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Senior NFL Columnist

D boss Zimmer gives Bengals edge, deserves head-coaching shot

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CINCINNATI -- There are a lot of reasons why a team -- any team -- should hire Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be their head coach this year, but Bengals veteran defensive tackle Domata Peko gave the best reason of all.

"He changed the culture around here," Peko said. "Before he came it was all about offense. It was Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. All the pretty stuff. Now it's about defense around here."

Zimmer's defense is the biggest reason the Bengals finished 10-6 and earned their second consecutive playoff berth, the first time that has happened in the history of the franchise. The Bengals, locked in as the sixth seed no matter what happened against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, went out and beat them 23-17 for good measure.

Now comes firing time in the NFL.

For Zimmer, it should be hiring time.

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Black Monday is a time for some coaching misery, but it's also a time for another man's opportunity.

"Yeah, I want the chance, but you hate to see guys get fired," Zimmer said.

I reminded him of the most-important rule of them all: What's good for me is good for me. Zimmer -- who is in his fifth season with the Bengals -- just laughed.

What should be good for him in 2013 is standing on the sideline coaching his team. This longtime defensive coordinator has coached the 3-4 style, the 4-3 style and along the way earned countless praise from players and coaches who worked with him.

"I don't want to sound like I am bragging, but I think I've been good at every coaching job I've had," Zimmer said. "I think I would be a good head coach too."

Zimmer's defense this season finished in the top 10, the second consecutive season for that, but the unit he trots out next week in the playoffs might be one of the best he's had. The Bengals defense got four more sacks against the Ravens to up the season total to 51. That is a franchise record.

What that shows is that the Bengals are aggressive just like the man who runs the defense.

"He will jump on you," Bengals safety Reggie Nelson said. "But he jumps on everybody. It doesn't matter who you are. We're all treated the same. He's an equal-opportunity ripper."

Zimmer comes across as a coach wound as tight as they come, a ball of energy ready to explode at any time. But away from the field, he is accessible, calm, relaxed and insightful. It's hard to believe it's the same guy.

"I'm doing OK here talking to you, right?" Zimmer said as we chatted in the Bengals' locker room Sunday.

He asked because of the talk he might not handle the media side of things. I say he will be just fine. And, anyway, when was the last time Bill Belichick won a game in that category?

Coaches are hired to coach. The rest of the stuff is gravy.

Zimmer doesn't or won't shy away from conflict. He is blunt and honest. There is talk that has turned off some owners in the four interviews he's been on already in his quest to be a head coach.

There was a Miami report that his candid ways turned off the Miami Dolphins when he interviewed last year. Some speculate his reputation and brashness might be hurting him.

If it is, that's stupidity.

The coach has to relate to the locker room and be good with Xs and Os and managing personalities.

Zimmer can do all that.

If an owner is looking for a coach to be his summer golfing buddy or to sit around and smoke cigars with at team functions, this isn't the guy. If you want a guy who has been dying to coach since he was a three-year-old on the sideline with his father, the high school coach, than Zimmer is your guy.

"I'm honest," Zimmer said about the talk that his style might hurt in interviews. "If they ask me something, I will tell them. I also think there's a reputation that people have about me after seeing us on Hard Knocks. They saw me cursing out guys and all that stuff. But I am not like that anywhere outside of in this locker room or in our rooms or on the field. I am never that way when I deal with people in the building."

I, for one, love candor. I want to hear it the way it is. Zimmer tells it that way.

So do the players. They want consistency and they want to be disciplined. Zimmer provides that. If you want someone to blow smoke up your players' behinds, hire someone else.

"Oh, he gets on us," Peko said. "But we respect him for that. It's not like he's being nasty or anything. He knows what to do. I'd go play for him anywhere."

Zimmer has been through a lot in his life. His wife suddenly passed away in 2009, leaving him a widower at the age of 53. He coached in a game four days later. If that isn't a man handling adversity, I don't know what else is.

"He handled himself so well through all that," Peko said. "He lost his wife. We were all there for him. That shows how much we respect the guy."

Zimmer seemed to get a little emotional when I asked him about it. He turned the direction of the conversation back toward his players, talking about how he brings in guys that others might not want to help mold them into one.

Guys like Pacman Jones, who has had a good year as a cover corner when some thought his career could be in jeopardy. Or Terence Newman, a player he had in Dallas, making an impact in the secondary after some in Dallas thought he was done.

"I guess I have a thing for the fringe guys and we kind of grow together," Zimmer said.

His "Z-fense" will be on full display next week in the playoffs. But no matter what happens, some smart owner out there should scoop this coach up and give him a chance. If Buffalo were to make a change, Zimmer would be the perfect guy with the talent they have on defense.

If he can help change the culture in Cincinnati, he can help change a loser into a winner.

All he needs is a chance.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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