Jan. 22, 2008

The paradigm is beginning to shift at Paul Brown Stadium. The harsh frozen wasteland of last seasons has started to thaw while hope and encouragement drip slowly into the minds of Bengals’ fans.

All the parts are still the same, but Mike Zimmer , the new ringleader, brings a sense of seriousness and professionalism to our sideshow circus of a defense. Zimmer is a hard-nosed disciplinarian with a stern gaze that frightens women and children. He’s the opposite of the teddy bear, ‘players coach’ that Chuck Bresnahan was labeled. Hiring Zimmer is an indicator that the honeymoon is over in Cincinnati and that serious business in now in order.

Zimmer’s track record is impressive, having coached defenses in Dallas for 13 seasons and under the godfather of coaches, Bill Parcells, for three. He interviewed for head coaching positions with the Chargers last year and at the University of Nebraska the year before. He has led his defenses to seven top-10 rankings and was first in 2003. He’s drafted and developed players into pro-bowlers. He knows what it takes to be successful in the NFL and has no problem removing players who don’t buy into his system. In a word, he’s a hard-ass.

As Zimmer waves over the clown car and watches his new defense spill out one by one, his eagle eye will be fixed on what talent to keep. There are few, if any, pieces worth salvaging. This unit seems as if were removed from a civil war battle-field, with some players old and banged-up, others too young for war but forced into action anyway and some living with addiction and other difficult character flaws. The players who seem able-bodied enough, simply lack talent or the adequate mean-streak or both. The Bengals have lost their teeth and have been attacking with only their gums. Zimmer cracks the whip and the clowns scurry around the circus.

Zimmer has a new assistant in linebackers’ coach and human fireball, Jeff FitzGerald. He too eats nails and spits venom. He too has transformed college prospects into all-pro veterans. He has been leading the fierce linebacking corps in Baltimore for the last four seasons. They say he runs around a lot in practice and screams at everyone in sight. FitzGerald has a big jaw line and a menacing stare that seems to invite confrontation and difficult conditions. With Zimmer carrying the whip and FitzGerald yelling into the bullhorn, the next version of the Bengals defense will not be soft.

Logistically, the biggest question remains of what scheme will Zimmer and “Fitzy” run. We currently have a hodgepodge of defenders who at least line up in a 4-3 set every down. Yet, both new coaches ran successful 3-4 defenses at their previous jobs. If the Bengals think-tank wants to make the switch to a 3-4, we should see a reflection of that in how they draft college players and pursue free-agents. Some current Bengals like Robert Geathers, Frostee Rucker, Ahmad Brooks and Rashad Jeanty are the kind of prototypes often considered optimal fits for a 3-4 defense. But players like Justin Smith and Landon Johnson don’t fit into that mold and would be better off playing somewhere else.

Changes will be made to the facade of the defense this off-season, there’s no doubt of that. New attractions will be advertised as the first step to an improved product and the fans will respond with optimism. This happens every off-season, yet the outcome for the past five seasons has translated into the yearly disappointment we feel in our guts when we’re eliminated from the playoffs. “It isn’t fair,” we tell ourselves. “Why can’t they get it right?” we ask.

I say we let Zimmer and FitzGerald lock themselves in a room with the defense and see which players make it out alive. Allow the new tyrants to morph these cupcake softies into hardcore tackling machines via lough love and brute force. Make the switch to the 3-4 defense. Why not? The old blueprint wasn’t working and the new guys know what it takes to run the 3-4 effectively. Allow last season to remain buried in the glaciers of frustration and watch the new coaches turn our hometown circus into a military troop.

Zimmer, crack your whip.

Mojokong - Does not condone animal abuse at the circus or anywhere else

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