CINCINNATI — Duke Tobin, Cincinnati Bengals player personnel director, knew he had his guy minutes into the interview.
It didn’t matter that Rams assistant coach Zac Taylor was only 35 and had no head-coaching experience. Tobin said all of the members of the front office who were in the room felt the same way: Taylor was “absolutely” ready for the Bengals’ head coaching job.
Tobin never said exactly what about the interview made them so sure, but one thing probably stood out: What he lacks in age and experience, Taylor certainly makes up for in confidence and his ability to carry a room.
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“Great guy, great coach,” new Bengals guard John Miller said. “Me personally, he’s a younger coach so I feel like I can relate to him more. I think he’s got a great feel for this team and the direction he wants to take us in.”
Wide receiver A.J. Green raved about Taylor’s energy to ESPN’s Adam Schefter on his podcast, noting that players are kept on their toes in meetings by Taylor’s tendency to put them on the spot with questions.
“It’s different to have your head coach be in the offensive meeting room going through every play, every detail to every guy, telling them why they need to run this way or what this concept is,” Green said. “It’s just a little different, but it’s fun. It’s awesome because he’s so smart, he’s so detailed.”
Taylor has started shaping his team the way he wants, from releasing veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict to cutting 2018 fourth-round pick Mark Walton, who was arrested in the offseason. The Walton move might not have registered on other teams, but it resonates with the Bengals considering they have been loathe to quickly part ways with draft picks.
On the first day of OTAs, Taylor and his staff moved $9 million left tackle Cordy Glenn to guard even though he hadn’t played the position in a decade. It probably is first-round pick Jonah Williams’ job to lose.
“It’s typically what happens with those first-rounders,” Taylor said with a wry smile when someone pointed out Williams’ playing time.
Those are all tough calls, but Taylor seems to be OK with that already.
He raised some eyebrows in February when he hired Jim Turner as offensive line coach. This is Turner’s first job in the NFL since he was ousted from the Miami Dolphins in 2013 after he was identified as one of the key pieces in a bullying scandal.
Taylor said he felt comfortable with the decision, and that was that.
It’s certainly a new era for Cincinnati after 16 years with Marvin Lewis as coach, and the players have taken notice. During the Bengals’ defensive spiral last season, defensive end Carlos Dunlap noted they were doing the same thing over and over without results.
He doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“I can tell you we don’t have too many of the same things [anymore] and I’ve been here 10 years,” Dunlap said. “Last year wasn’t our best foot [forward], so if people think we’re going to come out like last year, they’ve got another thing coming.”
And just as Williams is going to be allowed to sink or swim, the Bengals are allowing Taylor to do the same. They’ve had a reputation in the past for meddling too much or being slow to adapt.
But considering that Taylor was the first major hire for owner Mike Brown’s children, Katie Blackburn and Paul Brown, it was important that they find the right coach, and that means being open to change themselves.
Total home attendance is down 17 percent since 2015 and reached its lowest number since 2011. Large patches of empty seats dominated Paul Brown Stadium in the latter half of last season, signaling that fans were ready for a change. Some predicted the Bengals wouldn’t stray far after parting ways with Lewis and might even hire a coach they already knew, such as Hue Jackson. Instead, they gambled on an unknown, following the leaguewide trend of hiring young, offense-minded coaches, particularly those with ties to Sean McVay. Taylor worked as an assistant under McVay for the Rams for the past two seasons.
Whether it proves to be a good decision will be determined, but Taylor’s youth will certainly be scrutinized.
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After all, for every McVay or Mike Tomlin there’s a Dave Shula, who was hired at 32 by the Bengals and went 19-52 before being fired during the 1996 season.
Shula, whose son Chris coached with Taylor on the Rams’ staff last year, is coaching receivers at Dartmouth after a 20-year absence.
Dave Shula doesn’t believe age matters much, back when he was hired and now with Taylor.
“It’s all about what you bring to the table, and the organization you put together, the people you surround yourself with, the plan you have, how well you communicate that plan, how well you stick to that plan, and probably most importantly, it’s holding people accountable with your staff and also with the team,” Shula said.
Shula said the Bengals have adapted in many ways. Back then, they didn’t have much of a scouting department and failed on a number of high draft picks. Things are different now, he said.
“They’ve been a playoff team, it’s not as if they haven’t been a playoff team,” Shula said of the Bengals, who went to the playoffs seven times under Lewis but never won a postseason game. “It’s not like he’s starting from the bottom. They’re solid.”
The Bengals might not be starting over, but they’re still digging themselves out of a hole. They’ve missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons and have a postseason losing streak that dates to the 1990 season.
So if Taylor inherits even some of McVay’s success, the Bengals will be pleased. Taylor, of course, wants to succeed, but he wants to do it his way.
“If I try to be Sean McVay, I’m going to fail, to be quite honest with you,” Taylor said earlier in the spring. “We’re different people. I’ve learned a lot from him, but I’m going to be Zac Taylor and do the best I can my way.”
Although McVay had a large impact on his development, Taylor said his biggest influences are his father, Sherwood Taylor, who played for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma before coaching there and at Kansas State, and his father-in-law, former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman.
Taylor’s first coaching job was under Sherman as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M. Taylor met Sherman’s daughter Sarah several years earlier, when both were students at Nebraska in 2005. Taylor and Sarah were married in 2008, the same year he began working for her father.
Back then, Sherman would have described him as quiet. Sherman now knows that was just an example of Taylor learning when to speak up and when to shut up.
“As a graduate assistant, you’re not going to volunteer too much just yet when you have a bunch of experienced coaches in the room,” Sherman said. “Timing is everything when you have a good idea when you’re a graduate assistant, and I think he always had it, but he probably didn’t share it until we got into it just a little deeper. He wasn’t going to rub people the wrong way until they had confidence in who he was and what he stood for. …
“But every coach he’s every been around has always spoken very highly of him, not just as a coach … but also as a person.”
Sherman certainly didn’t make it easy on Taylor. To keep from showing favoritism, Sherman didn’t allow Taylor to coach on the field at first. Sherman admitted he worked him hard, too, joking that Sarah probably wasn’t too fond of the late nights.
“[He] didn’t want it to ever appear that he was there because of me. He was there because of his own abilities, which is true. He was a very qualified coach.”
Mike Sherman on Taylor
But Taylor worked his way up quickly.
“When he got on the field, he was certainly up for it because he worked extremely hard, [he] didn’t want it to ever appear that he was there because of me. He was there because of his own abilities, which is true. He was a very qualified coach,” Sherman said.
Added Taylor: “I think when you work for family, it can go both ways. People can look at it one way, but for me it was, I had to do a little extra because people could say, ‘Oh, he got this job because his father-in-law hired him.’ Well, I’ve got to work extra hard to make sure I can earn his trust so I don’t make him look bad. Consequently, I think he puts a little more faith in you because he wanted to help me so I was exposed to a lot more at an earlier age than probably most [graduate assistants] get exposed to. It really helped escalate my growth as a coach.”
Those early years under Sherman has led him to this point, where he has the chance to put his own stamp on a team.
“I think the biggest thing for us, we have two team rules … be on time and protect the team,” Green said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, the two rules for us and holding everybody accountable, holding everybody to a high standard. I think that’s the biggest change from Coach Lewis. Everybody’s held accountable, everybody’s held to that high standard.”