How the world has changed since the Bengals last journeyed to Carolina nearly eight years ago.
It was Dec. 8, 2002 as Bengaldom lurched into the last belches of the pre-Marvin Lewis era. There were a lot of things that prevented the Bengals from being NFL respectable and of the most fundamental was their haphazard approach to special teams when putting together their rosters and preparing for games.
Even before the Bengals arrived in Charlotte that season, they had already allowed a kick return, a punt return, and a blocked punt for touchdowns. The Panthers would apply the coup de grace in the person of Pro Bowl punt returner Steve Smith.
With the season shot on just one win, they wanted to see what they had in rookie Travis Dorsch, a fourth-round pick who had been a weapon at Purdue as the winner of the Ray Guy Award for top punter in the nation and a finalist for the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker.
Dorsch may have been an answer, but he couldn’t get active for a game until this one when he replaced Nick Harris as the punter and it was a disaster. Smith returned two line drives for touchdowns of 61 and 87 yards as the Panthers rolled to a 52-31 victory. At one point one of those gratuitous press box announcements floated through declaring that someone named Shayne Graham had just tied Carolina’s seven-year-old franchise record for extra points in a game with six.
Then 37 days later Lewis was hired and one of his first hires was a young, energetic special teams assistant that the league said had a bright future in Darrin Simmons, three month shy of 30. Simmons had a hand in the Smith carnage as the Panthers assistant and it didn’t take him long to show he could work on the fly.
When Neil Rackers was hurt in the ’03 preseason finale, he had the Bengals poised to grab Graham off the waiver wire in anticipation he would lose a camp derby to franchise icon John Kasay, recovered from a sports hernia.
Graham went on to become the most accurate kicker in Bengals history during seven seasons before leaving for free agency this past spring. His run symbolized the competency and consistency Simmons supplied to an area that had neither, particularly when it came to coverage and returns.
Of the longest 20 plays against the Bengals in history, only two are kick returns that have come under Simmons and the second one didn’t happen until 10 days ago in New England when rookie Brandon Tate popped a 97-yard kick return.
Six of the longest plays in history came on returns in the nine seasons before Simmons arrived.
Simmons returns to Carolina doing the same old stuff. He brings in the reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in kicker Mike Nugent, a guy pulled off the scrap heap in April. He nailed five field goals last Sunday for the Bengals’ only points in a huge 15-10 AFC North victory over Baltimore in his first Paul Brown Stadium game as a Bengal.
Maybe even more significant were his two touchbacks in the final 4:34 when the Ravens couldn’t even think about returning them even though they needed to get one desperately.
Nugent, a second-round pick of the Jets in 2005, dropped off the end of the world when he suffered a muscle injury early in his fourth season and now he’s back two years later. He credits Simmons tinkering with his technique as a major reason for his success.
“You’d have to call it ball placement,” Nugent said. “Or ball positioning. I used to have it the same way for kicks and kickoffs. I’ve changed how I do it for kicking and it’s given me more consistency.”
Simmons isn’t going to throw a parade just yet. He admires how Nugent has resurrected his career and how his flat-line demeanor is suited for the position.
“It’s what he’s supposed to do. That’s what we pay him to do. That’s what I expect,” Simmons said. “The guy is very solid. Very good to work with. What do you expect? He’s a high school quarterback. He was a good kicker before or else he wouldn’t be here. The foundation is already there and he’s had a good one since (Ohio State). We’ve refined some of his fundamentals and some of the smaller details to make him more consistent.”
His no-frills southern Ohio personality (Centerville) has made a hit in the locker room. The leaders of the offensive line, right guard Bobbie Williams and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, were looking to throw him into the cold tub right after the game.
“I can’t deal with that, so I ran away,” Nugent said. “When I heard them talking about it, I got out of the locker room as fast as I could.”
Whitworth is sorry he missed his shot, but he kind of likes Nugent’s philosophy.
“I think Nugent has the good strategy,” Whitworth said. “Being a special teams guy he gets his job done. Kickers and punters will tell you, they want to be those guys that put their team in position to win. People are usually getting talked about because they’re doing something wrong. It’s kind of like an offensive linemen, they know what it’s like to feel like us.
“Nuge is quiet. He does his job. He does what he’s supposed to do,” Whitworth said.”You cause a lot of attention when you don’t do well. It can cause problems. Special teams guys want to keep the focus. Great guy. Works his tail off. Somebody we believe in.”
Whitworth noticed the late touchbacks and he probably was thinking cold tub before those, but he said it added to Nugent’s day: “His first big day as Bengal…Got to be in the cold tub.”
How long ago is ’02? The great Steve Smith, now 31, is iced. His last punt return was ’08 and his last kick return came in ’06. Some things never change. Kasay is still the kicker. But Simmons still has butterflies with Smith out there.
“The fact that he’s playing against us anywhere makes me uncomfortable,” Simmons said. “Greatest competitor I’ve ever coached. Sometimes it got him in trouble, but it’s also what has made him such a great returner. And, you never know, maybe they’ll put him back there once.”
Believe Simmons when he says he let his players know, just in case, to keep an eye on No. 89.
It’s how they made special teams one of the foundations of Lewis’ effort to bury the days like the last trip to the Carolinas.
Tags: nugent, simmons, special teams
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