It took five years, but finally one of Zac Taylor’s assistant coaches got a new job. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was snatched up by the Tennessee Titans to be their new head coach, a well-deserved promotion after helping the Bengals to their most successful period in franchise history. It’s certainly a blow to the Bengals, who have maintained a coaching continuity that’s played no small part in their recent success. Now, for the first time since 2019, there will be a new voice – except this voice, it turns out, isn’t so new after all.
To replace Callahan, the Bengals promoted quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher to be their new offensive coordinator. It’s a smart and sensible move for a few reasons:
Pitcher, a Bengals assistant since 2016, is intimately familiar with the organization and how it operates
Pitcher has a great working relationship with Joe Burrow, the Bengals most important and best player
Pitcher had interviews with the New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders and New England Patriots for their open offensive coordinator positions, indicating that Pitcher was a pretty hot commodity
Basically, things have worked out well for the Who Deys. Sure, losing Callahan wasn’t a franchise “win” or anything, but it was a loss that’s been on the horizon for a couple years now. Between Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the Bengals were on borrowed time with their assistants. Callahan just happened to be the first domino to fall.
But still, in between all the good feelings and optimism for the future, I can’t help but recall a dismal past – a past where the Bengals made a similar move, promoting a long-tenured quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. That move failed. Spectacularly. That offensive coordinator was Ken Zampese.
The year was 2016. Hue Jackson, arguably the most creative and successful offensive coordinator the Bengals have had since the new millennium, had just accepted the head coaching position for the Cleveland Browns. The offensive coordinator spot was open, and after 13 seasons as the quarterbacks coach, Ken Zampese finally got his shot. To say it was a long time coming would be an understatement. To say his tenure as the offensive coordinator was an utter disaster would also be an understatement.
“Near mutiny” was the phrase that was echoed around NFL circles after the Bengals failed to score a touchdown in their opening two games of the 2017 season. Not only did the Bengals fail to get into the endzone, both of those games were at home, making them the first team since 1939 to accomplish the “feat.” Even A.J. Green, one of the most humble and unassuming players in Bengals history, couldn’t contain his frustration. Mercifully, Marvin Lewis gave Zampese the pink slip before Week Three.
So, why am I reminding you all of this? Well, I have a couple reasons:
To explain why I’m not exactly shaking with excitement over this hire, but also
To illustrate how – and why – Pitcher is not Zampese, and we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much
For starters, Pitcher’s background is way, way different that Zampese’s was. At 37-years-old, Pitchers is a relative newcomer as an NFL coach. He’s still developing. He isn’t (or at least, he shouldn't) be set in his ways. And most importantly, he’s desirable. Three different NFL teams said as much. This…wasn’t the case for Zampese.
It wasn’t until after his 49th birthday did Zampese finally get his shot to be the offensive coordinator and play caller for the Bengals – and again, this was after thirteen years as the quarterbacks coach under Lewis. Zampese was part of Lewis’ very first coaching staff. In the same role. For thirteen years. Seriously.
When Zampese got the gig, it felt like a lifetime achievement award. Kinda like Martin Scorsese winning an Academy Award for The Departed after directing Goodfellas. Except it’s not really like that at all because comparing Ken Zampese to Martin Scorsese in any way, shape or form should get you sentenced to twenty years of hard labor without a trial.
There’s one more glaring reason that Bengals fans can rest easy knowing that Pitcher almost certainly won’t be a wreck like Zampese – he won’t be calling plays.
Yes, I know playcalling is a contentious issue in Cincinnati. I know there are many who aren’t big fans of all the screens and tosses that Taylor and the Bengals like to run. Could they do some things better? Absolutely. Is the offense broken? Absolutely not. Not when you’re consistently one of the best offenses in the league when your QB is healthy – and not when the offense isn’t half bad with a backup who had thrown exactly one pass before being pressed into a full-time role. You want to know what a bad play caller looks like? Check out the Bengals in Weeks One and Two in 2017. I’ll wait.
It may seem like I’m diminishing Pitcher’s role in the offense, and in some ways I am. The buck doesn’t stop with him, it still stops with Taylor – but that’s a good thing. In five years, Taylor helped the Bengals reach a Super Bowl and back-to-back AFC Championship games. That’s more success than all but maybe four or five teams in the entire league. Pitcher isn’t going to be asked to be a solution – just don’t be a problem, that’s all. For Zampese, apparently, that was impossible.
So, while I can’t help but think back to that dark period in 2016 and early 2017, there’s really no reason we should expect a repeat performance. Pitcher is a rising young coach with a bright mind, excellent rapport with Burrow, and enough standout traits to get a few looks from other teams. Zampese was a perpetually overlooked vet with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. Maybe it shouldn't have been a mystery to us why Zampese wasn’t getting opportunities elsewhere. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised us how bad he was as a play caller. Clearly, he wasn’t up for it. But the stakes are much lower for Pitcher, and as long as he can continue to get the most out of Burrow, the Bengals should remain in good shape.