SEATTLE - The face of the Bengals opener turned out not to be rookie head coach Zac Taylor. But John Ross, the former CenturyLink Field security guard while he was playing wide receiver at the University of Washington, was able to ransack the place Sunday with a career-high 158 yards because Taylor's scheme gave him a voice.
The Bengals hired Taylor to steal games like the one on Sunday, a grimy, dank gut-check of an opener in a Northwest mausoleum where you're never supposed to win. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his wunderkind of a quarterback Russell Wilson have never lost a home opener and are fresh off the playoffs. Of the last 15 AFC opponents that have dared darken the door, 14 have been carried out on their shields.
Woeful red zone play (no TDs on three trips) and a missed 45-yard field goal doomed this trip. But something began Sunday. The Bengals also hired Taylor to get the most out of an underachieving offense stocked with all kinds of possibilities named Ross, A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, the two Tylers …
What Taylor did Sunday was put up 429 yards on the road against what is expected to be a top 10 defense without Green, his two top left tackles and a running game that Seattle defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., made sure wouldn't see the light of day, ditching his nickel package for base. Plus, he didn't have Mixon (ankle) in the second half, although it looks like he will in next week's Paul Brown Stadium opener.
That's what Taylor was hired to do. Even when it's not chicken parmesan, make sure it's chicken a la king and not, well you know, and win the tilt.
Taylor can take heart. The 429-yard effort was the third most on Opening Day in Bengals history. The second was 433 in head coach Sam Wyche's 1984 debut. Also a tight loss on the road, 20-17, in Denver. And Wyche ended up taking the Bengals to a Super Bowl with the most innovative schemes in the land.
"I think," Taylor said of his offense, "we're just scratching the surface."
Certainly Ross is.
After two seasons he has struggled with his confidence as much as his body, he came into Sunday's college homecoming with all of 210 career yards, many coming in and out of the dog house. By halftime, after he launched himself at the five-yard line to catch Dalton's 55-yard touchdown pass for the longest catch of his career, he had 108 yards and the Bengals had a 17-14 lead.
"Without a doubt. I think that's what a lot of players lack sometimes," when asked if the confidence from Taylor's staff has invigorated him. "Like me, I can honestly say now I lost confidence in myself the last two years. Now I come in with a different mentality, and now I've got to go out there and continue to believe in myself."
The touchdown, his second of the day, was just so important for not only him, but the culture Taylor is trying to build. He has repeatedly said the No. 1 trait he seeks in a player is mental toughness and at halftime Ross was an easy guy to turn to because the play before he flat-out dropped a ball. Two Seahawks collided themselves out of the play and Ross would have sailed into field-goal territory.
And players notice that stuff.
"I loved watching John Ross III today. It was awesome to have him step up the way he did. To me, the most encouraging thing is he dropped a pass and we're looking around like dang, he had a lot of room to run," said tight end C.J. Uzomah. "Very next play, calls his number again, goes up and makes an incredible play and scores a touchdown. That was so hype. I was going nuts. I was like; this is why you're here. That was very encouraging. I loved watching him out there run around them and just make people miss. My knees are hurting just watching him make those cuts."
Ross admitted if that was last year, he might have been benched. At the very least he wouldn't have run the next route with so much confidence.
"Most definitely. I can honestly say that now. I would lose confidence in myself," Ross said. "It's completely different now, in my opinion."
Maybe even the bigger message was sent 52 seconds before the play. With Seattle facing a third-and-seven from the Bengals 10 with 59 seconds left, Taylor called timeout and while Seattle scored on the next snap, the Bengals had enough time to find Ross to take the lead. Taylor says the aggressiveness isn't by accident. After a season they gave up 56 points in the last two minutes of the half, it was fresh, welcome result.
"You leave us time there and were going to go after them. It's not a certain message, it's just our philosophy, we're not going to just concede the half," Taylor said. "Obviously there is a point in time where you are going to but with 50 seconds left we feel we are explosive enough to go down and score there. The guys made me look good on that one."
Ross leaped over the transfixed safety at the 5 and ran it in. It book-ended his 33-yard touchdown down the left sideline off Dalton's flea flicker. It's the kind of day that's been expected from him ever since the Bengals took him with the ninth pick in the 2017 draft. It's been the kind of day he's ached for ever since he missed his rookie opener with a knee injury that began a spate of hurts keeping him off the practice field.
His latest one, a hamstring, sidelined him all training camp, until just last week.
"It did feel good. It felt surreal," Ross said of coming back here to have his break-out game. "I used to work here for Staff Pro. I used to be a security guard here when I was in college. To be able to play here in front of some people who used to watch me in college, it did feel good. I'm thankful."
There was disappointment that can only be in an NFL Opening Day loss. So much is poured into an opener. Months. They were so close. The missed field goal. The missed chances in the red zone. The missed third-down tackles on third-and-seven that turned a Seattle field goal into a touchdown. Dalton says his lost fumble at the Seattle 12 was the first time that's ever happened to him when a wet ball slipped so completely out of his hands it looked like he was pantomiming.
But there was also a buzz in the locker room after watching Taylor and Dalton team up for the most prolific passing day in Bengals Opening Day history. Dalton's career-high 418 yards shattered his club record in an opener from three years ago in New York (366) in the win over the Jets in the fifth biggest passing day by a Bengals quarterback. Franchise wide receiver A.J. Green's ankle is well enough he made the trip. He's still in a boot, but the Bengals can only wonder what gear he'll kick this thing into when he returns.
"I feel like we've got a lot of guys that in this offense we can spread it around to," Dalton said. "John was the one today and made several big plays and so we feel like we will take A.J. back whenever we can get him. That's the way this offense is setup is to feature different guys."
If they left points out there, Uzomah said they also left their calling card
"I think we re-opened up the playbook. That's something that in the preseason, we're not showing everything that we have," Uzomah said. "Once we kind of started getting the game going after the first quarter, this is who we are. This is what we're going to be. This is how we're going to attack the defense. Obviously, week to week it's going to change. I feel like we have a great identity and I think that we move the ball well. Moving forward, we can expect a lot more big plays and bigger opportunities."
In the months leading up to the opener, there was a lot of talk from Taylor and his players about finding out their identity on a day like Sunday. After a season they couldn't keep pace with play-off teams and took huge losses to Kansas City and New Orleans as well as physical losses to Cleveland and Baltimore, there was not only a sense of relief, but resolve.
After outplaying one of the NFL's best teams in a place no one wins, Dalton liked what he felt. One of the defensive players came up to him on the way to the bus and told him, "We're going to win some games."
"We're a team that's going to fight. I thing that's one thing that we proved today," Dalton said. "Even to the very end, guys were playing really hard and if we can have this effort in every game we play this year, we are going to come out on top more than we don't."