer and Gruden, the Bengals become the first team since the 2006 San Diego Chargers to lose both coordinators to head coach openings. San Diego later fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer over a disagreement in hiring replacements for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who took over as Miami head coach, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (Dallas).
The last time a team lost both coordinators to head coach openings while retaining its head coach was 1998 in Jacksonsville. Jaguars offensive coordiantor Chris Palmer went to Cleveland, and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron left for Chicago.
Zimmer is expected to be introduced in Minnesota today or Friday, at which time the Bengals will officially promote Guenther.