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Players, Including Two Of His Best, Rally Around Taylor And His Staff

Two of the Bengals best players rallied around head coach Zac Taylor and his staff on Monday.
Two of the Bengals best players rallied around head coach Zac Taylor and his staff on Monday.

The roll call of questions ranges from A.J. Green's contract, Andy Dalton's status, Joe Burrow's projections all the way to the fate of free agency and head coach Zac Taylor addressed none of them Monday because an end-of-season news conference is just the beginning.

But one question was answered Monday. Despite the Bengals' 2-14 record that tied their worst ever and Taylor's growing pains when it came to calling plays and running a team for the first time in his career, his players believe he's the man for the job. His biggest endorsement as the Bengals cleaned out their lockers came from his best player. Wide receiver A.J. Green may not know if he's volunteering for work in April, but he likes what Taylor has got going all-year round.

"Zac is a great coach. I think he's going to get this rolling as soon as we get everything going," Green said. "We had a lot injuries. We had to rotate offensive linemen, a lot of stuff like that. It's kind of tough when you've got a coach getting the feel, but I think Zac is a guy that is really going to change us because he's an unbelievable coach. A player's coach. He takes care of his guys."

It was hard not to miss on Sunday. The Browns won three times as many games with their two 1,000-yard receivers and 1,500-yard rusher (minus six yards) and at one point Fox TV analyst Robert Smith questioned the effort on the routes while Odell Beckham, Jr., continued to act oddly during another one of those Cleveland implosions that cost head coach Freddie Kitchens his job.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was stunned how quickly the Browns reacted. He says Taylor can be the guy here.

"What are you doing if you get rid of him after one year?" he asked. "You have to give him an opportunity. You've seen we can be good.

"I believe in Coach He's going to get this thing turned around," said Kirkpatrick, who liked his steadiness. "How he handed the losses. How he kept everyone motivated. Our record doesn't show how guys feel. We still felt like a good team. Nobody got in the tank. Everyone was still showing up ready to work. I feel like he did a great job getting guys motivated."

While one of Cleveland's tight ends questioned during the week if he'd return if Kitchens did, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah observed Monday how the Bengals sideline mobbed running back Joe Mixon during his career-high 162 yards and cornerback Darius Phillips' two interceptions and how that's a testament to what Taylor is building. The Bengals lost eight games by eight points or fewer and never had their best player or left tackle. The Browns lost the last three games of the season by at least ten points with many hands still on deck, although they didn't have their best pass rusher. And they came into December with a post-season shot.

"Players don't want him going anywhere," said Bengals running back Giovani Bernard, one of Taylor's captains. "We have a lot of trust in him. To have the team buy into what he's trying to do here, change the culture after a season that we just had and guys still busting their asses in the last game, we understood what that meant for not only the players, but for Coach Taylor.

"He's really preached about being a connected team. He's talked about it the entire year, ever since we got here in April. I think we did a really good job of that even with all the stuff that we went through."

Uzomah has been talking about that connected team for the last couple of days. The way Taylor has spurred the closeness and camaraderie with his endless energy has Uzomah thinking about his 3-9 team at Auburn that went to the national championship game the next year. Those Tigers pretty much had the pieces in place.

"I see that in this locker room. People are connected like no other. It kind of gives me hope. We're building something special here. I know once we get over that hump 2020 is going to be something where people are going to be speaking our name a lot more highly."

Taylor's staff seems to have meshed with his players. Certainly Taylor won some converts when he and offensive line coach Jim Turner ripped up the run game that was the worst in the league at the midway point of the season. In the last eight games, Mixon rushed for more yards than everybody but NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry. On Sunday, after he got enveloped for a loss, he went right to Turner on the sidelines to hammer it out.

"They made a good play and (left guard Michael Jordan) didn't get a call," Mixon said. "But I just told him how the next time it was going to work out. I think we ran it again and we ran for like four yards. But just how we are going to run it, attack them, what to look for with creases, what technique the defense is playing and things like that. I think Coach Turner did a hell of a job. It was a struggle and then a 180.

"I feel like (Turner) did a hell of a job from Day 1 to what he's done within the last eight weeks. He and Zac creating things and getting schemes to where we can be effective running the football. I think they did a hell of a job. Coach Turner, I built that relationship to where I can go up to him and I think my word and feedback helps."

The Bengals ended up throwing a franchise-record 616 passes and when Dalton was benched at the half-way point he led the NFL in pass attempts. In the last half of the season, when the Bengals won two games, lost one in overtime and two more by seven points or fewer, Mixon led the NFL in carries, which reflects Taylor's ability to adjust. He doesn't think he was too stubborn with the three-receiver centric style he brought from the Rams. But he did see the success with double and triple tight ends, too.

"No, I think that's part of what you believe in," said Taylor when asked if he was too stubborn early on. "You don't put pads on until training camp to see, and then you're just going against one defense every day. In the process, you learn a lot about yourself. Now, we have this whole year behind us. We've seen what our division looks and feels like. We know what our players are capable of, and what they do best. That's been a part of the process, and we've learned a lot about ourselves during that."

Yes, the 2020 playbook is going to be different. But how much? He won't say.

"Impossible to predict right now," Taylor said. "While things are still fresh on our minds, we get a chance to put all our thoughts on paper and communicate as a staff and start to formulate the initial plan for when the guys come back later in the offseason, so that when you're looking at your notes and reviewing the film in March and April, it's not trying to remember why you were doing certain things. It's important to get all that stuff (written down) while it's still fresh in your brain."

More questions than answers. But there seemed to be one certainty Monday as the players left 2019 behind. They had closed ranks on the head coach. Like Green and Mixon, two of his best players.

"His approach each week out about being connected, being one, I think he's done a great job with that," Green said. "I think a lot teams in our situation would start blaming each other, but I don't think we pointed the finger at one person. We all took the blame ourselves. I feel like we need to do more as a player."