The Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor in Feb. 2019 hoping he would rejuvenate their franchise. He brought a young, fresh perspective full of hope.
As we enter Week 12 of the 2020 season his vision of strong communication and culture flowing through the locker room have yet to come to fruition. The Bengals are 2-7-1 on the year and 4-21-1 since Taylor became head coach.
While his intentions are good, what is being created under the current regime at Paul Brown Stadium is far from a dream environment of trust and cohesion. Instead, sources tell AllBengals that it is the exact opposite.
We have heard Taylor say on numerous occasions that the players are “buying in” to his vision, and while some players agree with him publicly, that is not quite the case behind the scenes.
You don’t have to be in the locker room to know that quarterback Joe Burrow was respected among his teammates and coaches. He was voted a captain before taking his first official NFL snap. He is a source of energy and hope for the other players around him.
His presence was a sign that things could get better in the future. Burrow is a man that his peers can rally behind and believe in, a true leader guiding the rest through a chaotic season.
In Week 11, during Cincinnati’s 20-9 road loss to Washington the Bengals franchise quarterback sustained a gruesome knee injury, which ended his season. Sources say Burrow tore his ACL and MCL. He also suffered damage to his PCL and meniscus.
When the team watched their captain go down, hearing him groan in pain, the sidelines completely deflated.
The spark of their football team was then carted off the field.
Following the game, Taylor was asked if he sensed a change in body language and energy when Burrow left the game and Taylor replied, “no."
He relayed a similar message to his team following the loss on Sunday according to sources. Players smirked at each other throughout the postgame conversation.
“We see right through it," a member of the team said.
With injuries mounting, players on the team look to veterans like wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Giovani Bernard for leadership as they ride the unforgiving wave of adversity through this season.
When it comes to the head coach, players want transparency, accountability, and clear expectations. That type of leadership begins and ends with relationships.
Has Taylor taken the time to get to know all of his players? Does he have an open door policy?
The second-year coach declined to comment.
Andy Dalton's run with the Bengals ended in April. The team released him after selecting Burrow with the No. 1 pick.
Some players on the team were not happy with how that situation was handled, but it was just another reminder that the NFL is a business.
When Dalton was benched for Ryan Finley in Week 8 of the 2019 season, he aired out his frustration to the media. He was upset about the lack of communication between him and the coaching staff. The decision to bench him came three hours before the trade deadline.
At that time Dalton believed his agent could've found him a starting spot on another team, but he didn't have enough time to facilitate a trade. This was not solely on Taylor.
The Bengals held onto Dalton while his stock was at its highest and waited for his value to plummet before ultimately releasing him in April.
Disgruntled players come with the territory of a coaching change. How new coaches build relationships with those players during the transition is a critical step for a locker room’s culture.
Multiple sources have described the culture in Cincinnati as more of a “college-level” environment instead of a professional locker room.
One member of the team said that the culture didn't even compare to a college locker room.
"It's worse," they said.
Multiple people within the organization believe players are staying quiet because they don't want to lose playing time. They say that there is very little trust between the players and the coaching staff.
Taylor declined to comment when I asked about trust issues between his players and staff.
When the Bengals lost to the Browns 35-30 in Week 2, sources say Carlos Dunlap was not keen on going back into the game after the coaching staff held him out for more than a quarter.
Instead of pulling the two-time Pro Bowler aside and talking to him directly afterward, the coaching staff held a team meeting. They singled-out Dunlap in hopes of setting the standard for the team, but multiple players were rubbed the wrong way when they watched this situation play out.
“I’ve never seen that in my life, it was awkward," one source said.
It's no secret that Dunlap and the coaching staff butted heads.
During that time some players steered clear of aligning themselves with Dunlap due to politics inside the locker room. Not everyone agreed with how his situation was handled, but they felt the need to choose sides.
A few weeks after the awkward meeting that left some scratching their heads, Dunlap found out that he was being demoted. He was not told about his removal from the rush package by coaches and instead found out about the change when he walked into a coach's office and saw the switch on the whiteboard. Shortly after, he had a media engagement, and his raw emotions poured out.
“I’m really trying to figure out the plan," Dunlap said. “It’s kind of frustrating you know. I would like to just prepare for Baltimore but I have to prepare to figure out the madness that they’re doing."
The Bengals traded Dunlap following the friction between him and the coaching staff. He's in a better situation with the Seahawks, who are currently in first place in the NFC West.
Like Dunlap, John Ross tried to force his way out of town before the trade deadline. He had grown frustrated with his role and the lack of communication from the coaching staff.
In October, the former first-round pick took to Twitter to respond to some of the criticism he had received.
“It’s not a secret that I have requested a trade," Ross said. “Trade me if this how y’all feel. I’m healthy and eager to play. I know I can be productive. It’s hard to love something when your not actually participating in it. Believe me, it's not football that I don’t like."
There is a complete disconnect and lack of trust between multiple players and coaches in the building according to some affiliated with the team.
Sources say defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is unapproachable. They add that he regularly uses abusive language and commonly calls players “dumb mother f---ers” and “dumb b----es”.
They say Anarumo has created an environment where communication and accountability are scarce. He often yells at one player for mistakes and chooses to ignore the mistakes of other players in his favor.
Taylor declined to comment when asked about Anarumo's language and coaching style.
Offensive line coach Jim Turner also utilizes abusive language according to multiple members of the organization. In the spring, he called former Ohio State Buckeye Isaiah Prince a “thug” during a Zoom meeting.
When former NFL offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley found out about the incident, he “raised hell” and demanded Turner apologize to Prince. Turner obliged.
As for the offensive line's meeting room, there are low standards and a lack of accountability. There is little competition for starting spots on the offensive line because Turner has “his guys.” Michel Jordan is a prime example of that.
Burrow’s playmaking ability was offensive line friendly and he was still hit 72 times through nine games, which was tied with Daniel Jones for the most by a rookie quarterback in his first nine games over the past 20 NFL seasons.
Several people are growing frustrated but they lay low and keep working in hopes of being in a better situation in the future. Where does the team go from here?
Veteran leaders are the glue that holds the pieces together. It is up to Taylor and his staff to flip the script, demand accountability, and actively fix the culture in Cincinnati.
The front office needs to work with this coaching staff and build a team that deserves Burrow as their quarterback in 2021.
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