Last season was difficult for Darrin Simmons. Difficult in the way that there wasn't enough rubbing of the forehead, scratching of the noggin or banging your head up against the wall to ease the frustration.
"It was the toughest season I've been through since I've been here," said the Bengals special teams coordinator. "We have a standard level of performance that we expect and we didn't get that, especially early in the year. When you don't live up to that you feel as if you've let the team down."
For all of the talk about the Bengals needing to improve their running game on offense or adjust quickly to the scheme of new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Simmons' area of expertise must also be more productive if the Bengals are going to challenge in the AFC North. The good thing for Simmons is that his units are in shape to do so as the Bengals head into training camp.
Ten of the top 11 tacklers from last season return this year, including leading tackler Herana-Daze Jones. Compare that to last season when three top special teams players were lost to free agency (Marcus Wilkins, Tony Stewart and Kevin Kaesviharn) and others were injured either before the season began, like Ethan Kilmer, or early in the season and provided little help the rest of the season.
Before the end of the season the Bengals had four linebackers, two safeties and kick returner Tab Perry on injured reserve.
"Last year we had a lot of guys hurt so we didn't start off well," said wide receiver Glenn Holt, who took over the kick returning duties from Perry. "We eventually came together but now a lot of people that are here were in the system last year so they know what's going on and they know what to expect."
The first three games, in particular, were disastrous.
*Baltimore's Ed Reed scored on a 63-yard punt return to give the Ravens a fourth-quarter lead.
*Cleveland kick returner Joshua Cribbs had 183 yards on five returns, including an 85-yarder that set up one touchdown. Cribbs had a 97-yard return called back due to a penalty.
*Seattle was set up its first offensive possession at the Cincinnati 24 when Josh Wilson returned the opening kickoff 72 yards. It took the Seahawks just three plays to score their first touchdown.
The Bengals were able to overcome Reed's touchdown to beat Baltimore but lost at Cleveland and Seattle, setting the tone for what turned out to be a disappointing 7-9 season.
By the end of the season the special teams had improved its play to a respectable level. After Reed's punt return the Bengals allowed just four more returns of 13 or more yards the rest of the season. The longest kickoff return allowed after the Seattle game was for 38 yards to Buffalo's Terrence McGee.
"I was proud of the fact that the guys we did bring in were able to solidify things and get us headed back the other way because it was going bad quickly," said Simmons. "These guys stuck together and played together, fighting for each other and that's always a good thing. I was very proud of the way they finished the year. Now that they've been together for a year I expect to pick it back up and move on forward."
Simmons spent the offseason workout sessions and minicamp getting back to the basics.
"He didn't yell as much and wasn't talking as much on the field this spring," said Holt. "I'm sure when it comes to training camp it will go back to being the old Darrin but right now he seems to be more on the teaching side and worrying about making sure everyone is learning their duties."
Covering kicks and blocking on returns is a much more coordinated effort than simply running down the field and picking out a player wearing the opposite colors.
"This group of guys is finally getting to work together for the first time in this part of the season and not just in season," said Simmons. "I hope we can keep them together because this group understands what we're trying to get done. This is a group of blue collar guys and that's what I want. These guys know where they are going to be and what they are going to do and I can live with that."
BENGALS TOP SPECIAL TEAMS TACKLERS 2008
Herana-Daze Jones 19
Corey Mays 15
John Busing 12
Blue Adams 11