Updated: Apr 10
Photo Credit: Erik Drost (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zac_Taylor_2019.jpg)
“Zac has come into the league and worked to develop the foundations for a winning program that can be successful over time. The fruits of Zac’s efforts were seen this year, and Zac is well regarded by our players and coaches,” said Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown after extending head coach Zac Taylor’s contract through the 2026 season. After an incredible 2021 season in which the Bengals exceeded all outside expectations, Taylor has silenced doubters and established himself as one of the brightest, young coaches in the NFL. Still, there are voices throughout the football landscape who don’t understand the hype.
Let’s get something out of the way: coach Taylor did not have a great start to his NFL head coaching career. In two seasons, Taylor’s record stood at six wins, twenty-five losses and one tie. They say you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Well, I’ve tried putting some lipstick on Taylor’s record and….yeah, there’s no way to make that look any better.
At the same time, there are some mitigating factors. For starters, Taylor inherited an aging roster that hadn’t won more than seven games in the previous three seasons. Andy Dalton was entrenched at quarterback. Studs like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and A.J. Green were on the decline. The offensive line was in shambles (and it still is).
So, predictably, Taylor’s first season went miserably. The team lost its first eleven games, finishing the season 2 - 14. In week 16, the Bengals succeeded in securing the #1 overall pick in the 2020 draft after losing to the Miami Dolphins in overtime. But no one was celebrating this achievement in the locker room. According to The Ringer’s Nora Princiotti, shouting could be easily heard coming from the locker room during the post-game press conferences. These Bengals’ weren’t satisfied with getting the top pick in the draft.
This attitude of never settling, never quitting and never backing down really seemed to sink in after that game. After selecting Joe Burrow with the first pick of the 2020 Draft, things seemed to be on the upswing for Taylor and the Bengals. Unfortunately, this team still had a long way to go before truly competing.
Despite not having a real offseason or training camp thanks to Covid-19 wreaking havoc, Taylor was able to get Burrow prepared for week one of the 2020 NFL season. Said Burrow, “He knew exactly the vision that he expected to have for the team and the organization. He had it really nailed down, understood what he wanted out of me as a quarterback and out of everybody else on the team and knew it was going to be a hard road. Just the way he talked, I understood that it just felt like it was fact, what he was saying.”
A pandemic was no match for the chemistry slowly building up between coach and quarterback. Burrow didn’t seem to miss a beat, looking exactly like the kind of player the Bengals envisioned when they selected him. In his first nine games, Burrow completed 65% of his passes and threw for 12 touchdowns to just five interceptions. In his tenth game, however, disaster struck.
As you probably already know, Burrow suffered a serious knee injury against Washington. Burrow was done for the year and it looked like the Bengals might be done as well. By week 11, Taylor and the Bengals had already matched their win total from the previous year, but their record was just 2 - 7 - 1. And now they would have to finish out their last six games without their young star.
Against all the odds, coach Taylor and the Bengals continued to persevere. In week 15, the shorthanded Bengals faced off against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were 11 - 2 coming into this game, but had just lost their previous two games, and were looking to right the ship versus the cupcake Bengals. Unfortunately for the Steelers, this team was no cupcake.
The Bengals pulled off the astonishing upset behind an outstanding defensive effort and some timely plays from backup QB Ryan Finley. In many ways, this win feels like the first breakthrough of the Zac Taylor era. With Burrow, their most important young player, on injured reserve, anyone could have understood if the Bengals just wanted to get to the offseason. But they continued fighting, never accepting their situation as hopeless. Credit has to go to Taylor for instilling this kind of belief in his players.
This belief fueled the Bengals’ surprising run to Super Bowl LVI. Despite his success in the 2021 season, many still see Taylor as a coach in over his head. Complaints about his offensive play calling are constant. But do these complaints have merit?
A little. But that’s all really. Take some time and try to find one NFL head coach or offensive coordinator that isn’t criticized for his play calling. Go ahead. I’ll wait…
Fun fact: all coaches and coordinators are criticized. Don’t believe me? Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has been in the NFL since 1992. He is widely considered one of the most influential and innovative offensive coaches in the history of football. He has a Super Bowl ring. Guess what the narrative was after the Bengals defeated the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game? He didn’t run the ball enough.
Sean McVay is another great example. The Los Angeles Rams head coach was criticized after Super Bowl LVI for running the ball too much. They won the freaking game and he was still being criticized!
My point is that criticizing play calling is low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to criticize a play when the result doesn’t work out. There’s just so much that goes into calling plays at the NFL level. Could he run the ball less on first and second down? Sure, but just about every team in the NFL could say the same thing.
Aside from play calling, Taylor has been criticized for some game management decisions, especially his decision to leave running back Semaje Perine in the game in place of stud Joe Mixon on two crucial runs in the Super Bowl. Perine couldn’t gain one yard on either third-down carry. This is much harder to defend. At the same time, Taylor acknowledged this mistake, and given the opportunity again, he would approach the situation differently.
That’s been one of Taylor’s most impressive abilities: the ability to learn from his mistakes. After taking the ball out of Joe Burrow’s hands late in the 49ers game, Taylor was determined never to make that mistake again. Taylor and the coaching staff have become famous for their tangible second half adjustments. He was willing to move on from veterans like Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. All of these things reflect a willingness to self-scout and make necessary changes, even when it might be uncomfortable.
Now, having secured his extension, Taylor and these upstart Bengals are looking to build upon their 2021 success. The players and coaches are talented, but it’s the culture that really makes the difference.
To really get an idea of how special Taylor and the culture he’s built is, you need to hear it from the players.
“You can feel it in the locker room,” said safety Jessie Bates III, “Guys got a little pep in their step walking to meetings and stuff like that, it's a good feeling. It's hard to explain because there is a lot of work that goes into it.”
“Everybody is bought in and that's one thing leading up into this playoff game,” said running back Joe Mixon, “You just see around the locker room, on the practice field, the vibe around here is different. I've never been around it, it's very special to be around and it's really a privilege to be around these guys.”
It’s not just the players, either. Taylor’s assistants love him just as much.
“They look forward to coming to work every day,” said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, “Zac (Taylor)'s done a great job of building that.”
“I've been a part of really good locker rooms,” said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, “I don't think one that I've been a part of has the same energy that this one does.” Keep in mind, Callahan was a member of the 2015 Denver Broncos which won Super Bowl 50. He knows a thing or two about good locker rooms.
Even longtime special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has bought in: “He's done a hell of a job this year. He really has.”
Everyone at Paul Brown Stadium, from ownership on down, is all-in on the Zac Taylor Experience. When kicker Evan McPherson’s game-winner sailed through the uprights to send the Bengals to the Super Bowl, Burrow said the first person he celebrated with was his coach. With Taylor locked up for the foreseeable future, Bengals’ fans can expect Burrow and Taylor to celebrate for years to come.