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Opener Mystery Heightened As Bengals, Chargers Show Off New Looks

Zac Taylor's mask symbolizes the mystery of the opener.
Zac Taylor's mask symbolizes the mystery of the opener.

Josh Bynes, the no-nonsense elder statesman on the Bengals' new-look defense, couldn't help his mask-like game face slip into a telling smile he tried to take it back.

After this pandemic preseason of precious little information around a quarantined league, Bynes was asked Monday during his media Zoom call if he's checked TV to track the Bengals' Opening Day opponent since the Chargers are featured on this season's Hard Knocks.

"I don't know. I don't know," Bynes said. "Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know. "

Zac Taylor, his head coach, didn't mind tipping his hand before Sunday's opener (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I did," Taylor said of his Hard Knocks viewing. "You've got to use every resource at your fingers and your disposal right now. It was fun to watch."

Because, frankly, no one knows what to expect on Sunday. Even in the most mundane of NFL seasons, no one ever knows what the heck is going to happen in an opener.

Just look at the Bengals.

With Joe Burrow set to become the Bengals' first rookie quarterback to start an opener at home since Greg Cook beat the Dolphins at Nippert Stadium 51 years ago, who could have seen them winning rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's debut in Cleveland in 2011 after spring ball and coaching classrooms were wiped out by the lockout?

And what about the Bengals' only PBS opener in the past 10 years, 2017, when the Bengals got blanked by the Ravens, 20-0, after they ended the same 2016 season with a 27-10 victory over Baltimore in the same building?

Now, not only was there no spring ball, there were no pre-season games. The only new film you can watch is about league protocols trying to contain the coronavirus. Each team, except for those getting the Hard Knocks, has been shrouded in its own mystery. Scouts have been reading team web sites like they are Nick Saban coaching manuals in search for any shred of a clue.

And Lord knows how the officials will call it. They usually trash the preseason with experimental flags. Is this thing going to be a pre-season opener, a regular-season opener or a cross between one of those old Marvin Lewis weekends in Georgetown with an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday night and a Mock Game Saturday afternoon?

"This Week 1 is certainly going to be unusual because everybody can evolve over the course of the offseason and training camp and no one really knows what it's going to look like," Taylor said. "So you do your best to gather the information and be prepared for the schemes that you believe you're going to see.

"They could change. You have to be ready to evolve, just as they have to be ready for us to show what we show. Again, it is what it is. Every team is in the same position. Again, you have an entire offseason to evolve your schematics. It should be a fun Week 1."

There are some constants that could help. Taylor coached against Chargers head man Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in 2018 when the Rams beat the other L.A. team, 35-23, in the third game of the season.

Taylor and Bynes know Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor well enough to know he's a smart, tough guy who won't give away the opener. Yes, it's the Chargers' first non-Philip Rivers opener since King Louis XIV, but Taylor, 31, has a 2-1-1 record in openers with the tie against a Steelers team coming off a 13-win season. He's got an overall winning record (23-21-1) and doesn't hurt his team with a career line of 54 TD passes and 20 interceptions.

And he's 1-1 at PBS. When Zac Taylor was coordinating Miami's 2015 offense, Tyrod Taylor swept the Dolphins for the Bills.

"I've had a ton of respect for Tyrod over the course of his career. Feel like I played him several times," Taylor said. "The guy is a really good leader. You always see that on tape. He takes great care of the ball. He's a guy that we've really got to be honed in on because he's played this long for a reason. He's a really good quarterback in this league".

Bynes knows Taylor a lot better than that. They broke in together with the 2011 Ravens, so he's got plenty of practice snaps against him.

"He's just really smart. He's a really talented quarterback. I don't think he gets as much glamour as everybody else," Bynes said. "Tyrod is a really smart player, he knows what he needs to get, he knows the situations on the field and everything like that. He's very talented and can make the throws you want him to make.

"I definitely have a lot of respect for him. I'm not saying that just because he's a former teammate of mine. It's because he knows how to play this game. You can't be in this game this long and not be as successful that he has in this league as a quarterback."

Which is exactly why the Bengals have put Bynes in the middle of this defense to stare back at Taylor. He's been in enough openers to know that each one is a long afternoon or night of reacting.

"I think it's going to take us looking at what we look at and then obviously there's going to be adjustments come Sunday, and just be ready for that," Bynes said. "Obviously it's going to take some figuring out and adjustments. That's what it's all about. That's going to be everybody's biggest thing in this first game of the season. Who can make those adjustments and make those plays when they need to and limit the mistakes and limit the penalties. It's going to come down to those small things."

Bynes can't pick out an Opening Day that he remembers. Remember, here's a guy that was on the couch for last year's opener and ended up starting a play-off game.

"I think every day is a great day to play this game. And I don't take it for granted because I've been cut six or so times," Bynes said. "I love every moment I'm out here. Shoot, I'll take every Sunday just as it's opening day and I'll enjoy it and I'll praise God every single moment."

But, it is still the opener. Make that, The Opener.

"It's up to us to just try to slow it down and play our defense and take it one play at a time," Bynes said. "Obviously, everybody who plays this game knows mistakes are going to happen, it's inevitable. I don't care what kind of season you're having, mistakes happen. It's about adjusting those mistakes and overcoming them and basically have one more point than the other team."

Come to think of it, maybe it won't be all that different.