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Inside the Search for the Bengals 10th Head Coach

Quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor of the Los Angeles Rams coaches against the Arizona Cardinals during the Rams 31-9 victory over the Cardinals in an NFL regular season Week 16 football game, Sunday, December 23, 2018, in Glendale, AZ. (Jeff Lewis/Rams)

The Bengals don’t do this very often.

Before the end of last season, the only other NFL team that hadn’t launched a head coaching search in the social media crush of Facebook-Instagram-Twitter were Bill Belichick’s Patriots. This is their first head coaching hire to banner across NFL Network and the first one in three presidents, three Cincinnati mayors and one Banks project on the riverfront.

But when Marvin Lewis’ 16-year-run ended on the last day of 2018, elements of the 21st century were in place to yield Monday’s announcement of Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor that kicks off the most sweeping off-season changes in franchise history.

Ownership’s evergreen list of candidates displayed on spreadsheets on their desktops and iPads now had to be whittled to a list of about 25. Among some college head coaches and NFL position coaches, every coordinator in the league had been banked, complete with a box of shorthand notes detailing age and experience as well as impressions from game tape and ancillary interviews.

The makeup of the Bengals’ search committee had also made a transition since it tapped Lewis on Jan, 14, 2003, ending the courtship of the Washington defensive coordinator and officially stopping his two-year reign as the NFL’s hottest assistant coach. To find his successor, the Bengals added director of player personnel Duke Tobin to the family ownership group that chose Lewis: Bengals president Mike Brown, executive vice president Katie Blackburn and vice presidents Paul Brown and Troy Blackburn.

The move not only affirms the trust Tobin has elicited since Mike Brown gave him control of the draft room about a decade ago, but it reflects his growing role in the organization as well as the realization that his film work and league contacts would be invaluable in leading a search.

It also could have sealed the deal for Taylor. That first interview went deep enough to show how close he and Tobin are in their views of scheme and philosophy that come from the Mike Shanahan-Gary Kubiak tree based in the West Coast scheme.

“We watch a lot of film down here,” says one Bengals insider about all three levels of Paul Brown Stadium. “But no one watches as much film as the scouts.”

So the journey to make Taylor the 10th Bengals head coach would be a bit longer than the decision to hire the man that became their first Super Bowl coach in December of 1979.

When Mike Brown and his father, Bengals founder Paul Brown, met with former Browns head coach Forrest Gregg for lunch in the coffee shop of a Fifth Street hotel, Mike Brown can’t remember being disturbed by the general public in a process now reserved for conference rooms and private planes.

But the hiring of Taylor also had something in common with the hiring of Sam Wyche, their second Super Bowl coach who was also an undrafted quarterback and NFC West quarterbacks coach. Each key interview took place in California and reflected the offensive roots of the franchise. It struck that same kind of chord with former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, the guy that arrived with Wyche in 1984.

“Zac Taylor, right? He’s supposed to be the next Bengals head coach,” said Esiason last week as he covered the Super Bowl for CBS watching Taylor pupil Jared Goff. “He’s kind of like Sam when he came to Cincinnati. He’s coming from a successful offense, like (Rams head coach) Sean McVay coming from Bill Walsh. The no huddle, let’s get to the line of scrimmage and let’s go. Hopefully he able to recreate that in Cincinnati.”

It’s a bit ironic that for all but three games of this century, the Bengals have had their only defensive head coaches in Lewis and Dick LeBeau.

“We’re looking for a young, bright offensive mind. That is where the game is going,” says Mike Brown. “I don’t think you have to be 50 years old to coach in the National Football League. You can be, but a lot of guys start when they’re young. My father was young.”

Paul Brown was 37 when he began running the Cleveland Browns on and off the field at the end of World War II, but the Bengals are looking to balance youth with some of the same old same old 72 years later.

“The hope is this coaching search will end up with the success of the last one,” Tobin says. “Marvin is the all-time winningest coach in this franchise’s history. That was a successful search and he brought a lot to the organization. We expect to get another long relationship and the next winningest coach in franchise history. Zac will bring new thoughts, new ideas with a fresh perspective on our team and a lot fresh thoughts for our players and a new message for them that we think will resonate. We felt it was time for change and we believe Zac will provide that.”

The Bengals’ original list of candidates to interview reflected that respect for Lewis with several of them coming from his staff. The committee thought the talks with those that had also worked outside the building were particularly enlightening because they brought different perspectives to building a program.

But clearly the focus was offense after quarterback Andy Dalton had gone through four coordinators in six seasons. There was a need, the committee thought, for an effort to bring scheme stability “so when you have changes to the staff the base philosophy stays with you,” Tobin says.

The Bengals continued their search with a change of philosophy during Wild Card weekend when they jetted west in a private plane to interview assistants on play-off teams. In this New Deal of an offseason, that’s another thing the Bengals don’t usually do. But they had to if they wanted to talk to Taylor, an insider in the middle of one of the league’s most exciting playbooks.

When all those years ago Wyche met Paul and Mike Brown at the family home in La Jolla, Calif., he got lost and was an hour late. But it was out west where this 2019 search surprisingly found its footing. The sense had been after interviewing the original list, the Bengals would move on to the next wave of candidates and they were the most surprised of all when they didn’t.

When the committee landed back in Cincinnati that Saturday night from out west, they felt the candidates were so detailed, organized and engaging that the Bengals sensed they had found the type of head man they sought.

A mind from one of the league’s current prolific offenses young enough to be in touch with the emerging generation of assistant coaches and players while delivering a jolt of fresh air. But wise enough to have a plan to institute his own culture and one that has been successful in an NFL locker room. Such as Lewis did in 2003.

And if it’s one thing Mike Brown likes more than quarterbacks is points. While McVay’s scheme took the NFL by storm and debuted leading the league in scoring in 2017 before finishing runner-up in 2018, the Bengals went through two seasons they averaged less than three touchdowns per game.

When the search committee landed at the Van Nuys airport, not far from the Rams’ facility, and then drove to the Four Seasons Hotel at West Lake Village, the second-to-last thing on the Bengals’ mind is that they were going to get blown away in the interviews. The last thing is that they would start thinking about giving the job to the youngest of the candidates in the 35-year-old Taylor.

But then he started flipping through his plans like a 50-year-old. The youngest just may have been the most organized.

Taylor had not been unknown to the Bengals. As the Nebraska quarterback named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, he was in their 2007 draft book as a 6-2, 210-pounder with a free-agent grade. When the Bengals hired Lazor as their quarterbacks coach in 2016 after he got fired as the Dolphins offensive coordinator, Taylor, Lazor’s quarterbacks coach, replaced him for the last half of the season. The next year they both ended up in Cincy because Taylor became the offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati before he went with McVay to Los Angeles.

As McVay single-handedly shot down the age question when he took the Rams to the playoffs in his first year at 31, his staff that was blowing up scoreboards every week started showing up on the radar.

“It’s a combination of both talking to people that have been around him and obviously we did a lot of research talking to him,” says Tobin of why they think Taylor is ready. “His background is excellent. He’s been around football his whole life. He’s been an accomplished player himself. He knows what a successful locker room looks like as a coach and player. We thought that was important and he brings a confidence that you would expect out of a successful collegiate quarterback. His leadership comes through. His intellect for the game comes across. His confidence in himself. Those are important factors for a head coach.”

Mike Brown, almost eight decades in the game now and evaluating a guy that could be his grandson, was suitably impressed.

“Bright as anyone we’ve had here,” said Brown, going through the offensive honor roll. “Sam. Lindy (Infante). (Bruce) Coslet. Bruce never got the credit he deserved, but he and Sam both did it.”

The team was also drawn to Taylor’s desire to live and work in Cincinnati. Both he and wife Sarah, the daughter of long-time NFL coach Mike Sherman, grew up Midwestern and Sarah fell in love with the town during that year at UC and still has a lot of friends in the 275 belt.

With four children under the age of nine and her husband also the product of a football family (brother Press is the Eagles QBs coach, Dad was an Oklahoma safety), it looks like a great fit for a community that leads with football and family.

“We wanted guys who wanted us as much as we wanted them,” Tobin says. “He was as interested in the team as we were in him and that’s meaningful. It just felt like a natural, good, easy match when talking to Zac.”

The Bengals weren’t the only ones blown away by a Taylor interview. When they pulled into the Four Seasons that night, the Broncos’ contingent headed by club president John Elway was already interviewing him and loving the easy rapport with a guy born in his rookie season of 1983.

Apparently Elway emerged declaring that Taylor had what it takes and was enamored with the thoroughness of a plan that went right down to the length of the walk-throughs. What possibly didn’t fit is that Elway had just moved off a first-time head coach after just two years and wasn’t ready to do that again so soon.

With the Cardinals also putting Taylor on their dance card, he wasn’t exactly a state secret. The Bengals saw the same detail Elway glimpsed the next morning as Taylor adroitly handled the obvious as well as the arcane. He showed he had a grip on their roster when he knew the skills of third running back Mark Walton and how he saw their secondary matching up against the Rams. And the questions like:

  • If you run a predominantly zone scheme, how do you make it look the same in a run game vs. the pass game?
  • What do you do if you’ve got a tight end not strong enough to block on the front side?
  • What do you do when you lose your stud tight end? Or your No. 2 receiver?

“It gives you an insight not on what play they’re going to call, but how they solve problems,” says one club insider.

But maybe what appealed to the Bengals more than anything is when Taylor opened the interview talking about the big picture and not game plans. Culture. Tone. Locker room. Same high standards throughout.

McVay talked about similar stuff last week during the run-up to the Super Bowl, even handing out to his players “We Not Me” t-shirts.

“Everything is foundationally driven, like we’ve said over and over again, in the relationships,” said McVay in one of his news conferences. “How can you find a way to authentically and genuinely create value for everybody so they know they’re a part of the success we have? I think especially in the game of football to think that any one player or one coach is a part of why teams do things that just isn’t right. I don’t think it’s accurate. I think what’s great about football is it’s everybody being on the same page.”

The idea of communication and same-page mantra struck home with the Bengals. With Tobin running the draft room, they still plan to keep the coaches involved in the process and continue to seek their counsel in roster moves.

“I’ve always felt the job of the personnel guys is to work hard to make the head coach successful and that won’t change,” Tobin says. “We want their opinion and thoughts on the guys we may bring in. We want everyone involved with the player to be on-board and on the same page when he walks in the door. This unity gives the best chance for the guy to succeed.”

Besides culture and scheme, they also talked philosophy, like free agency and strength and conditioning. As Taylor flipped through his plan, more pages fit than didn’t.

“Ultimately you want a team that maximizes the players that it has and has a vision for the players that it wants,” Tobin says. “You’re never going to have everything you want. But are you flexible enough to maximize what you have? I think we found that in him. I don’t think he’s rigid in his thinking at all. I think that’s an important trait for any coach.”

The Bengals have been without a head coach for a record 38 days. But Taylor is a young man in a hurry.

“Anybody you hire is a gamble. There are no sure bets,” Tobin says. “You try to find a coach that believes in the things you want the team to be. He certainly does. Everybody grows on the job when they get a job. It doesn’t matter who you are. You grow on the job. We feel like we can all grow together with him.”

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