DUFF TIME: Other than the Super Bowl handkerchiefs that covered the headrests of the plane departing Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport and a cute hand-scrawled schoolboy sign urging them to keep going, it looked like any which charter from the Bengals to Cleveland, Baltimore or Pittsburgh.
Just before the wheels started, Mark Duffner, the Bengls’ main defensive assistant who went to a Rose Bowl with Ohio icon Woody Hayes, and running back Joe Mixon, who managed the legend of Ohio Joe Burrow in this Super Bowl, were talking. Mixon stopped and sat down on the armrest of the aisle seat across from Duffner. Like the rest of the players and coaches, they wore their white Super Bowl LVI tracksuits.
“Buddy, Duffy,” Mixon said.
“This guy is my man,” Duffner said. “We came here in 2018 and he killed us on this damn belly game. We kept coming out of our loopholes. My man here is good. We couldn’t stop him.”
That was back when Duffner was Tampa Bay’s acting defensive coordinator, another milestone for a distinguished NFL lifer. It’s a life that began with the Bengals 25 years ago, when Mixon was just a year old and Duffner had just left the college ranks after a five-year tenure as head coach of the Maryland before becoming head coach Bruce Coslet’s linebacker coach.
Now at 68 as the oldest Super Bowl coach pitting the two youngest head coaches ever, Duffner is making his first stint at the big game after 25 years, six stints and five teams.
(According to Steely Dan, Duffner is truly “My Old School.” He played William and Mary and grew up in Annandale, Virginia.)
“I’m very happy for Mr. Brown,” said Duffner of the Bengals president Mike Brown, the man who hired him in 1997. “His whole life has been professional football and I’m so happy that he appreciates that after all he has done for professional football, the city of Cincinnati and certainly this team. He gave me the opportunity to get into professional football. I owe him so much. He has done so much for so many people. He’s humble. He avoids recognition. He deserves that and more.”
The feeling is mutual. There’s a story that Brown thought of Duffner so much he made him head coach for an hour on a chaotic day in the 2000 season and he certainly thought of him well enough to bring him in and help a young head coach to be located in 2019.
Now a 38-year-old geezer with an AFC championship, Zac Taylor would be one of the first to tell you how much Duffner meant this run. When Taylor hired Marion Hobby to coach the defensive line after last season, Duffner stepped in to help point players, a tricky spot in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s 3-4 hybrid.
Their new star, Trey Hendrickson, set the franchise record with 14 sacks. Their returning star, Sam Hubbard, has had the most sacks since his sophomore season. Rookie Cam Sample, a fourth-round pick, walked the line with good versatility.
“I’ve been blessed to be on some really great teams,” Duffner said, “but I don’t know anyone better than him right now. The character, the makeup, the personality is very, very special. This band cares about each other, which is why this team went through the regular season and the playoffs to get this opportunity.