Houston, TX, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis watches from the sideline during the first quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
CINCINNATI — The dance took long enough but Mike Zimmer is finally going to be a head coach in the NFL.
Consequently, the Bengals are replacing one of their coordinator positions for the second time in two weeks. Just as they did in replacing Jay Gruden with Hue Jackson as their offensive coordinator, the Bengals are moving swiftly and staying in-house to replace Zimmer, their defensive coordinator for the past six seasons.
Zimmer has been hired by Minnesota, according to multiple reports. The Vikings have not officially announced the hire; hence, the Bengals have not made any official statement on the search for his possible replacement but all signs are pointing to the promotion of linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
Minnesota had Zimmer and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles as its top candidates and showed interest in a few other potential candidates, including Jay Gruden before the former Cincinnati offensive coordinator was hired by Washington last week. Zimmer had his second interview with Minnesota on Tuesday, stayed overnight in the Twin Cities and finalized the deal on Wednesday according to reports that included Fox Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer.
The Bengals were ranked in the top 15 of NFL defenses all six seasons under Zimmer’s guidance, including finishing No. 3 overall this past season. He has been an NFL assistant the past 20 seasons, including being a defensive coordinator the past 14 seasons with Dallas, Atlanta and the Bengals.
Guenther has made a rapid ascent up the Bengals’ coaching ranks. He joined the organization in 2005 as an assistant in multiple areas, from special teams to defensive backs to linebackers. He was named linebackers coach in 2012, replacing Jeff FitzGerald, and has been instrumental in the development of Vontaze Burfict, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth this season, as well as helping Rey Maualuga have his best season and fitting James Harrison into the defensive scheme.
Only three of the 11 players in the Bengals’ linebackers room at the end of the season — including those on injured reserve and on the practice squad — entered the NFL as a draft pick. Even when he wasn’t running the linebackers room, Guenther helped in the development of players like Vinny Rey and Dan Skuta (now with San Francisco).
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, without saying Guenther would be his top choice, said last week during a press conference introducing Jackson that continuity in any offensive or defensive scheme was a priority for him. Even if Guenther were to have left — his name was linked to coordinator positions in Washington and Minnesota because of his relationship with Gruden and Zimmer — and someone from outside the current staff were to be the new defensive coordinator, the Bengals’ plan has been to stay with the scheme Zimmer has implemented during his time in Cincinnati.
"I don’t want to go backward with that," said Lewis last week. "I want to continue that just like we would if — I love Mike Zimmer to death, but if we have to make a change, we’ll do the same thing defensively. It’s easier for one or two of us to come in and learn something new than to have 35-40 guys have to learn it new. It’s not broke, so let’s continue to tinker with it and get it better. Let’s mend it and get it better."
The Bengals have been a predominant 4-3 team in their base defense, with the defensive line being the foundation of the unit. Tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap were signed to long-term extensions last offseason, while Domata Peko, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers are also under contract and they’ve added Brandon Thompson, Devon Still and Margus Hunt in the draft the last two years. Chances are the Bengals will lose end Michael Johnson as a free agent this offseason. Johnson played under the franchise tag this past season. It’s unlikely they would tag him again or be able to afford what Johnson can garner on the open market as they look to extend the contracts of wide receiver A.J. Green and Burfict among others.
Johnson is one of five defensive players eligible to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Rey is eligible for restricted free agency. Burfict still has another year left on his deal and would only be a restricted free agent after the 2014 season but has significantly outplayed his contract, making him a viable target for an extension.