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Intact Bengals Offensive Staff Feels Super Urgency Steering Joe Burrow Into Year Four

Troy Walters (left) returns as wide receivers coach.
Troy Walters (left) returns as wide receivers coach.

The last puff of white smoke has disappeared.

It has become increasingly clear that Team Burrow, the offensive staff Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has assembled, is staying intact as offensive coordinator Brian Callahan quoted the quotable Jim Harbaugh.

"Don't try to out-happy, happy."

"I venture to guess," Callahan said this week, "we'll have five or six head coaches off this staff and hopefully everyone looks back on it as a Super Bowl-winning staff on top of it all."

In this round of the coaching carousel, Callahan didn't get a head coaching gig, quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher decided to stay instead of pursue the Tampa Bay offensive coordinator job and wide receivers coach Troy Walters went right to the wire before the Texans tapped their offensive coordinator.

But there's no down side in staying with a Super Bowl contender armed with one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

Plus, under Walters, wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd have been considered the NFL's best trio over the past two years. Chase and Higgins both went over 1,000 yards in 2021 and 2022, the first time the Bengals have done that  since Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2006-07, when future two-time NFL head coach Hue Jackson coached them in '06.

 "We've got something special going on now," Pitcher said. "I've been a part of this from the ground up. I believe the Super Bowl is in our near future and I want to be a part of that."

Callahan, 38, in the mix for top jobs the last two seasons, was disappointed but certainly not devastated. Not when he gets to coach quarterback Joe Burrow, Chase and Higgins and all the rest.

"It's always fun to go look for a job when you've got a great one in your back pocket," Callahan said. "They're going to look back on our staff at some point in the future and they're going to say, 'Boy, what a coaching staff that was.' Troy is going to be a head coach. Pitch is going to be a head coach. God-willing I'll be one. Frank (Pollack) is one of the premier offensive line coaches in football. Lou (Anarumo) is going to be a head coach.

"If you're looking for advantages, staff continuity is certainly an advantage," Callahan said. "You have to make it pay off, too, but it's an advantage to be going into our fifth year together. It's pretty awesome."

There's also the longest-tenured special teams coordinator in the NFL in Darrin Simmons, two-time NFL coordinator James Bettcher coaching linebackers for the second year and a 28-year veteran of coaching blue-chip players in college and the pros in defensive line coach Marion Hobby in his third year.

Pitcher, 36, has been here longer than all but two on staff as he heads into his eighth season in Cincinnati. Only Simmons (21 seasons) and safeties coach Robert Livingston (nine) have been here longer. The Bengals gave him his first NFL coaching job after he worked four seasons with the Colts as a scout.

Loyalty tugged him back.

"This organization has been incredible to me and my family. They gave me my first coaching job in the NFL," Pitcher said. "To promote me numerous times and for Zac to keep me in the head coaching change (to Taylor from Marvin Lewis), I do feel a tremendous sense of loyalty to Zac, (director of player personnel) Duke Tobin and the Brown and Blackburn families.

"The Tampa thing was an awesome opportunity. The people I met down there, Coach (Todd) Bowles, Jason Licht, the general manager, and several others in the organization, I enjoyed getting to know those guys and I'm grateful for their interest they showed in me. But I just didn't feel like this was the time to leave Cincinnati … We've got this thing headed in the right direction big time and I just want to be a part of finishing it off."

They were handed a Ferrari and they have done nothing but fine-tune it. As soon as Burrow qualified, he became the NFL's all-time leader in completion percentage and he's not exactly dinking and dunking while leading the league in passes of at least 40 yards over the last two seasons.

His 42 NFL starts rank with the best first 42 NFL starts of all-time while racking up the fifth most touchdown passes (82), yards (11,774) and passer rating (100.4).

And, Burrow's five playoff wins in his first three seasons are second only to Russell Wilson.

"What's not to like?" Callahan asked. "He loves football. He loves practicing, he loves meetings, he's fun to be around. Great personality. He loves working."

Pitcher and Burrow share similar backgrounds. Both were relatively small high school quarterbacks raised in college towns, Burrow in Athens, Ohio, and Pitcher in Cortland, N.Y., and the relationship is a natural one.

"But," Pitcher said with a smile last season, "I wasn't nearly as good as him. Of course, there are millions of guys not as good as him."

To get another shot at working with Burrow is not only incentive for players, but take an NFL quarterbacks coach.

"For sure. We all know it's a quarterback league and we have the best one in my opinion," Pitcher said. "There are some other really, really good ones. I know that. I love working with Joe every day. I think we've done a good job putting an environment around him where he can be his best self, his best player. I look forward to continuing to do that."

They say there are things to work on, but not right now. At the moment, the coaches are decompressing before they get back into it next week to prepare for the NFL scouting combine at the end of the month.

"It's good to get away and step back from it and get all the emotion out before looking at things," Callahan said.

As the seasons together pile up, improving should be easier.

"Now we've reached the point going into (Burrow's) year four where, schematically, he's got a lot of input, too. That's a lot of fun," Callahan said. "There are more peer conversations as opposed to us trying to tell him what to do. That's when it starts to get really fun. The quarterback has great input to make big adjustments and give his thoughts and feelings about plays and what position to put players in.

"It's a really dynamic environment to go to work in every day."

During this past Super Bowl week, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy talked about how quarterback Patrick Mahomes used last season's loss to the Bengals in last year's AFC title game as fuel for this season that ended in a Super Bowl title with him being named MVP in the season and Super Bowl.

It's not like Burrow needs more motivation, but Callahan thinks he'll use the experience of losing to Mahomes in that game this year to his advantage.

"You lose these games, it gives you a different perspective," Callahan said. "You have a better feel for what it might take every year and sometimes you have to reinvent yourself and you have to reinvent how you do things and play. I thought Joe reinvented himself this year really well compared to how he played the year before. There'll be another evolution of his game going into year four and it will be fun to watch."

Last season, Burrow merged his playmaking abilities with an evolving game management style that was lethal in the ten-game winning streak that featured many patient and pivotal clock-draining drives. Where he takes his game in his fourth season is anyone's guess, but his coaches clearly feel the urgency of being on the verge of winning it all.

"You're 90 seconds away from winning a ring a year ago. You're close again this year, too," Pitcher said. "We have to do everything in our power to make sure it's us next year."