When the Bengals hired a dues-paying, well-traveled small college coach named Ben Martin as assistant offensive line coach, it was a transaction easy to miss. But the hire reflected how new head coach Zac Taylor is seeking to emphasize innovation.
Martin, who minored in theater and dance at Trinity College, wouldn't have even put that on the marquee back on Jan. 30. Barely a one-line transaction. In the old days, it may have been wedged under the Marblehead vs. Revere box score in The Salem Evening News, his hometown newspaper in suburban Boston. Nowadays, it probably didn't even make most papers because the industry thinks its so cutting edge to treat agate type like an illness rather than information.
But behind every NFL one-liner is a symphony of persistence, passion and projects.
For Martin, 36, it capped a decade of dues that included nightly homework in a dorm room in Andover, Mass., at Division II Merrimack College eating Doritos and taking notes on the instructional DVDs of Bengals offensive line guru Jim McNally after the three-man staff finished for the day.
For Zac Taylor, the Bengals rookie head coach, Martin's hire symbolized the kind of fertile, ego-less mind he wants on a staff he plans to become known as innovative. The hire also allowed Taylor to unite Martin for a third time with his own offensive line sage, Jim Turner, the bright, demanding ex-Marine and maybe outside of Taylor the most important man in the development of the new playbook.
"I like to associate with guys who think outside the box and he's certainly someone who fits that description," says Taylor, who loves the fact Martin has coached every offensive spot but wide receivers and quarterbacks while also calling plays. "He really pushes the envelope in terms of creativity … Ben's one of the smartest people I've been around."
Taylor has basically been telling Martin that he's nuts since 2010, when Taylor was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M and Martin followed Turner to College Station as an offensive quality control coach. But first Martin had to pass an interview with Taylor on the grease board with the former Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year grilling Merrimack's coordinator for the run game and recruiting, not to mention study hall monitor.
Both were impressed. Shortly after Taylor set a big-time school's records, Martin tinkered on the cutting edge in the same Northeast laboratories that spawned Chip Kelly's reads. John Perry, Martin's head coach at Merrimack and now the receivers coach for the Texans, coached with Kelly at the turn-of-the-century University of New Hampshire before Kelly went viral.
"The best thing about coaching on the lower levels is having some freedom to be creative," Martin says. "You don't have 80,000 fans in the stadium judging you in that moment. Usually there are three or four thousand on a good Saturday. At A&M, they were just beginning to look at those things. That was the great thing about the small colleges. Nobody is judging you and you get to wear so many hats."
It wasn't long before Martin and Taylor got into some good-natured teasing over Xs and Os. Here Martin would be spouting off to Taylor about some whacky stuff called run-pass options and there Taylor would be telling Martin to shut up while reminding the former Trinity left guard he was not a quarterback.
“I like to associate with guys who think outside the box and he’s certainly someone who fits that description ... He really pushes the envelope in terms of creativity … Ben’s one of the smartest people I’ve been around.” Zac Taylor on Ben Martin
"Stop scheming up the passing game," is how a smiling Taylor recalls one of his joking rejoinders. "He was talking about RPOs ten years ago. He'd suggest things I didn't think were possible. I thought he was putting too much on the quarterback and then sure enough five years later teams around the league and college were doing things Ben had been talking about for a long time."
This month Martin went full circle while trying to get out of the box. He came face-to-face for the first time with McNally, a Bengals consultant, in the Paul Brown Stadium meeting rooms. It's not like they didn't know each other, though. When McNally emerged as one of the first great teachers and philosophers of modern offensive line play while coaching the Bengals front to all-time heights in the 1980s, one of his disciples became the head coach of Division III Curry College on the outskirts of Boston.
In McNally-like fashion, Skip Bandini hosted a down-in-the-roots offensive line clinic with small college coaches from Endicott to Framingham in 2007, when Martin was selling Yellow Pages phone books by day and coaching Marblehead Pop Warner by night. When Bandini opened the clinic by asking if there was anyone out there that wanted to tell them what they knew about offensive line play, Martin raised his hand.
"I don't know what I said, but I talked for a mile a minute and I talked for about three minutes," Martin says. "When I was done he asked me, 'Do you want a job?'"
Martin told Bandini he applied two days ago, so his first successful interview for a coaching job came in front of a class of teachers. Martin also played for another McNally student in Trinity head coach Chuck Priore. And there were those McNally DVD nights at Merrimack, where his salary was 10 grand, including a dorm room and a daily meal.
Paying the dues.
When McNally came in for the rookie minicamp and stayed for the first week of joint practices, Martin tried to make a writer understand what it meant.
"It would be like you working with Yeats," Martin says.
McNally's DVDs were the first time Martin saw a high-level coach present and the organization, discipline and his choice of words still resonate. Like "pre-loading of the weight," and "demeanoring." You remember those "Demeanor," hats that Anthony Munoz and the guys wore when the Bengals were in the top five in rushing six straight years to end the '80s, right?
“He and Jimmy Turner have a real bond. They’re like Tom and Jerry. Stiller and Meara. I don’t know. Name any good combo.” Jim McNally on O-line coaches Jim Turner and Ben Martin.
"That's the attitude of the body. Staying low and being always in an athletic enough position to perform the block," Martin says. "Knowing him now, many of those terms are commonly used among people in offensive line circles and they probably originated with a guy like Jim McNally."
But McNally's first law is never stay the same. Stay the same person and keep the same coaching style, but keep adjusting the technique to keep up with the changing Xs and Os. Turner is of the same mindset and that's why he was successful at A&M. He kept up with the blitz of new defensive looks triggered by the spread revolution on offense. And this month Martin kept noting McNally's changes. Say, for instance, what had been an up kick in '04 was now a jump set stemming from defensive wrinkles because now the hand has to be in a different place and ….
"I constantly reminded him, 'Hey, this is different from when I was first listening to you,'" Martin says. "So I was asking him why and a lot of the changes are relative to the different styles of defenses he's seen.
"He's such a great resource for us watching the players and being another set of great eyes. He's loco about the game of football. He loves it and he knows players."
When McNally parachutes in every now and again, he's hardly on the field. But he's a big help to Turner and Martin as a one-man support group, a consigliere of concepts on tape. For his part, McNally has been impressed by how well Turner and Martin work together. With the 54-year-old Turner the oldest coach on the Bengals offense, there is a nice mix with Turner's no-nonsense military base inspection demeanor clicking with Martin's youthful many-hats energy.
But they've also got a lot in common, starting with passion for the game and keeping up with the latest O-line fads, right through to their Boston blue-collar roots. Turner is the son of a Boston Globe pressman and Martin's father worked for New England Bell for 27 years.
"He and Jimmy Turner have a real bond. They're like Tom and Jerry. Stiller and Meara. I don't know. Name any good combo," McNally says. "You can tell they've been together before. One guy steps one way, one guy steps the other way. And the players love them."
Martin met Turner, fittingly enough for the Boston pair, on St. Patrick's Day when Martin showed up for work one day at Merrimack and Perry told him to get in the car because they were going to watch eight hours of line play at Turner's home. The next time he talked to Turner was a year and a half later when he called about joining him at A&M. Turner then brought him his first NFL gig, a two-year stint in Miami that was followed by more grinding at the small colleges. This past calendar year saw Martin with four jobs, leaving Union for Bryant to coach in 2018 and then after the season following James Perry, John's brother, to Brown as offensive line coach. But weeks later Turner called again from the NFL.
That's paying dues and trusting relationships, just another part of the symphony behind a one-line NFL transaction. His first goal was a full-time coaching job by 30 years old. He got it at age 30. His second for ages 30-35 was to become a father. Check.
Martin's relationship with Turner also tells you something about what Taylor wants from his staff. The playbook may be installed on high-tech servers. But he wants the labels printed in black and white. That's what Turner remembers from his first day with Martin.
"Benny's smart. He jumps off the map at you. He can see things at a different level," Turner says. "He can see the big picture. He does a great job in a hands-on way. There's no fluff. I just like people that are simple and explain things simply and he was real good at doing that. If I'm looking for someone to work with me, and anything that comes out of their mouth is complex or any of that business, it's not going to work. I want it to be black and white."
That's Martin's office for you. Not much, but it all counts. Countless pictures of his wife and seven-month-old son. At the bottom of his book case are a stack of journals he started at Merrimack and that's only half of them. The rest are at home. "None of that Dear Diary stuff. Just what I learned about football." He catches up every month and since he came to this job he's got two binders going. He's also got a green hoodie some place that McNally gave to him from an Irish store in his hometown of Buffalo.
What's in the binders? Certainly there can't be a lot of RPOs since everyone figures Taylor is transplanting the Rams offense. Right? Or will there be read options or read defenders where the QB can't make a wrong decision? Or what? What's the next big thing?
"I don't know, he's in charge of that," says Taylor with a little A&M glint in the eye.
They wouldn't tell you anyway. But Martin, who majored in political theory, has a football theory.
"Innovation in football is about layering concepts," Martin says. "If a team is doing X, the thinking is what is next. What is Y? But the second I see X, we're already trying to put together Z. I need to get to Z before (another team) does."
Turner and Martin have already reached one Z.
"When it comes to sports, it's the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. And the Bengals," says Martin without naming the defending Super Bowl champions. "That team shall not be named in my house. But if my son wants to become a Reds fan, that's fine with me."
And then there's that third goal. For ages 35-40.
"Win a Super Bowl," says Martin, which would get him more than one line.