When the Bengals play in Oakland's famed Black Hole for the last time Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the two teams may be more closely tied than when Bengals head coach Zac Taylor played his old Rams team in London last month.
After all, Taylor merely worked for Rams head coach Sean McVay. But he played for Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Even if it was for just a spring a dozen years ago before Gruden cut him on the eve of the Buccaneers training camp.
"I think they probably just brought me in because I could call the plays in the rookie minicamp. In hindsight, those are the things you start to figure out as you start coaching. That made a little bit of sense," said Taylor with a laugh at his Wednesday presser. "He's really smart and detailed. My college coach, Bill Callahan, and him are very close. They coached together for a long time. There was a lot of continuity there from me playing at Nebraska, and then the short offseason I had there, it was a very similar offense with very similar verbiage."
And Gruden had to laugh during Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media.
"I just needed a quarterback to call my plays. I screwed up a lot of quarterbacks. But I haven't screwed him up too bad," Gruden said. "He had a really good run as a college quarterback and he's a great, great young man. And he's an excellent teacher of the game. I'm really excited he's got this opportunity and hope they show a little patience. I know they will and he'll be great."
Even more ties. Not only that, Callahan's son, Brian, is Taylor's offensive coordinator a year after he was Gruden's quarterbacks coach in Oakland. The Raiders coaching staff, sans the freshly-hired Callahan (announced suddenly and surprisingly by Gruden himself in a news conference), worked the Senior Bowl back in January and coached North Carolina State's Ryan Finley, the Bengals quarterback on Sunday. Two of Gruden's current coaches used to work with the Bengals, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach David Lippincott, and two of Gruden coaches from last season, Callahan and running backs coach Jemal Singleton, work for the Bengals.
But the Bengals won't face their defensive captain of the last several years in linebacker Vontaze Burfict, suspended for the year after yet another violation of the NFL safety rules in the first month of the season when he had helmet-to-helmet contact. Gruden is pleased he took the recommendation of Guenther and Lippincott to recommend him to a contract not long after the Bengals cut him back in April, two guys that worked with him every day at his position since the Bengals brought him into the league in 2012.
"I don't know how much more intelligence I could have had," Gruden said. "I'm not happy about what the league did to him. I'm not at all. I'm appalled by it, ticked off by it, but what can I do? I've got a lot of respect for what Burfict did coming in here. He was elected team captain by every man on our team and he played very, very well.
"I've got two coaches that coached him, that had a lot more contact with him than I had and he came in and did everything we asked him to do. What happened to him was unprecedented in the history of football and I hope someday we get to coach him again."
Brian Callahan helps coach Finley on Sunday and Gruden is quite aware of both. He's known Callahan since he was a kid when his father coached with Gruden for four years at the turn of turn-of-the-century during his first term as the Raiders head coach before Bill Callahan succeeded him for two years in 2002.
"It is real special because I spent a lot my life being involved somewhere with the Raiders," Brian says of Sunday. "A member of a coach's family for six years and as a member of Jon's staff in their first year trying to get it off the ground the way they wanted to do it. It will be my last time I'll ever play a game in the Oakland Coliseum. But it will be pretty cool. It's a great environment. That's a great place to play. I've got a ton of respect for Jon. Jon has taught me a lot. To me, Jon is a Master coach."
Here is the master's scouting report on Finley from that week in Mobile, Ala:
"We really liked him. He's got real good football mind. He had a lot of playing experience at North Carolina State," Gruden said. "More athletic than you think. Accurate passer and he's tough, man, he's tough. He can make tough-window throws. We've got a lot of respect for Finley. I don't think they're going to treat him like a rookie. They're going to ask him to do a lot of things and he's capable of doing it."
More ties. Both staffs struggled during their first season on the job. In Gruden's return from the Monday Night booth last season, the Raiders started 1-7, but are currently half a game behind the first place Chiefs in the AFC West. The Bengals are banking on Taylor's 0-9 start to turn out the same way.
The question is if the Bengals 2020 draft class will be as prolific as Gruden's second draft class, which leads the NFL in touchdowns by a rookie class. And Gruden's 4-12 team got a facelift in unrestricted free agency: Patriots tackle Trent Brown, Rams slot corner Lamarcus Joyner, Cardinals defensive end Benson Mayowa and Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams. When they added journeyman guard Richie Incognito, they re-made an offensive line that allowed five sacks in the Bengals' last win, a 30-16 victory over Oakland on Dec. 16, 2018 at Paul Brown Stadium. This year the Raiders are the only team in the league this season to hold four different teams without a sack.
"He's as accomplished an offense mind. He's got great energy. He's a great presenter. And he's got a vision and a real good idea what he wants his team to look like," Brian Callahan says of Gruden. "So they've kind of built that and it looks very much like he said it would look back when we got there last February … He's done a really good job there. They're on an upwards trajectory, they've built a good, solid team and they do things the right way."
Gruden passed on giving Taylor advice. But he's torn up a lot of his offense to get quarterback Derek Carr on track. It may sound a bit familiar.
"You have to build your team. We're in the process of doing the same thing," Gruden said. "You're going to have tough, tough days. No doubt. Just stay true to yourself. Stay true to your core beliefs. Lean on your coaching staff. Lean on your players. Good things will happen. Just keep working. Good things will happen. Keep digging.
Check out images from Wednesday's practice as the Bengals gear up for a Week 11 showdown against the Oakland Raiders.
"We've been through a lot of changes here as we put this team together. We've taught them a new offense. New tight ends. New receivers. New offensive line. A lot of new things happening. We've shifted gears from multiple receiver sets to multiple tight end sets."
There's a lot going on Sunday, too.
"They've got a great staff, good people," Brian Callahan said. "Really good friends of mine, so I root for them all the time. Except this weekend. I want to try and beat their ass, to be honest with you. I think they feel the same about us."