Every week, Mike Petraglia details his observations and analysis about the Bengals, their inner workings and how it relates to their competition in the AFC North. Trags has covered 12 Super Bowls, including all 10 appearances by the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. Trags is a working member of the Pro Football Writers of America and begins his 29th year covering the NFL in 2021.
This is it for Zac Taylor.
This is a make-or-break year for the Bengals head coach and his staff. And everyone wearing a Bengals hat or headset on the sideline knows it.
For all the talent that has been added to this roster in the past 10 months through the draft and free agency, whether or not the team makes the leap from rebuild to relevance in the AFC North is going to largely hinge on how those pieces are coached up, prepped and integrated into the weekly game plan.
Everyone in the building – and outside – knows the ugly numbers: a 6-25-1 record in his first two seasons and only once have the Taylor-led Bengals won back-to-back games (last year when they beat Pittsburgh on Monday night in December and Houston on the road six days later).
There was some speculation after the Bengals were humiliated 38-3 by the Ravens in their worst home loss since a 44-7 defeat to the Chicago Bears in 1986 that Taylor was in trouble. If Minnesota and Mike Zimmer parted ways, would Mike Brown do what he rarely does and make a change after just two years? What about Joe Brady? Brady was Joe Burrow’s passing game guru at LSU. Would the Brown family go after the current Carolina OC and bring him in to coach up Burrow and the Bengals?
But Brown and daughter Katie Blackburn did not pull the plug. Instead, Zimmer and Brady stayed put and Taylor gets one more crack to show that he and his staff can run a competitive and competent NFL field operation.
“Our fans wanted a fresh new direction two years ago, and that is what we aimed to do in hiring a bright, energetic head coach in Zac Taylor,” Mike Brown said in a statement. “We remain bullish on the foundation Zac is building, and we look forward to next year giving our fans the winning results we all want. In Zac’s two years, we have added many new starters and contributors through the draft, we have invested heavily in free agency, and we have acquired a talented young quarterback with a bright future.”
“I think Zac is going to be a great coach for a long time,” added Burrow. “I’m happy to be in the position that I’m in and to help build this organization, but it’s going to be on Zac’s back. He’s the leader of what we’re trying to do, and he’s awesome.”
There are certainly those who have their doubts, like former Browns GM Mike Lombardi, who most notably served as one of the most trusted football minds of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during the Patriots dynasties of the 2000s and 2010s.
“Tremendous hot seat. This year at the draft it basically came down to (Penei) Sewell or (Ja’Marr) Chase from LSU and basically, they let the coach pick him. Mike Brown’s not going to go another year,” Lombardi said this week on the sports betting network VSiN. “Zac Taylor’s performance as a Bengals head coach is worse than David Shula. That was really bad. I mean really, really, really, really, really bad. And this is worse. And Zac’s not qualified to be head coach of the team. I’m not sure Zac Taylor’s qualified to be the head coach of the University of Cincinnati, let alone the Bengals. All due respect to Zac Taylor, but let’s just call a spade a spade here.
“When you have a job that’s harder to get than United States Senator, there’s only 52 of those and you have a job that’s harder to get than that, you have to bring certain credentials to the table. Zac doesn’t bring any credentials and the offense has gotten worse. If you bet on Zac Taylor, we’re a betting network, why would you ever bet on him? He’s demonstrated nothing in terms of managing the team, managing the game. I think that seats hot. I think it’s red, red, red hot.”
Ironically, while Zimmer’s seat is not nearly as hot, there is also the perception in Minnesota that the Vikings need to reach that next level this season with Kirk Cousins after a highly inconsistent 2020.
It’s almost as if the NFL schedule makers wanted to put both coaches on notice by pitting the two teams against each other in the season opener on Sept. 12 at Paul Brown Stadium.
I spoke to Lombardi this week to follow up those comments.
“Look, it’s not his fault,” Lombardi told me on the phone. “All I was saying is look at his track record. He was brought into a very difficult situation with little NFL experience. Any head coaching job is tough enough but when you don’t have the experience of running a program, it’s that’s much tougher.”
Indeed, the Brown family was hoping for a repeat of the Sean McVay experience with the Rams, when – with Taylor as Jared Goff’s QB coach – they made it to Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots. That’s not been the case in the first two years.
There were other options available at the time like Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But the Bengals were trying to replicate a trend around the league to go with younger innovators and they still believe Taylor can be that guy.
While the David Shula comparison is often made, a closer look at some of the other coaches in Bengals history under the Brown family could shed more perspective and insight as to how they fared in their third season at the helm.
Remember Bill “Tiger” Johnson? He succeeded Paul Brown in 1976 and lasted just five games into his third season, stunning considering he was 10-4 and 8-6 in his first two campaigns. Brown himself turned the corner on his expansion team in his third season, going 8-6 and winning the AFC Central in 1970 but only after recovering from a 1-6 start.
Homer Rice didn’t fare much better and didn’t get to a third year. He finished 4-7 in ’78 and 4-12 in ’79 before Forrest Gregg took charge in 1980 and the team improved to 6-10.
Gregg’s pinnacle was his second season, 1981, the run to Super Bowl XVI. The team went 12-4 on the way to losing to San Francisco in Pontiac. He was 7-2 in his third season, the strike-shortened year of 1982 before getting blown out by the Jets, 44-17, in the playoffs. He was done after a 7-9 season in 1983.
Sam Wyche improved steadily in each of his three seasons and perhaps this is the best barometer for Taylor to aspire. Wyche was 7-9 in 1984, 8-8 in 1985 a near-miss 10-6 in 1986. Wyche’s firebrand energy seemed to ignite the Bengals, as they caught on to what he was teaching. The obvious difference here is that Taylor has yet to show that kind of temperament or energy in his team. If Taylor is to reach that next level, he needs to find what Wyche found in 1986.
Shula went 5-11 in his first season and then dipped to 3-13 in his next two. Taylor almost certainly won’t survive a season of six wins or less. There’s more pressure now and there’s the sense the Brown family does want to win now for Mike, who turns 86 Aug. 10. Shula went 7-9 in 1995 before a 1-6 start in ’96 doomed his Bengals run.
Bruce Coslet was 4-12 in his third season and Dick LeBeau was fired after going 2-14 in his second full season in 2002, when Marvin Lewis became available and left the Ravens. Lewis turned the corner in his third season, as the Bengals went 11-5 and won the AFC North in 2005. That may be just a bit much to expect this year but certainly Wyche and Lewis are the two most recent examples to guide Taylor.
With that history as a backdrop, here are five ways Taylor and his staff need to improve in 2021 if he’s going to last till the end of the season, let alone 2022.
Want to know why the Bengals have had a horrific record in one-possession games under Taylor? Look no further than how the game is managed and the mental mistakes that are too many to count late in games. The Bengals have played 16 one-possession games under Taylor, a full season. They have won two of them. They failed to win the first 12. They are 2-13-1 in one possession games. The Bengals MUST find ways of extending drives, running the ball effectively and owning games late. Taylor must get across to his players that mental execution is just as important as physical execution. No more false starts, especially in the fourth quarter, no more illegal formations and no more calling timeouts because everyone is not on the same page. Taylor must instill this in camp with situational drills until the players get sick of hearing it.
THE ROOKIE DONOVAN PEOPLES-JONES GAME WINNER🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 25, 2020
The Bengals must show mental toughness and that starts with the expectation of clean football in the fourth quarter, where north of 90 percent of NFL games are won. The Bengals were outscored 10-0 in their season opener against the Chargers last season and that was an omen. They lost four days later in Cleveland, as the defense couldn’t get off the field and they really butchered the final two minutes of the fourth quarter in a gruesome tie at Philadelphia in Week 3.
— Philadelphia Inquirer Sports (@phillysport) September 27, 2020
Those three games, in a nutshell, were all remarkably winnable games to start the season. Those must be wins this year. After a blowout loss at Baltimore, they led Indianapolis, 21-0, in the second quarter and Cleveland twice in the fourth on consecutive weeks. They lost both.
It’s going to be imperative that Taylor and his staff do a more thorough job of changing his approach from week to week as game plans change. One reasonable criticism of the Bengals in Taylor’s first two seasons was a sense that the team often did not change its approach from week-to-week to attack one or two specific weaknesses of the opponent.
Taylor made reference to it in OTAs and the shortened June mini-camp.
“I’ve been excited about the staff from the jump,” Taylor told me in June. “I think we’ve got really quality coaches who believe in each other. They’re not afraid of hard work. They have great communication with these players and they’re very honest. It’s a group I feel very strongly about. I’m excited about the guys we’ve got in this building. Just ready to get back to work with these guys come training camp.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan should benefit the most from what the Bengals have added in the offseason. Even with the addition of Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow’s return, he’s already indicated that there’s going to be more of an emphasis to run the ball this season in short and mid-range downs. For teams that tend to tee off on pass rush, the delayed draw should absolutely be in the repertoire, especially with a back like Joe Mixon who is capable of taking it to the house on any down with gaps at the line.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo may face the most scrutiny as the defense – secondary in particular – must improve on its ability to get off the field on third down. The Philadelphia game comes to mind but also both Cleveland games late and the Chargers’ final drive in the opener. In each of these games, the Bengals gave up plays of 20 yards or more in the fourth quarter and converted less than half of their defensive third-and-long chances. Do a better job of disrupting receivers at the line of scrimmage in third-and-short and for goodness sakes, keep the receiver in front of you on third-and-long.
Kareem Hunt ran angry on the Bengals 😤
Browns have a special backfield
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) September 18, 2020
Special teams has always been a strength with Darrin Simmons (also Asst. head coach) calling the shots, and Kevin Huber doing the punting. But even so, last year’s opener will long be remember for the Randy Bullock left calf injury on the 31-yard field goal attempt at the final gun. Again, symbolic.
— Justin Groc (@jgroc) September 13, 2020
Bullock is in Detroit now and it’s going to come down to rookie Evan McPherson out of Florida and veteran Austin Seibert. Trust Simmons will choose a punt returner wisely to help with hidden yards, a crucial element to win close games late. Simmons – hired in 2003 – has been around the longest of any coach inside the building and is highly, highly regarded around the league as one of the best in the business. If things were to go sideways for Taylor again and if the team gets off to a poor start, Simmons would almost assuredly be promoted.
Carlos Dunlap was a start. Dunlap, arguably the best pure pass rusher in franchise history, fell out of favor with the staff. He got real tired of the losing really fast with Taylor. The Bengals had to cut their losses with a player that needed to play with a winner to realize his remaining NFL potential at the age of 31.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 15, 2019
Every player on the roster must fear making mental errors or lapses of judgement on the field. Dunlap was arguably the most talented player on the defense. But he became beaten down by the losing. Losing, of course, can do that. But when teammates see one of the best players beaten down, you’ve got to either sit them for an extended period or move them out. That’s what the Bengals chose and certainly, it was understandable from the perspective of both parties.
We’re not talking physical mistakes like getting beat or – even if you’re Michael Jordan – giving up a sack. We’re talking about making sure everyone is on the same page. As Belichick kept telling his defenses in New York and New England, if everyone is making the same mistake, it at least shows there’s good communication on the field. Good defense, as Jesse Bates III noted in minicamp, starts with good communication on the back end. That is non-negotiable this season.
But while there certainly needs to be accountability from the players, there also needs to be an unmistakable owning up from the coaching staff. There’s no better way to gain respect from your players than to let them know when the staff could’ve or should’ve seen something on the field and changed to a different look or called in different personnel.
The coaching staff, like the players, needs time to grow. The problem is when you’ve won six of your first 32 games, that rope to hold onto is about the length of your forearm and it’s sliding through your hands.
That Monday night effort against the Steelers on national TV was great. But the best effort of the year arguably came against Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans. The Bengals controlled both lines of scrimmage, contained Derrick Henry (for the most part) and A.J. Brown, demonstrating the ability to close out. If there’s one game Taylor should put on a reel and show his team over and over it’s the Titans game from 2020. More to the point, the team needs to feel like each week it takes the field, they expect to win the game, somehow, someway. That’s what made those Marvin Lewis teams legit in the mid-2000s, they went to Pittsburgh and Baltimore and won. This team under Taylor needs to find that same mentality.
Throwing out the no-show against the Ravens at PBS in the 2020 season finale, the Bengals have been reasonably competitive. It started with Taylor’s first game in Seattle in 2019. They had every chance to win that game and couldn’t execute down the stretch.
The Bengals have the talent on the roster. But teams must fear that talent when the game is on the line. The Bengals must find a way to punish teams and break their hearts instead of the other way around. The Bengals need to be the ones forcing teams into mental mistakes, showing looks the opponent wasn’t prepared for and executing with flawless precision.
Then, as Vonn Bell did to JuJu Smith-Schuster, throw down the hammer. That game should not be a one-time thing. The Bengals need to punish their opponents physically and within the rules of the current game.
- Empower Your Leaders:
Yet another classic Bill Belichick mantra. When you’re an NFL head coach, you certainly don’t need to rah-rah the team. Certainly, there are moments you can inspire and teach. But for the most part, you win over your players with how you prepare them. Then you call upon certain players to hold the room accountable. That’s the way it works on successful teams. Sounds simple but you have to trust the players to follow the right leaders. While it’s not exclusive to veterans, your experienced players need to step up and not just hold others accountable but motivate, teach and listen.
The Bengals are blessed that two of their younger, most talented players are also leaders. Joe Burrow and Jesse Bates have already shown that when they speak others will listen. Burrow has already impressed his teammates with his dedication to get back on the field so fast and be a part of them as they ready for 2021. They have Sam Hubbard, who is ready to take that next step on this defense. They have veteran corners. But they need someone to emerge on the offensive line to be that leader. This is where they’ve missed Andrew Whitworth badly over the last four seasons. Whitworth was a leader and motivator in so many ways. Yes, you can defend the financial decision (though even that’s difficult) but the Bengals didn’t replace his character or leadership and it showed. Remember Cordy Glenn? Again, the Bengals have added veteran pieces this offseason in veteran tackle Riley Reiff and Xavier Su’a-Filo. Can they step forward and show some tangible evidence of leadership to bring along the likes of Jonah Williams, Trey Hopkins, Billy Price, Michael Jordan. Or will someone like Williams, who missed all of his rookie 2019 season, be able to step forward and become that next Whit in the locker room?
In the end, Zac Taylor doesn’t need to win the Super Bowl, make the AFC title game or even get to the playoffs this year in the incredibly competitive AFC North. What he does need to show management and fans is that he and his staff have taken that next – very crucial – step in establishing credibility as a highly competent and prepared staff. This is what Marvin Lewis was universally hailed for during his early years in Cincinnati in the mid-2000s. He turned around a moribund franchise by restoring respect to the organization and its staff. Lewis checked off most of the boxes above and empowered many of his players to take that next step.
The Brown family has given Taylor one more chance to prove to them that he is worthy of the Job-like patience they have always shown the likes of Lewis, Wyche and Shula. When Taylor and his staff come back refreshed from their summer vacation at the end of this month, they need to preach preparation, execution and accountability. Mental mistakes are no longer acceptable. Being late won’t be tolerated.
And perhaps, above all, let the players know that the coaching staff is going to outwork the players in making sure the team is ready to compete on a daily basis.