CINCINNATI – There weren’t many people in training camp who thought Zac Taylor would have the luxury of deciding who to play and who to rest heading into the season finale in Cleveland.
For that matter, there wasn’t anyone who thought the Bengals head coach would have that cushion after the team lost in gut-punching fashion in overtime to the 49ers on Dec. 12.
The Bengals stood 7-6, on the outside, looking in at the AFC playoff picture. On top of that, they were headed to Denver amid stricter COVID protocols that required everyone stay bunkered in their room.
They were facing a Broncos team that also stood 7-6 with a defense that ranked in the top 10 in both pass and run defense. They had allowed just 17.5 points per game, second-stingiest in the NFL.
The Bengals trailed 10-9 when Teddy Bridgewater’s replacement, Drew Lock, found Tim Patrick in the end zone on a 25-yard pass with 1:15 left in the third quarter. The Bengals had not found the end zone and the prospects looked rather bleak.
Two plays later, Joe Burrow found Tyler Boyd on a 56-yard catch-and-run that beat Justin Simmons and the Broncos secondary for a touchdown. The Bengals led, 15-10, with a quarter to play. The Bengals defense took over from there and held on for the win. It wasn’t pretty but it was an ugly win that defined the character of Zac Taylor’s team.
He told us before the Jacksonville game that he didn’t care if his team “won 7-6 or 42-41” just so long as they won. “We’re just looking for wins.” The Bengals trailed Jacksonville 14-0 and nearly 21-0 before Logan Wilson stopped Trevor Lawrence at the goal line before halftime. They would win, 24-21 on a last-second field goal from Evan McPherson.
Two weeks after Denver, the Bengals had the best win of the Taylor era. This time, it wasn’t Drew Lock but Patrick Mahomes they had to find a way to contain. And contain they did. Three points in the second half.
"WHY NOT US?!"
Go inside the locker room after we won the AFC North. pic.twitter.com/x9ZY6801qE
— xz – Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 3, 2022
With due respect to Taylor’s good friend Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, Zac Taylor should be the 2021 NFL Coach of the Year.
In judging a coach, too often we judge based on what we can see and the tangible results of wins and losses. Obviously, that’s part of the equation.
But in Taylor’s case, what’s he’s done with the culture in Cincinnati during a pandemic is nothing short of amazing. He has asked his players and coaches to be as diligent as possible and he’s had to keep his active roster and practice squad ready at a moment’s notice. With just six wins in his previous two seasons, Taylor managed to get everyone to buy in from the start of the season and believe they could be something special by the end.
Marvin Lewis was given credit, and rightfully so, for turning around a dumpster fire that was a 2-14 season in 2002. The men of Marvin rode the wave of emotion to an 8-8 season in 2003 that came within a 22-14 loss to the Browns in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium of heading to the playoffs. The next year, the Bengals were on their way with Carson Palmer and two years later the Bengals were AFC North champs.
Taylor’s ride over his first three seasons has been much bumpier. He was 2-14 in his debut with Andy Dalton at the helm. He managed to only double that win total in his second season that featured his franchise quarterback tearing his ACL on a bad team in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone knew the number 6-25-1 like their gym lock combination. It was Taylor’s record after two shaky seasons with a roster that really had no chance of reaching the postseason.
So there Taylor stood on the sidelines in Denver late in the third quarter, with his team’s season on the brink, and the longest win streak of his career being two games four times (once in 2020).
“I think anytime you’re on a two-game losing streak, that’s something you want to avoid as a team. Our guys have done a really good job of when you hit these little lulls of fighting back and responding with usually several wins,” Taylor told me Friday. “This is the first time we’ve had a three-game winning streak this year.
“It’s the best time to have had it and I think a lot of our guys have done a great job of not (hanging) their heads when we’ve had a two-game losing streak, and kind of rallying and picking us up, and giving us that momentum going forward, even if it was just for a couple-game stretch. I think they did a nice job of that this year.”
It’s at times like these a team’s character is tested. Obviously, having Joe Burrow helps the cause. It would be beyond naïve to suggest otherwise. But it’s what Burrow, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Boyd and others have said about Taylor that is so pertinent at times like these.
“He knew exactly the vision that he expected to have for the team and the organization,” Burrow said of first meeting Taylor at the NFL Combine in 2020. “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.”
Taylor understanding the need take the hard road and sticking to that course is cause enough to recognize him as Coach of the Year in a win-yesterday culture. Credit here to the Brown family for also sticking with their hire in Jan. 2019.
“He’s a player’s coach for sure,” Uzomah said. “We get in and we get out (of the facility) when we need to get in and out. I don’t think he keeps us longer than is necessary. I think a lot of the adjustments he makes during the week, the way he talks to us, he treats us like grown men.
“We’re not kids. We’re not getting baby sat out there. Telling us how it is and holding us to his standard and he lets us lead ourselves. Which I think is huge. I think having that leadership within the team, I don’t know if it’s better, but I think it speaks volumes to who we are as a team. If we can hold each other accountable and then if we’re not doing that then he gets on some of the leaders the team and says, ‘Hey, this your all’s team as much as it is my team.’ I appreciate that. I think that helps build and mold a good culture.”
For guys like Boyd and Uzomah, who have seen their fair share of pain since 2016, losing can change people, and in a bad way. It can persuade them to stray from their core principles and beliefs.
For coaches, it can test everything about your approach. Just ask Bill Belichick. People in and outside of the Browns organization had grown weary of his style in his first two seasons in 1991 and ’92. They lost their minds when he dumped Bernie Kosar. Of course, he stuck to the thick binder that he presented to Art Modell when interviewing for the job before the 1991 season. In 1994, Belichick had the Browns in the playoffs, beating his old boss Bill Parcells and the Patriots. Only Modell’s ill-fated decision to announce his move to Baltimore in the midst of the 1995 season could derail Belichick’s progress.
Fast-forward to 2000. Belichick, now in New England, was 5-11 in his first season, and he had some of the same problems of a coach trying to implement his program and instill an attitude. But heading into 2001, he did have the franchise quarterback (everyone thought) in Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots lost the season opener to the Bengals at PBS. Then 9/11 happened. Then Bledsoe was smoked by Mo Lewis on the sideline. A guy named Tom came in during a 10-3 loss to the Jets and Belichick stood 5-13 through 18 games.
Last Sunday, skeptics would claim that Taylor got incredibly lucky with the first-and-goal strategy in the final two minutes, strategy that was nearly catastrophic. But as Belichick has said on many occasions, there is an incredibly fine line between winning and losing in close-and-late situations and each situation is its own beast, especially when you’re trying to handle game management and scoring.
The man should know. He has eight Super Bowls rings (two with the Giants as defensive coordinator), and in six of those eight wins, it came down to the last possession. In all three losses, the Patriots had a chance to win with the ball in their hands. That’s 9-of-11 Super Bowls in which every decision was scrutinized for better or worse.
“If we want to get where we want to go, then we’re going to have to win more games like that,” Taylor said after his emotional division-clinching win over the two-time AFC champion Chiefs.
Taylor knows everyone’s a critic. You don’t accept the job unless you’re keenly aware of that. But give him this much, he has trusted his players’ desire to play hard for him and not point fingers when things don’t turn out well, like in close losses to the Bears, Packers, Jets and 49ers.
Sure, the Bengals blew out the Ravens and Steelers twice apiece and they routed the hapless Lions and squeaked by the Jaguars.
What the Bengals have done in manufacturing the first three-game win streak in the Taylor era is show they have learned how to handle close situations. They have learned how to win in hostile environments (5-2 on the road), and they have beaten the cream of the crop in games where their season is on the line.
The Bengals are playing their best football at the most important time of the year. Successful teams find a way to play their best after Thanksgiving. Maybe the Bengals got a late start in this regard but after the second half against Kansas City, and thanks to two guys named Burrow and Chase, they’ve certainly hit their best stride of the season.
“Just seeing these guys that have worked hard, coaches, players, being able to experience good things because it is hard when you love the people you’re around and they’re working hard, and the results don’t show on the field, and they have to feel that,” Taylor said. “These guys have done it the right way. It’s a fun group to win with and they’ve earned every win they’ve gotten and we certainly feel we’re not done yet.”
Taylor’s emotional display after the Chiefs win might be easy fodder for Boston sportstalk hosts who don’t know the team or what they’ve been through since the start of the 2019 season.
“You’re getting choked up because you won the division?!” Jim Murray of Boston’s 98.5 The Sports Hub snarked.
— Felger & Massarotti (@FelgerAndMazz) January 6, 2022
Sure, go ahead and argue that Belichick would never do this. I covered the man for 25 years and his style is different. He can appear rigid and robotic on the outside. But talk to the players and there’s an incredible comfort in knowing their coach has done everything in his power to put them in the best position to succeed. I can also tell you that Belichick has always insisted that each coach is unique in their ability to get the most out of his players and assistants.
Belichick isn’t laughing at Taylor. He’s been through it twice in Cleveland and Foxboro. He has the rings that Taylor is working toward. Belichick also knows it’s precisely that emotion that has endeared these Bengals to their coach. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see these two styles matched up against each other in the AFC playoffs very soon.