Bill Lazor, the fifth OC under Marvin Lewis (Bob Bratkowski, Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson, Ken Zampese).
Bill Lazor, who coordinated a Dolphins offense in 2014 that had a 4,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher, is keeping Ken Zampese’s playbook and his own pledge to be balanced that he picked up from the notebooks of Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren, and Chip Kelly.
That’s a little bit of everything. Don Coryell. West Coast. Fast-break-21st-century.
On Friday Reeves, the old school coach who first brought Lazor to the NFL in 2003 in Atlanta, got the word in hurricane-strewn Georgia that Lazor is now the Bengals offensive coordinator and as the eighth-winningest coach of all-time, Reeves knows it had to be a tough day at Paul Brown Stadium.
“There’s so much loyalty on a staff,” Reeves said. “But they’ve got a good man who is going to help their offense. Bill has one of the best football minds I’ve ever been around. We hired him as quality control and he was so much more than that. You can’t reinvent the wheel (at this point in the season), but you’ve got make your players feel a part of it. Whatever you do, they have to feel this is for them and Bill does a good job of that.”
Lazor has already acknowledged there’ll be no wheel reinventing. Not with the Packers’ No. 5 defense looming at Lambeau in nine days. The ancillary elements beyond the Xs and Os, such as personnel, practice, and approach, are a work in progress.
“We’ll talk about the tomorrow and the coming days,” Lazor said. “With everybody on board, players and coaches, we’re trying to do this as quickly as possible shaping the culture and doing what our players do best.”
Early Friday afternoon Lazor suddenly found himself on the opposite pole from where he was two years ago when he was let go in Miami during the Joe Philbin purge that became the Dan Campbell purge after a late November loss. Zampese, the reason Lazor became the Bengals quarterbacks coach before the 2016 season, was out. Lazor was in.
“That’s a tough day in any building,” Lazor said. “Today, I’m really thinking more about Ken, having been through it from the other side and knowing how much he has put into this. I feel badly, and am trying to be humane about it.”
For the first time in 17 years the Bengals made a significant in-season coaching move Friday when Lewis relieved Zampese of his duties a mere 14 hours after Thursday night’s 13-9 loss to the Texans spawned a restless frustration in the locker room topped off by even the docile A.J. Green’s anger at his one target in the fourth quarter.
“We can live with Andy missing a throw here and there, but we have to be able to get our playmakers the ball in crunch time. That’s it. That’s what it comes down to,” Green said. “We’re not doing that.”
Where to begin, except how far quarterback Andy Dalton and his offense have fallen since that rollicking 10-2 start under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson in 2015 before Dalton broke his thumb.
Bill Lazor’s new job is a daunting challenge.
Remember? Dalton was an MVP candidate with career bests of a 106.3 passer rating, 66.1 completion percentage, 8.4 yards per attempt, and a career-low seven interceptions. Since the thumb the Bengals are 8-14-1 and Dalton is at 63.5 percent with 7.3 yards per attempt, 18 TDs in 18 games (12) picks for a passer rating of 87.14.
In the first two games of this season with all his weapons back, he’s completing 54 percent of his passes for barely six yards per attempt, the four Opening Day picks and that 47.2 passer rating, second worst in the league.
It has been a historically bad start. The three field goals are the fewest points scored in their first two games since Akili Smith’s 4-12 2000 Bengals scored seven points on 551 yards compared to this crew’s 516 yards. Enough said. The Colts and Seattle also have nine points, but they’ve played just one game. They are 0-for-6 in the red zone, where they were in the upper half of the league in ’15 before falling to 24th last year.
By this time in 2015 the Bengals had scored 57 points on the way to 419 the second most under Lewis. Last year they were at 39 points after two games, on their way to 325, the fewest in the Dalton-Green era, although without full seasons from Green and tight end Tyler Eifert.
So this is what Lazor has walked in to. But Lazor, a 12-year NFL veteran, has been around to see this movie plenty. “Frustrated superstar vents.” Not exactly news, but it is in Cincinnati, where Green once called himself out for having bad body language.
“I love that kid. Don’t you love his personality?” Lazor asked after he had expounded on Green’s right’s to spew.
“I’ve been around A.J. long enough to know what kind of professional he is. A lot of us are frustrated with the lack of production we’ve had so far. One of the important things is that we all share the burden of why that has been that way, “ Lazor said. “When we all honestly look at what has happened, what hasn’t happened, and what we can do to fix it, then we’ll work toward the fastest way possible to get it better. Usually with players, at some places players get a lot of input, some places they get little input. Some players get a lot and some players get a little in what’s happening. When guys earn the ability to have input, that’s probably the best way. I don’t think there’s anyone around here who doesn’t trust A.J.”
It had to be an extremely tough move to make for Lewis. Zampese is a member of Lewis’ original 2003 coaching staff and for all but the 18 games he served as coordinator he was the quarterbacks coach that managed franchise record performances for Dalton and Carson Palmer.
But Dalton is currently mired next-to-last in the NFL passer ratings at 47.5, ahead of only the Colts’ Scott Tolzien, the Bengals don’t have a touchdown, and Green showed his frustration after Thursday’s game while defending Dalton.
“I still don’t know what he said,” said Lazor a few hours after he told a conference call the same thing.
Fixing Andy Dalton is Job One.
In that full season with Miami in ’14, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill had career-highs in TDs, completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating.
Lewis made the announcement at a staff meeting early Friday afternoon after the players met in the morning and Lewis refused to discuss any potential moves in his 1 p.m. news conference. It was the first time Lewis has made such a major move during his 15 seasons here as a head coach, although he called the plays in place of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier during a 2004 game in Cleveland. The franchise’s last major in-season move was promoting defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to head coach in the wake of Bruce Coslet’s Sept. 25, 2000 resignation.
“Ken Zampese has done a tremendous job for us for my 15 years here, and I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach,” Lewis said in a news release. “But I feel it best for the football team to breathe new life into the offense, and that’s why I am making the change. Bill Lazor has great experience in the league and as a coordinator, and I feel Bill can progress our offense the way we need. We have a lot of talent on offense, and we need to keep working to take full advantage of the personnel we have.”
Lazor was Zampese’s hand-picked successor at quarterbacks coach when Zampese was elevated before the 2016 season in the wake of Jackson’s departure.
Lazor, 45, a Scranton, Pa., product and an All-Ivy League quarterback at Cornell, offered few clues on what he’ll change and wouldn’t even say if he’d call plays in the press box or the sidelines. He tried both one game each in Miami when unanimous voices as coaches and players felt he should be on the sideline.
One of the things that Green vented about after the game Thursday is the Baltimore and Houston defenses haven’t changed. They’re both playing what he calls a Cover Two Cloud, basically a zone tilted to him.
Which means they should be able to run the ball because the eighth man in the box is in space. But even with three second-round running backs, the Bengals are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. This is where some grousing has seeped in about a lack of identity and no flow because of a constant stream of personnel.
For instance, rookie running back Joe Mixon leads with 17 carries, but Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill each have 12 and that’s one of the first riddles Lazor has to solve. The three-headed monster at running back may be done. In 2014 Lamar Miller had a 1,000-yard season under Lazor as Miami’s bell-cow back. He said he’s never used three backs, but he also laughed and said, before saying he hasn’t really thought about it.
But he’ll have to think about it now.
When the points went up in smoke, Green fumed.
(Throw rookie wide receiver John Ross into that mix. He barely played Thursday after he fumbled his first NFL touch.)
The Dolphins’ inability to run the ball was reportedly at the crux of Campbell’s decision to replace Lazor after Miami had just 12 yards rushing on nine carries in a 38-20 loss to the Jets on Nov. 29, 2015
“I am a more run-oriented person. I like a more balanced approach,” Campbell said in The Miami Herald.
But Lazor says when he went to interview at a top college program, the head coach told him he was too conservative and ran the ball too much while he was the offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia. Lazor likes to point out when he was in Philadelphia in 2013, he coached the league’s leading passer paired with the league’s best rusher.
“That’s the way it is,” Lazor said. “I know it’s the least popular job in the city. But that’s fine … In this league you have to do everything well. If you’re going to do just one thing, you’re going to have to be so much better than the team you’re lining up against and that just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Lazor’s immediate plans to help fix Dalton seem to involve the run. At least the backs.
“As a coordinator, two of the most important things that you have to do are to get the quarterback in rhythm and get the running back in rhythm,” Lazor said. “We’ve got a good number of running backs that will share that right now, but when we have some time this evening and tomorrow to think about that.
“When we all recognize that and are honest about it, it gives us a chance to do something about it and get better,” Lazor said. “I have great respect for Andy and I know he wants to be great, so I know he will do just that. He will look at where he can get better and he will work with me.”
Reeves got fired after 13 games of that ’03 season, but he sent along a hearty recommendation for Lazor to Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs, making a new go of it in Washington in 2004. Gibbs also signed him as a quality control assistant, which he did for two years before he became the quarterbacks coach for two years.
“Joe and I used to talk about him and he would always say how good he was doing,” Reeves said. “He’s the kind of guy he can watch film, find something and pick it out and use it. I think one of the reasons he’s so smart is that he played quarterback at Cornell. I think that really helps him.”
Reeves is also about Lazor’s family of a wife, son, and two daughters. That means something to Reeves because when he was an assistant he found out that Oilers head coach Bum Phillips had recommended him for a job and Reeves though that was odd since he had never worked with him.
“But he had seen me at a golf tournament and we have children about the same age and they became friends and he noticed the way I was with them,” Reeves said. “If you’re a good family man, you’re probably a good football coach and Bill is. He’s a great guy and knows the game so well.”
Now the family man’s charge is to bring this family back together again. Including the superstar.