Bengals head coach Zac Taylor begins his weekly sitdowns with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson this season as Sunday's opener (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium looms against the Chargers:
GH: Outside of a coaching change this has to be the most active offseason in franchise history. How is your team different going into this opener compared to the last opener?
ZT: Everyone has a better understanding of what's expected of them. I also think the leadership has really increased among the players that have been here previously and a bunch of the new additions. That's a positive. It's one thing for the coaches to set the standards and the expectations and it's another thing for the players to take it over and make it their own and that's really the direction we're headed with the guys that we have.
GH: You have fought hard since you've been here to make what you call a connected team. The fact you only had two opt-outs and with the event at the Freedom Center, you have to feel like you've got a pretty connected team right now.
ZT: I do, I really do. I think guys really enjoy being around each other. They kind of know a lot about each other recently. On the field and off the field. Both. And that's important. That leads to growth on the team. It's been a pretty special thing to be around. Not just the last couple of months, but the last couple of weeks.
GH: To your great credit, you brought the social justice issue to the table last month during the week so many things were happening in pro sports and you seemed to take the initiative. I know you said there was never really one moment, but you just felt like you had to talk to your players about it, right?
ZT: You just get a sense a lot of people have things on their chest they want to talk about and need people to have a better understanding. Even since last week we've had conversations that are really eye opening and just help you understand what people from different backgrounds than you are going through and how you can help them and support them and help create change.
GH: Both you and your quarterback, Joe Burrow, have empathy on this subject even though you didn't grow up in the most diverse of places. Do you think that comes from growing up in a sports family (where the dad is a coach)?
ZT: That combined with just sports in general. You come across people from different economic backgrounds and cultural backgrounds just from playing sports. When you're playing sports you're just trying to achieve a common goal. To win and to be a team and you don't look at people a certain way that maybe other people do. It does help lead to a better understanding. Not as much as we should have, but that's why. Sports brings people together. We want the whole world to see that.
GH: I would imagine the fact you're discussing this with your team has brought your team closer together.
ZT: It certainly has. There are hard conversations to be had and sometimes it can be uncomfortable for people, but there's a lot of growth that can come from it and there is certainly a lot of understanding that comes from it and I think it's been pretty beneficial.
GH: I think you sent a quiet message, too, when you had your two young sons standing with Bengals president Mike Brown in front of the Freedom Center when he greeted the team. Hey, this impacts our kids.
ZT: Yeah. My wife wanted to be involved in this as well. We're all in this together. Whether it's your football family or immediate family. It was special having them there at that moment as we walked in.
GH: Just looking at the team on paper, it averages almost more NFL experience than last year's team by almost half a season. Do you sense you're more experienced? Do you sense your faster, better?
ZT: Last year, everyone was in their first year in the system. Whether they were experienced in the league or not. This year guys being in their second year on both sides of the ball, combined with some guys we added to the team that are pretty quick studies, that has led to us just playing faster and more confidently and with less error and just being more aggressive on both sides and that is certainly where you want to be heading into year two.
View photos of the Bengals 53-man roster for the 2020 season.
GH: Defensively you have to feel you're better put together there with more glue with guys like Vonn Bell and Josh Bynes.
ZT: It helps. Their experience and leadership have been tremendous on that side of the ball. They've really helped bring guys along at their positions. We still have a lot of good leaders on that side of the ball in other places, too, so overall I feel like we've seen a lot of improvement from our defense in training camp.
GH: The truest thing I think I've heard in the last month was when someone asked you in a recent Zoom about making Burrow the starter and you said that was so long ago. It does seem so long ago. It seems the win over Cleveland in last year's finale was 15 years ago. It almost feels like Joe has been the quarterback forever.
ZT: It does feel that way. I don't know how to explain it because it's not true, but it feels like it ... Even in this training camp. Maybe it's just because it's not broken up by preseason games and all that stuff. I guess when you're in the same spot doing the same thing over at the practice field it just feels like we've been together a little longer than we probably have. But you're right, it's just a different feeling this year.
GH: Even the offseason dragged, maybe because there was no ball.
ZT: I didn't think it was a drag. There's so much work to do and we were excited to get it done and keep moving forward to the September 13th date, but it does seem like a decade ago.
GH: Just the way Joe came in, not only did he pick up the offense but just the way he was a leader, it did seem like he'd been here awhile.,
ZT: Obviously he's very mature. He doesn't carry himself like a rookie, but we haven't played any games yet. He's going to have to learn from a lot of experiences he's about to face, but he's as prepared as he's going to be and we're all excited to see what it all looks like.
GH: Did any of your mentors give you advice how to do this in a pandemic? No one's ever been through this, though.
ZT: No, I just feel like you can control what you can control, that's the truth. Some people like to talk about all the challenges and all the problems, forget it. Everyone is dealing with the same thing. We kind of have to narrow our focus a little bit and just control what we can control In L.A. we went through wildfires. We went through a field in Mexico that was messed up and the day before the game we found out we weren't going to play in Mexico. There were all sorts of things that happened to us that you just learn from. Each situation is different, but guys are looking to see how you react and they'll react accordingly. I think our staff has done a real good job handling all this.