Veteran coach Jim Haslett came to the Bengals as a position coach for one reason: They give him the best chance at a ring
CINCINNATI — A few months ago, Jim Haslett was weighing his options for the upcoming season. He had “a couple offers,” including at least one to serve as a defensive coordinator. But he was intrigued by the chance to be Marvin Lewis’s linebackers coach with the Bengals. Haslett talked it over with his wife, Beth.
“Which one has the best chance of winning?” she asked. “That’s what we need.”
Haslett told his wife Cincinnati offered the best chance to win.
“Well,” she said, “don’t worry about the money. Don’t worry about the place. Let’s go see if we win us some games. If we have a chance to win the Super Bowl, let’s go see if we can.”
Haslett had spent 18 seasons as a head coach or defensive coordinator in the NFL, and he has only made the playoffs three times. His last postseason win was in his first as a head coach, in 2000 with the Saints, before he knew what it was to be humbled as a coach.
The Bengals look like playoff contenders, but the Super Bowl is another thing entirely. Last season, they made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. But also for the sixth time in seven years, they failed to escape Wild-Card weekend, and last January’s loss came in spectacular fashion. Protecting a late lead, the Bengals lost a fumble then picked up two 15-yard penalties to move the Steelers, led by an injured Ben Roethlisberger, into range for the winning field goal in the final seconds.
Instead of making drastic changes, owner Mike Brown decided to bring back much of the team’s core on both sides of the ball and retain Lewis. The Bengals are banking that another year of continuity will matter come January.
“To win championships, you need to have good chemistry,” said Dre Kirkpatrick, one of the Bengals’ many young defenders, who has played all four of his NFL seasons in Cincinnati. “And when I look at this team, we have some great chemistry. We grew up together. I’ve been here five years and I look around and I’ve been blessed to be on the same defense. It’s so many of the same faces.”
One of the only major changes the Bengals made was hiring Haslett to coach one of the most talented positions on the team. Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, and free agent signee Karlos Dansby are all bona fide starters, and Vincent Rey, their super-sub, could start for most NFL teams. The only knock is that they—particularly, Burfict—need to play more under control. Burfict’s egregious helmet-to-helmet hit on Antonio Brown started the last-second collapse against Pittsburgh; he’ll serve a three-game suspension early in the year due to safety violations.
The Bengals have noticed an immediate difference with Haslett in charge. The coach texts his players, checking on them and their families. He cracks jokes to break up the monotony of position meetings. The way he speaks, the way he harps on specific techniques, players can tell he played the position himself. “He likes you one day and mother-eff’s you the next,” Maualuga said.
To build camaraderie off the field, Haslett took the linebackers bowling, to a steak dinner (he paid), and to go cycling at a 24-hour gym. At 60 years old, Haslett got on a bike, too.
“It was 50 minutes of straight ass-whuppin’ ” Maualuga said. “He’s getting old—he’s sitting on the chair; everyone else is standing up. We’re like, ‘C’mon coach, you’ve got to keep up!’ He finished it. He didn’t quit. He didn’t stop.”
Haslett comes off as a player’s coach, in the mold of Lewis. From the start, he admired how Lewis related to his players and knew what buttons to push, urging them to move on from the Steelers game. This is why the Bengals kept Lewis, and why Haslett signed on.
“[Owner Mike Brown] knew what Marvin did to turn the organization around,” Haslett said, referring to the Bengals’ 12 consecutive non-winning seasons before Lewis arrived. “Now, we’ve got to get over the hump. We’ve got to get in the playoffs and win a playoff game, obviously. But that’s the exciting part. When you have lofty goals and a chance to win the Super Bowl, those things are good. Most teams don’t have a chance. This team does.”
How will the Bengals respond if they’re in the playoffs again this year? “These guys understand, they let it go,” Haslett said. “They know they blew a great opportunity. Hopefully we get another opportunity. I promise it won’t happen again.”
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FIVE THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. Marvin Lewis loves sniper movies and using them as metaphors. During an interview, when asked about his team’s meltdown in the playoffs, Lewis referenced a movie clip he often shows in team meetings, a sniper meticulously picking off his targets, one by one. “All the energy, all the passion you have—a marksman is not sitting there shaking,” Lewis said. “A marksman is cool and calm because he’s prepared to do his job. And that’s what they are. They’re prepared to do a job, so be very calm and go about it the right way.”
Lewis couldn’t remember the movie, though, and neither could two players he asked in passing. It was something from years ago. “They don’t make movies like they used to,” he said.
Bengals LB tackling practice pic.twitter.com/dtjhCQH2B3— Tim Rohan (@TimRohan) August 10, 2016
2. Running back Giovani Bernard was knocked unconscious by Ryan Shazier during that Bengals-Steelers playoff game. He saw replays of the hit as he watched part of the game from the locker room. He forced himself to watch a replay of the game, too, to learn from it. “I just hate that damn game,” he said, gritting his teeth, but not for the reason you would expect. “I got hit; I was out for a little bit, took a quick nap. But that’s just part of football. It’s not, ‘Oh, he hit me wrong.’ It’s just the game didn’t come out in our [favor].”
3. Vincent Rey should do just fine filling in during Burfict’s three-game suspension. When Rey started the first six games last year, he tallied 57 tackles and an interception. Also, Rey said the coaches were emphasizing that the players focus on team goals over individual battles they may get into in the heat of a moment, and that seemed to resonate with him. “My goal is not to beat him,” he said, “my goal is to win the game. We’re practicing that now.”
4. The Bengals seem to understand what’s at stake if they fail in the playoffs like they did last year. Reputations and jobs could be at stake. But then Dre Kirkpatrick summed up last season’s meltdown this way: “Obviously it cost a lot of people a lot of money.”
5. A few days ago, the Bengals installed a new Ping-Pong table in the middle of their locker room, and, lately, it’s been the center of attention. Running back Rex Burkhead proved to be so good that he took on two of his teammates at once—while playing left-handed.
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