Last year the Bengals knew that they would probably lose Michael Johnson to free agency at the end of the season. For several years, they’ve known there was a decent chance that Mike Zimmer would leave for a head coaching opportunity.
But when the players returned to Paul Brown Stadium last week to begin offseason workouts, they faced the stark reality that Johnson and Zimmer are gone.
“It was pretty sad,” said Carlos Dunlap. “Mike (Johnson) was my guy. We had a great thing going, but he got a great opportunity down in Tampa and couldn’t pass it up. It’s part of the business.
“And losing Zim is most definitely going to be different. It’s probably going to be quieter. Obviously Zim got a head coaching job which he’s worked hard for and was well-deserving of, but now (Coach Guenther) gets a great opportunity to step up and try to fill the role of the guy he coached with.”
In Johnson, Cincinnati is losing a defensive end who was productive and durable. ProFootballFocus.com ranked him 4th among NFL defense ends in 4-3 schemes last year. Fortunately, the loss comes at a position group where the Bengals have Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt, Devon Still, and Brandon Thompson waiting in the wings and Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers returning from injury.
“We’re going to miss Mike a lot, but it is part of the business,” said Geathers. “We figured it was probably going to happen after he got the (franchise) tag. We attack it by committee anyway. We have a good group of guys and really good depth so I’m pretty sure there’s going to be even more competition.”
“Geno Atkins is the best defensive lineman in the league and to get him back healthy will make our rotation second to none,” said Dunlap.
In Zimmer, Cincinnati is losing a coordinator that guided the Bengals’ defense to top 10 finishes in yards and points allowed in four of the past five seasons. But the players say they’re confident that former linebackers coach Paul Guenther is ready to take over.
“It’s definitely going to be weird,” said Still. “Zim was our defense and taught us basically everything that we know. But Paul studied under Zim and he’s a helluva coach himself. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like to be coached by him this year.”
“Experience is the only difference,” said Dunlap. “I feel like Paulie G. has been with Zim for so long that he knows his X’s and O’s. He just hasn’t been a defensive coordinator and being ‘the guy’ is different from being one of the guys.”
“He’s very confident and knows what he’s talking about,” said Gilberry. “They definitely passed the torch to the right guy.”
The changes in personnel haven’t changed the bottom line: To get back to the playoffs and finally get over the hump in the postseason.
“It’s a new year and you have to do it all over again,” said Geathers. “It doesn’t matter what we did last year or how it ended. It’s a new season and nobody cares what we did last season. Nobody cares that we were undefeated at home or none of that stuff. We have to start all over and get back to where we want go.”
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