Even in an NFL season chock full of turnaround stories, the rise of the Cincinnati Bengals stands alone in its singular element of surprise. They quite rightly have been called the team no one saw coming, and their 6-2, first-place record at the season's midpoint is this year's most dramatic reminder of the NFL's enduring unpredictability.
But perhaps we should amend that to the team
"We played at Detroit in our first preseason game and we got thumped pretty good,'' said Zimmer on Wednesday, while preparing his Bengals defense for this week's AFC North showdown against visiting Pittsburgh (6-3). "We didn't cover good, we didn't rush good. But I went upstairs, where we had a meeting with the owner [Mike Brown] the next day, and I told him the same thing I had told the players. I said I don't know why I believe this, but I think we're going to be pretty good. I watch how these guys work. I watch how they study. I watch their chemistry together. I guess, fortunately, I was right. Sometimes you can get a feel on things, and these guys are pretty businesslike in what they try to do.''
The Bengals, riding their first five-game winning streak since their Super Bowl season of 1988, are such a remarkable aberration. Teams that start a rookie at quarterback (Andy Dalton) and rely on a rookie big-play receiver (A.J. Green) aren't supposed to go anywhere. They are to be seen, but not heard from in the standings with such youngsters at the forefront. Certainly not in a division with two established playoff perennials like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and coming off a summer in which a new offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden) lost the ability to install his program when the Bengals' offseason was wiped out by the league's labor issues.
But these Bengals are winning, they are relevant in the AFC playoff race, and they're not willing to wait their turn. The biggest reason for their success is the superb job Zimmer has done with a rebuilt Cincinnati defense. With six new opening-day starters, and seven players in new spots, the Bengals defense has steadily opened eyes as this season has unfolded. Cincinnati doesn't have much in the way of true star power defensively, but Zimmer's unheralded unit has blended so well together and now ranks in the league's top 10 in the four major categories: 4th in points allowed (17.5 per game), 4th in yards allowed (301.2), 10th in passing yards (216.8), and 2nd in rushing yards (84.5).
Not bad when you consider the Bengals defense seemed hopelessly weakened when it lost arguably its best player in free agency in late July, with Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph signing with Houston. That high-profile and late-date subtraction even prompted Zimmer to throw up his hands in frustration, bemoaning the degree of difficulty it added to his task of coordinating a Cincinnati defense that slipped to 15th overall in 2010, amidst a rash of injuries.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Bengals' demise. Cincinnati didn't fall apart. Instead, it has prospered, coaxing 11-year veteran cornerback Nate Clements to town as Joseph's replacement, and getting solid, play-making contributions from newcomers like ex-49er Manny Lawson and ex-Raider Thomas Howard (the club's two starters at outside linebacker). In addition, Zimmer has revived the flagging career fortunes of free safety Reggie Nelson, gotten quality snaps from second-year defensive tackle Geno Atkins and furthered the development of defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.
Clements caused a key fourth-quarter fumble and recovered it in the Bengals' 24-17 comeback win at Tennessee last Sunday, which was Cincinnati's fourth road win of the year already (it had one last year in the course of a 4-12, last-place finish). The Bengals have allowed more than 20 points in only one game this season -- a 24-22 Week 2 loss at Denver -- and they have finally stoked the excitement level of their loss-weary fans, selling out Sunday's game against the second-place Steelers and ending a streak of seven consecutive home blackouts.
"I guess sometimes with bad things, good things happen,'' said Zimmer, reflecting on the loss of Joseph. "We ended up signing a couple other players, and the guys we added were good, solid guys. It helped a bit to add a Nate Clements, a Manny Lawson and a Thomas Howard. All these guys have bought in, and we really weren't that far removed from 2009, when we were one of the better defenses in the league. We still had some of those same pieces.''
Maybe, but more likely Zimmer again has managed to make the most of what he has to work with, getting good play out of players other teams gave up on, finding complementary role players who contribute, and blending the right mix of talent and chemistry to create a defense that has kept Cincinnati and its young quarterback in every game.
And now comes the Bengals' biggest back-to-back test yet. The Steelers come to Paul Brown Stadium smarting from Week 9's last-second loss at home to the arch-rival Ravens, and in Week 11, Cincinnati draws a trip to AFC North co-leading Baltimore. For a team that has heard the claims that its 6-2 record has been built on a soft first-half schedule -- Cincinnati has beaten just one team that currently has a winning record, Buffalo -- the Bengals know that facing the Steelers and Ravens a total of four times in their final eight games provides the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
"I don't think they worry at all about who's on the schedule,'' said Zimmer of his players. "We've played Pittsburgh good in my time here. The past two times we've gone to their place, they haven't scored an offensive touchdown against us. And we've played Baltimore good every time we've faced them [winning three of the past four meetings]. We typically play good defense, since I've been here anyway.
"The Steelers have more weapons this year than last year, but our guys like it when you know somebody well and you seem to match up pretty good. Our guys feel pretty good about themselves. We've got good guys, and they play well together. We're not one of these teams with players where you've got to make sure you block that one guy. But we've got guys who like to play, and when it's time to go play football, they really love doing it.''
Can the Bengals really run the gauntlet they face in the season's second half and make the playoffs out of the rugged AFC North? It still sounds like a long shot, but after seeing them mount their longest winning streak in 23 years -- four of the Bengals weren't even born yet when that last happened -- can anyone really know for sure how high the ceiling might be this year in Cincinnati? These Bengals hunger for a taste of the postseason, perhaps none more so than the soon-to-be-32-year-old Clements, who with the Bills and 49ers missed the playoffs in all 10 of his previous NFL seasons.
"I kind of had to recruit Nate a little bit to get him here,'' Zimmer said. "I remember, after we beat Buffalo [in Week 4], I grabbed him after the game and I gave him a hug and I said, 'I told you we're going to be good on defense. I told you when I recruited you this was going to be a good situation for you.' That was a big win for us. We came back, and we played good on defense that day, and we kicked the field goal to win it at the end. That helped instill a confidence that we can go out and get it done.''
If Zimmer and his defense keep getting it done this season in Cincinnati, it's going to represent one of his best coaching jobs ever, and there's no reason his name shouldn't be mentioned prominently as a strong head coaching candidate. Zimmer is well-respected within the game and has been crafting quality defenses for a long time in the league, working on the staffs of both Barry Switzer and Bill Parcells in Dallas (1994-2006), spending that one ill-fated season in Atlanta with Bobby Petrino in 2007 and joining Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati in 2008. Never a self-promoter, Zimmer, 55, said his dream of being an NFL head coach remains alive, but the quest grows a little more puzzling by the year.
"It's still alive, but sometimes you get frustrated over the course of time,'' said Zimmer, who has won a Super Bowl ring with the Cowboys, led a No. 1-ranked defense in Dallas (2003) and fielded numerous top 10 defenses over the years. "I go back and think about what they said about Tony Dungy and guys like that. You kind of wonder sometimes, like what else can I do? What does it take? You wonder why some guys get interviewed or get a job over you, but you just end up going with it, and still keep hoping for that opportunity to run your own team.
"All I can do is say, 'Here's what I've done, this is my track record, and this is my reputation as a coach.' I'm a coach who can get a good nucleus of guys and make them into a good team, I think. With this team, we probably have a little more talent than we did in 2009, but these guys are still kind of jelling a little bit, because we added so many new guys with this crew. But hopefully, if we continue to go from here, maybe by the end of the year I'll feel like this is the best thing I've done.''
Zimmer would richly deserve that sense of satisfaction regarding his work in 2011. After all, in Cincinnati this season, he might have been the only one who saw this coming.