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From Arena2 To No. 9, Bengals New Assistant Justin Rascati Has Seen It All From Inside Out

Pass Game Coordinator Justin Rascati
Pass Game Coordinator Justin Rascati

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has a different set of eyes in his new pass game coordinator and there's not much Justin Rascati hasn't seen from inside out while playing at every level and coaching every position but running back.

Like Taylor, Rascati is a former college quarterback who transferred to a starting job.

Like his new quarterback, Joe Burrow, Rascati quarterbacked a national champion.

Like his new offensive coordinator, Dan Pitcher, Rascati has worked in various nooks and crannies of a system and comes in with four of his five NFL seasons as an offensive line assistant.

But those guys never got $200 a game and 50 bucks more if they won. They never rode a bus more than a dozen hours to play the Albany, N.Y., Firebirds. And they most certainly never caught a pass from the late bluegrass legend Jared Lorenzen while calling Rupp Arena their home field.

Rascati did all those things for the Arena Football League2 Kentucky Horsemen in 2009, a year after he quarterbacked the Peoria Pirates while tending bar because the coach decreed all players had to work in the town.

Not only that, Rascati and Bengals director of college scouting Mike Potts quarterbacked against each other in college and Arena2.

"It's a fun league for a quarterback. It's just a lot to learn initially," Rascati says. "You have to tweak your mechanics a little bit to maybe get the ball out quicker with your footwork. It's just all about anticipation and timing. Getting on the same page with those receivers."

But that was tough, too, since the roster was a revolving door. Not to mention small. There were some snaps Rascati had to play receiver if one went down or needed a breather. There were also times in a huddle when Rascati was introducing himself and a route to the same receiver.

But he found a good friend in Lexington, where Lorenzen was the Horsemen's big draw. They rotated about every two series.

"A great dude and a great player," says Rascati of the iconic "Hefty Lefty," who had a JUGS machine up his sleeve. "Such great arm talent. He was more comfortable in the shotgun, which is unheard of in Arena, so I had to adjust to that.

"He was in the NFL for a while and won a Super Bowl with the Giants. He was on the back end of his career and just wanted to come back home and play for the local team. He had a lot to learn, so I think he kind of leaned on me to help him with the game, but we became great friends."

So great that after the team dissolved and Lorenzen became general manager of the Northern Kentucky River Monsters of the Ultimate Indoor Football League, he tried to recruit Rascati, assuring him he'd only have to practice once a week. When Rascati turned him down, Lorenzen played instead and won the league's MVP.

"My wife would have none of that," Rascati says. "I love the game. I love being around my teammates. I wanted to play a little longer, but I always knew I was going to coach."

Rascati, a Louisville transfer who led James Madison to the 2004 NCAA I-A title, thought a training camp shot beckoned as either a late draft pick or an undrafted rookie contract. Instead, he didn't make it past the Bears minicamp or a Montreal training camp in the CFL.

But for Rascati, the laces had a grip on him, and he kept following his passion as long as he could. When his on-field career was over, he and his wife pooled his Arena2 money and it worked out to about six grand, enough for a three-year anniversary trip to Jamaica.

"We weren't doing it for the money," he says. "It was both, I guess. The love of the game, but also there was always something in the back of your mind. Maybe I'd get a chance if I played long enough."

His coaching career has been just as varied in expanding Taylor's staff.

He broke into high school coaching with the help of one of the great Louisville quarterbacks, Dave Ragone, at Kentucky Country Day. The big break came when John L. Smith, his coach at Louisville, took him to Weber State as his quarterbacks coach. When he went to coach the receivers at Tennessee-Martin, he also coached the tight ends for a spring.

Rascati went back to the quarterbacks as the offensive coordinator for Tennessee Tech and then Tennessee-Chattanooga before Ragone called again in 2019. Ragone was coaching the Bears quarterbacks by then and his golfing buddy, Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, had an opening for a quality control coach. Ragone recommended Rascati and the rest, as they say. He worked primarily with the line for two years before moving to the quarterbacks room for a year.

When offensive line coach Chris Kuper went to the Vikings in 2022, he took Rascati with him as his assistant and as he takes this new job he believes the background with the line is going to turn out to have been a must.

"I would say I wish I did this 10 years ago before I called plays," Rascati says. "Obviously, you want to build your system around your quarterback and what his skill set is. But I think it's also important to kind of see it through the lens of the offensive line.

"I think it's helped me tremendously from a run game standpoint to protection plan to really understanding more than scheme. More technique fundamentals. And what problem looks they may have and how to handle it. And how to really protect those guys because, in this league, games are won at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. You can quickly get exposed at this level with your protection plan if it's not sound."

Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell made sure to keep him involved in the passing game, which means Rascati has been exposed to another branch of the Sean McVay coaching tree, which has its roots with Kyle Shanahan and includes Taylor, the LaFleur brothers, old friend Zac Robinson, the new Falcons offensive coordinator, and new Titans head coach Brian Callahan. When Rascati was in Denver, his coordinator was Rich Scangarello, Shanahan's quarterbacks coach on two different occasions.

"Zac (Taylor) has made it his own and obviously he's had a lot of success with what he's done offensively building around the quarterback and all that," Rascati says. "That's what's been pretty cool. To see all these guys and how they've made it grow and how a lot of the core philosophies are very similar to what they did with McVay, but they've made it their own."

Taylor won't delve into the specifics of Rascati's role. He simply says Rascati "is another brain in the building." Another lens, really, like the one Rascati took to the offensive line.

The Bengals lead the NFL in their use of three-receiver sets. With two-time Pro Bowl fullback C.J. Ham, the Vikings ran more two-receiver stuff, three tight ends, as well as some two-backs. The Bengals don't have a fullback, but they've had three 1,000-yard receivers and a Pro Bowl quarterback.

"To me, it's a sign they're all good coaches.

You never want to just have a system that doesn't evolve or doesn't cater to your roster," Rascati says. "You want to be able to adjust and do what's best for what you have. To me, that's a sign of really good coaches."

Burrow, Rascati says, is what it's all about.

"There's nothing he can't do, right?" Rascati says. "He can extend plays in and out of the pocket. He can extend plays with his feet, with the run, and create plays off schedule. Obviously, he can make all the throws in the pocket. He's very accurate. Throws the ball on time, he anticipates very well, he's tough, competitive, good leader. Very smart and has complete control of the offense.

"That's what you want in a quarterback. Somebody who takes complete ownership of the offense, is in complete command at the line of scrimmage, and distributes the ball to the playmakers that we have. He does a great job of that."

Rascati spent last weekend in Cincinnati getting settled in his Paycor Stadium office, which meant he watched the Super Bowl with 10-year-old son Rhett on his phone. Rhett is fired up for next year's Burrow vs. Patrick Mahomes matchup.

So is his dad.

"This is a very special place," says Rascati, a long way from a road game in Albany. "I'm just excited to be here and I think it's a great opportunity."