CINCINNATI — To many NFL fans and media, Zac Taylor is one of the most mysterious new head coaches in recent memory. Going from assistant wide receivers coach for the Rams in 2017 to head coach of the Bengals in ’19 represents—approximately—a 12-rung jump in power. But the 36-year-old Taylor is not utterly inexperienced; he has coached NFL quarterbacks for five years and called plays briefly for the Dolphins at the end of 2015 and for the University of Cincinnati in ’16. Still, there’s little book on the man tasked with reshaping the Bengals. To learn more about him, we followed him around on the job for a day at OTAs.
MONDAY, JUNE 3
The Taylor family’s dream home is tucked into the hilly Mount Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati. Inside, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and his eight-year-old son Brooks are playing catch. It’s the Bengals’ final days of OTAs and Zac has been home for only a few minutes, having left his office at Paul Brown Stadium a little after 7 p.m. It’s a youth-sized football, but the throws are coming in fast, and no area is off-limits.
The ball sails over the kitchen island (which is covered in dishes and tonight’s Mexican dinner), under hanging lights, by cabinets, near the sink and counters, across the living the room and, several times, within feet of mom and family CEO Sarah Taylor. Sarah—who goes back and forth between preparing food and tending to the Taylor’s other children, Luke (6), Emma Claire (3) and Milly (three months)—seems to not even notice the sailing football. Daughter of Mike Sherman and, now, 14-year companion of the former Nebraska quarterback, whom she married in 2008, a football is as familiar and ubiquitous in her world as oxygen and sunlight. The ball contacts nothing but Zac’s or Brooks’s hands; clean catches and throws are natural in a family whose patriarch was the 2006 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
When dinner is put away, Zac and Brooks sit on the couch watching ESPN and talking NFL. Brooks’s football knowledge is fledgling—he knows all the four-team groupings of each division in the NFL, but he’s still learning the division names (NFC East, AFC West, etc.) It’s pointed out that Brooks at least knows the divisions better than Zac’s first NFL QB, Ryan Tannehill, did as a rookie. Speaking of rookies, Brooks brings up Devin Bush; he says his dad should have drafted the Michigan linebacker, and Zac smiles wryly. Welcome to life as an NFL head coach.
TUESDAY, JUNE 4
Taylor is in his office at the Bengals’ facility going over some of Cincinnati’s situational run-pass checks and hurry-up plays. So far, nine have been installed, with 10 more on the way; by September, there will be over 50. Like his previous boss, Sean McVay, Taylor takes pride in helping his men remember their no-huddle plays, so all of the play names correlate to some part of the design. Play 16, for example, involves their “drive” route, since 16 is the age you can drive. Right now Taylor is scouring the web for pictures of Scooby Doo and Scooby’s stoner friend Shaggy, who will have a no-huddle play named after him because one of the routes in that play is a “high” route.
Most of the Bengals’ plays come from Los Angeles, where McVay already established their names and backstories. “But I can’t bring myself to use Rams verbiage, we want to establish our own verbiage here in Cincy,” Taylor says.
Taylor’s office is spacious. At his desk is a laptop that runs his coaches film program, and that is connected to an 80-inch screen. There are two computer monitors and a nearly wall-sized whiteboard, which sits in front of a conference table that comfortably seats nine. The other walls are adorned top to bottom with family photos. The only Bengals paraphernalia is a coffee mug on the back corner of a shelf.
Thirty-two-year-old assistant quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher, whom Taylor felt was a “must keep” member of Marvin Lewis’s staff, comes in to discuss tomorrow’s practice—a half-speed run-through of various end-of-game situational plays. Pitcher’s job is to come up with the key situations. (Example: There are five seconds left, we’re up by four, and it is fourth down. We must snap the ball, run around for a second and heave a throw deep and out of bounds, expiring the clock.)
Multiple coaches on the Bengals staff say they have been with NFL teams that never practiced these sorts of situations. In addition, going through them tomorrow has the benefit of being a physically light practice. The Bengals went full speed on Monday and Tuesday, and Taylor believes a third-straight day of all-out work makes players vulnerable to soft-tissue and muscle injuries.
Taylor gives a few assignments to Doug Rosfeld, the Bengals’ director of coaching operations and Taylor’s right-hand man. The 39-year-old is a lifelong mainstay in the Cincinnati football scene—high school, college and now pro—and Taylor pried Rosfeld away from Moeller High School, where he spent one season as an award-winning head coach. The former Cincinnati Bearcat offensive lineman, who is affable and always one step ahead, gets his marching orders before Taylor has his daily meeting with Bengals owner Mike Brown, Executive Vice President Katie Blackburn, VP of Player Personnel Paul Brown Jr., Vice President Troy Blackburn and Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin.
Players have filed into the building, and Taylor pops his head into a few position group meeting rooms to introduce the new Shaggy play. Five minutes later, he is back in his office getting an update on injured players from head athletic trainer Paul Sparling. Then Taylor is back at his keyboard, putting the finishing touches on that morning’s presentation, only to discover its film cut-up has been lost. Most of the morning’s work is down the drain, and his calm reaction to this loss is almost unnerving.
“I was just thinking about whether there is enough time to redo it before our 9:30 meeting,” he says when asked why he hasn’t blown a gasket. Fortunately, he won’t have to find out; the cut-up is found after Taylor restarts his computer.
An I.T. guy comes in to show Taylor how to put an image of Shaggy in the coaches film program so that it can be displayed alongside video of the new play. The Bengals are using a different coaches film program than the more commonly used XOS program that Taylor’s previous teams have used. Instead of putting the Bengals on XOS, Taylor himself will adjust.
Like any head coach, there are several changes Taylor wants to implement, but he doesn’t want to bombard management with all of them at once. One thing he has asked for are practice clocks. For 16 years, the Bengals ran practice without any visible clocks on the field. No one ever knew how much time remained in a given session; Lewis would monitor his watch and yell to begin and end drills.
This isn’t to say that vocal, almost primitive time-keeping is now completely gone.
On the other side of the wall behind Taylor’s desk is the offensive line room, and you can hear the rants and raves of old-school O-line coach Jim Turner, with startling clarity, throughout the day. At 9:20, with Turner midsentence, a player makes a guttural buzzer sound, as if a doctor has just put a stick in his mouth and told him to scream “ahhhh.”
Taylor laughs. “Jim loses track of time when he’s speaking to the room,” he explains, “so he asks a player to monitor the clock and mark a deadline by making an air-horn sound like you get in practice.”
The Bengals offense is meeting in the auditorium downstairs in three minutes. Taylor will introduce Shaggy and other plays. “Showtime,” he says, beelining for the door.
In the auditorium, which is not unlike a movie theater, players sit in clusters by position and take notes. “This run you see here,” Taylor says, working the projector screen’s clicker, “it only goes for two yards. That’s fine. We’ll take two yards because, as you guys know, this run directly correlates with our ‘Java’ play-action concept, so these two yards are helping set up ‘Java’ for later.”
He then shows clips of passing plays. Taylor had noticed on yesterday’s practice film that many of the wide receivers looked lethargic. In a much more upbeat tone than the way he muttered to himself in the office earlier that morning, he tells them more urgency is needed.
“And now for today, we’re introducing a new misdirection concept.” A slide appears with a picture of Scooby and Shaggy. Taylor goes through a quick spiel about Scooby Doo and Shaggy’s van, the Mystery Machine, and calls on a player to speculate about what Shaggy probably did in the Mystery Machine.
And so it’s determined that when they hear ‘Shaggy,’ they know they’re running a ‘high’ route on the outside.” Mild chuckles percolate through the room. Good enough; the players will remember the call.
After a short break, Taylor makes his way back to the auditorium for a full team meeting at 10:20. He eagerly speed-walks to every meeting, like a kid at a pool whom the lifeguard as just yelled at for running. He greets everyone he encounters but rarely breaks stride.
This meeting is brief and mostly covers logistics: travel reimbursements (players who drove to minicamp are owed $0.40 per mile); a notice that NFL referee Ron Torbert and three other officials will be on hand the next few days, courtesy of the NFL; and an overview of the rest of the week’s schedule. Taylor announces that new practice field clocks are arriving today, eliciting small cheers and murmurs of relief from the veterans.
After this, senior defensive assistant coach Mark Duffner makes what has to be history’s most thorough presentation on tackling. Duffner’s passion oozes through the nearly one dozen slides he repeatedly shows for each of the six kinds of tackles he’s identified. The players, even those on offense, pay close attention, but the exhibit’s length overtakes focus. “He’s trying to show a positive play from every guy on defense, that has to be what he’s doing,” whispers one player. By now even the coaches are stifling bemusement, and Duffner himself joins in.
The meeting concludes with an announcement from Andy Dalton, for which Taylor has made a special slide featuring the nerdiest photo they could find of the QB from his 2011 rookie year. Dalton is hosting his second annual Night to Pass It On charity event that week, and the whole team is invited. This includes to the “after party,” which starts at 9:00. Someone bellows a potshot at the almost oxymoronic phrase “Andy Dalton after party.”
Another offensive meeting, this time to install a red-zone play called Plus Birdie. “Birdie” is an already-installed three-receiver route combination; the “plus” means this is the same play, only with the slot receiver running the double-move version of his route. On this it’s essentially a skinny sluggo for the slot receiver, his landmark being the nearest upright, with the QB throwing the ball high in the back of the end zone.
The Bengals also install “Express,” which is a spinoff of their “Montreal” play, another three-receiver design. “Express” is what “Montreal” becomes if the defense shows “press” coverage on the slot. On Express, the outside receiver must “haul ass” on a clear-out route. The slot receiver runs a rub route and the “inside slot” receiver runs a wheel route off that rub. Taylor shows a clip of Rams slot maestro Cooper Kupp scoring a touchdown on this play. This segues into a lecture for wide receivers Cody Core and Tyler Boyd on the importance of finishing routes. They each had a sloppy end to a route yesterday in practice that resulted in an interception. “That’s inexcusable guys, we have to finish,” Taylor says.
As Taylor explains plays, he works through the QB’s progressions and punctuates every description with an affirmation. Example: “Andy [Dalton], you look to the No. 1 slant route, if that’s not there, you hit the flat route – boom, first down for us.” Or, “On this play, Alex [Erickson] you stem your route inside and get vertical. You either get over the top and it’s a touchdown, or the safety rotates towards you, in which case the ball goes to No. 2 on the dig, we hit that and crease it for a touchdown.” Coaches almost always describe plays with this bravado.
For example, years ago, two of Taylor’s future L.A. Rams colleagues, McVay and Matt LaFleur, were seen in an argument in the lobby of the JW Marriott hotel at the Combine. One would pick up a pen and draw a sketch of a play that beat a certain coverage. The other would take the pen, show a coverage rotation that would stymie the play, then draw what they believed was a better version of the play. It went back and forth like this for several minutes, and each time one coach was done, he stated the play’s positive outcome and unhanded the pen like a mic drop.
After going through four or five new plays that all seem certain to be lucrative, Taylor cedes the floor to offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who takes the players through their Hail Mary. Callahan explains that their Hail Mary call is “Staubach” because the legendary Cowboys QB coined the term after an improbable game-winning TD throw in the 1975 Divisional Round game at Minnesota. Callahan and Taylor have an excellent rapport; each is comfortable jumping in to augment or gently clarify parts of the other’s presentation. Here, it’s Taylor’s turn: “If we’re getting our Hail Mary hurry-up, our receivers’ spacing in their alignment is not critical, we just need to make sure the formation is legal. All things equal, on a Hail Mary, align tighter to the ball instead of out wide, because the tighter you are to the ball, the quicker your path to get downfield.”
Taylor is about to call the meeting but Dalton walks to the front of the room. Now is a good time to show the team which hand-signals go with which calls. There are about 20 signals, 19 of which are rated G and one of which, by sheer adverbial luck, is rated R—and it just so happens that players need a full explanation. Somewhere, Jay Gruden smiles. When he coordinated the Bengals’ offense, he often tried, in vain, to get the squeaky-clean Dalton to swear, especially when the QB would throw an interception and storm back to the sideline muttering “gosh darn it!” Dalton never gave in, so Gruden, the story goes, threatened to put obscenities into some of the play names. Now here stands the QB, elaborating on the obscene meaning of a word that couldn’t be avoided, because, like the other no-huddle calls, it is an adverb built off a specific word from for another play. “Trust me, that’s what it means,” Dalton explains sheepishly after displaying the hand signal. “Urban Dictionary, look it up.”
Just before practice, Taylor gets a call from his wife. They’d waited over a month to get internet at their new home, and it finally came yesterday. But today, the company that is installing a basketball hoop accidentally cut the cable in the yard. Now the internet is gone, and so is the power.
Doug Rosfeld pops his head in. “Need me to take care of it?” he asks. Confusion passes over Taylor’s face. Sarah said Doug was already on it. “Doug is the name of the gentleman installing the hoop,” Sarah says on the other line.
Practice is workmanlike, and Taylor spends most of his time with the quarterbacks and receivers. In live offense vs. defense scenarios, he calls plays—something he hasn’t done since 2016, when he was the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats. His only NFL play-calling experience came as the interim-OC in the last five games of the 2015 season with the Dolphins. In order to prepare for that responsibility, Taylor had Sarah read off game situations the Saturday night before his first game—a 1:00 affair with Baltimore—and Taylor, play sheet in hand, practiced locating and calling the right plays. The next week, the Dolphins had a Monday night game against the Giants. Worried that practicing the play calls on Sunday night, 24 hours before game time, was too far away for it to stay fresh in his mind, Taylor had Sarah read off the situations that Monday morning. Turns out, that was too close to game time. There was one instance that Monday night where assistants suggested a certain play and Taylor, who had called it that morning, mistakenly thought he’d already called it in the game. Fortunately, this time Taylor has an entire NFL offseason to iron out any personal play-calling wrinkles.
After a post-practice media session and quick meet-and-greet with an eight-year-old fan (Taylor saw him watching from behind a barricade and introduced himself), Taylor talks briefly with representatives from the Kentucky Motor Speedway. In a few weeks, Taylor will drive the pace car for NASCAR’s Quaker State 400, and he’s startled to learn that a pace car drives at 60 miles per hour. The dozens of race cars behind him will be so loud he’ll have to wear earphones. To his relief, he can think of no instances in history where disaster struck a pace car.
Rosfeld watches this meeting from a few paces away, whistle still in mouth. When it’s suggested that, with practice over, he no longer needs to be at the ready to blow it, Rosfeld opens his mouth, letting the whistle fall and dangle around his neck. “You never know,” he says, reinserting it between his teeth.
Still thinking aloud about the Motor Speedway meeting, Taylor enters the team cafeteria, where he’ll grab a to-go box and head up to his office to watch film of today’s practice.
Watching film of practice is a frustrating endeavor because a coach naturally zeroes in on the flaws, and with so many young, inexperienced receivers on the team right now, there are plenty. Take something as simple as a wide receiver screen.
“I learned this from McVay, this concept was his baby,” Taylor says, rising to demonstrate. “When catching a wide receiver screen, keep your feet planted. Just turn and open your body, do not move your feet, and certainly do not drift back. This allows you to immediately get downhill upon catching the ball. Cooper Kupp was great at this. Robert Woods was too – he was great at all these details.”
Taylor rolls the film and watches one Bengals receiver after another move his feet on screens, almost always drifting away from the line of scrimmage.
Much more than just the receiver screens were sloppy, but the practice wasn’t all bad. Dalton had a brilliant back-corner touchdown throw, which other Bengals coaches are heard discussing throughout the building. There were no injuries. And the new practice clocks functioned well, though their location must be rethought, as today they were stationed much too far away, almost like they were nervous and shy on their first day.
Taylor, assistant QBs coach Dan Pitcher, referee Ron Torbert and the other officials are seated at the conference table in Taylor’s office, where Pitcher walks everyone through tomorrow’s play-by-play agenda for the situational practice. Game conditions are being simulated as much as possible. Pitcher will be on the stadium’s big screen, announcing situations over the P.A. system. Torbert, who will be mic’d, will announce calls as if on game day. There will be some challenge flag scenarios, with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo tasked with throwing the red flag. On the first snap, in fact, the Bengals will rep a play where an incomplete pass along the sidelines is incorrectly ruled complete and they have to rush to the line of scrimmage and snaps the ball before the defense can challenge. If Torbert and company are offended that Taylor and Pitcher open this meeting by essentially describing the team’s plan for when officials screw up, they show no sign.
The most detailed conversation comes on the procedures for a 10-second runoff on a moving clock. “Say there are only three seconds left in the half and the clock is about to wind” Torbert explains. “We want the offense to get the play off.” The ref blows the whistle, telling players the game is live, then makes the signal to wind the clock.
“Say there is only one second left,” Pitcher says. “Do we have time to make a full verbal cadence before snapping the ball?” After a short discussion, an official says “the safe answer is, ‘no.’”
After the offensive and defensive staffs have watched the practice film in their respective rooms, it’s time for a staff-wide meeting. Taylor opens with a trivia game, for which he and Doug spent about 15 minutes working out the details. The question: what was Mark Duffner’s winning percentage as the head coach at Holy Cross? The answer is 60-5-1—91%. If a coach guesses within two percentage points, he wins a $25 gift card for pizza or ice cream. If he guesses right on the money, it’s a $200 gift card at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, an upscale Cincinnati restaurant. The room of coaches comes alive at this announcement.
Anarumo guesses 92%, and the ice cream gift card is his. Offensive line coach Jim Turner, one of a half-dozen coaches sitting on the floor in the crowded film room, asks, “What was Mark Duffner’s winning percentage at Maryland?” Good-natured but uncomfortable laughter erupts, and Duffner, who went 20-35 in six years at Maryland, gives Turner the stink eye.
When the room scatters, Anarumo sticks around to chat with Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. Anarumo’s defense had performed well in the red zone, including against the Plus Birdie play, where slot corner B.W. Webb read Boyd’s double-move to the near upright and took away the throw. What Taylor and Callahan want to know is how Webb knew the double-move was coming.
“Because the ‘inside slot’ receiver didn’t sell his route long enough,” Anarumo explains, drawing on the whiteboard. “So when B.W. saw that receiver going here, he figured Boyd’s route could only go deep.” Taylor and Callahan are thrilled. They had no idea that the “inside slot” receiver’s route could impact the D this way; correcting that will have a domino effect that completely changes how the defense can cover Boyd.
They’re eager to explain this in the team meeting tomorrow. Besides being an excellent teaching point, it’s a chance to shine a positive light on Boyd, who was criticized in today’s meeting. “You don’t want to only call out guys for negative reasons—especially guys like Tyler Boyd who do so many things well,” Taylor explains. This is also a chance for the coaches to publicly hold themselves accountable. Boyd ran a great route and it didn’t get open because the coaches, until now, were not fully aware of how the other receivers’ routes would effect Boyd’s. Offseason practices are for both player and coach education.
Callahan is in Taylor’s office, going over a new package of line-of-scrimmage calls. They discuss various presnap motions, which they consider, in many ways, the lifeblood of their system. “The shifts and motions are very nuanced, and there is a reason for all of them, it’s rarely window-dressing,” Taylor says. “The good defensive coordinators know that and try to fight back.”
The two coaches then discuss their third-string players, many of whom are inexperienced and struggling. They decide to give those guys a special call sheet ahead of practice.
After meeting with offensive line coach Jim Turner and various other assistants one-on-one, it is time to go home and help put the kids to bed. Taylor, who showered earlier in his office, gathers his bags and makes for the parking garage for the 15-minute drive home. In about 10 hours, he’ll make that 15-minute drive back to the office for another day of work.
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