On the verge of Sunday's AFC championship game (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), Bengals head coach Zac Taylor went no huddle in his weekly conversation with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson to talk chemistry, math and the geometry of going full circle in Kansas City.
GH: The last time you were in Kansas City, it was your head coaching debut in the 2019 preseason opener. (A 38-17 loss.) Now you go back a game away from the big one.
ZT: Yeah, the last time we were there it wasn't so good.
GH: But look where you are now.
ZT: Look where we've come. I guess in some ways its fitting. We've come a long way. Our guys have worked really hard. But we don't feel like we're done yet. We're just going to have a very narrow focus this week on playing our best football in Kansas City.
GH: Do you think the first issue in 2019 was the chemistry? Finding the right guys?
ZT: I think anything new takes time. That doesn't mean what was there was broken or wrong or anything like that. It just takes time to do it the way you want it done. I'm proud of the players for buying in and the coaches for staying the course and staying connected and it has served us well three years later.
GH: What is the biggest thing you've improved on as a coach since that night in Arrowhead on Aug. 10, 2019?
ZT: I take pride in just learning how to manage the game. Improving every game for the last three years. You've got to learn from your experiences. I hate to make it about me because everyone is involved in that process. I just think as a whole we have improved on learning from our past experiences to help us win in the future and that's something we take a lot of pride in.
GH: We talk about the OTAs where you virtually had perfect attendance and you may have been the only team that had that.
ZT: I don't remember where we compared to other teams. I know we were one of the first in the building with 100 percent attendance. I think Sam (Hubbard) and Jessie (Bates III) really did a good job communicating with the team and I think that really helped us. I was happy we got that response from those guys and I think it really helped us.
It helped us get a jump start for training camp. We had a lot of new guys in here. If nothing more, just to meet each other. You get a chance to get on the field, meet each other, communicate a little bit and take it from there.
GH: That was one of the big stumbling blocks of 2020. You have the overhaul and couldn't bring everybody in almost until August. A rookie quarterback. Seven new starters on defense.
ZT: I agree with you. We weren't the only team dealing with that. We had to find a way to overcome it. Everybody was dealing with the same set of circumstances. It is what it is, we are where we are and made it work.
GH: Jessie was huge as the player rep and Sam, too, as one of the defensive leaders. But Joe Burrow had to be a big factor. He could have kept rehabbing somewhere else.
ZT: Yeah. You know what Burrow is all about. He's going to want to get in the work. He wasn't fully cleared to do all the stuff physically. He did throw in seven on seven stuff. You give the credit to whoever you want to give it to, but everybody was on board and that was cool to see.
GH: Then the guys who weren't here in the spring but have showed up off the waiver wire and other practice squads to really contribute. Tre Flowers, Clay Johnston, even Zach Kerr who was here for two days and gets 12 snaps in a playoff game. That says as much about the culture as anything, doesn't it?
ZT: I think so. I think our veteran players have done a great job whenever a new guy walks in the building. Introducing yourself. Something as simple as that. Often times these guys know who Joe Burrow is. They know who Jessie Bates is and for those guys to go up and shake their hand and introduce themselves goes a long way in making those guys feel like they're apart of this thing. People hit the ground running and I've been proud of the way our team has taken in a lot of those guys. I think those guys really enjoy being here.
GH: And then you've got a guy like cornerback Eli Apple, who is the quintessential example of a former high draft pick who just needed a change of scenery.
ZT: He's filled a void that we really needed filled. He's stepped up and played really good football for us. He created a big turnover there on the last play of the game. Really proud of the job Eli's done for us this year.
GH: With the nine sacks against the Titans, do you, at some point, have to sacrifice a little bit of your philosophy to protect Burrow? Do you let Burrow be Burrow? What do you do?
ZT: It's a mix of everything. As a play-caller, I have to do a great job protecting him and make sure we put ourselves in the best position to do that. It takes me, it takes the offensive line, the quarterback, the tight ends, the receivers. Everyone factors into that. Nine sacks is not a great day in that regard. There's not just one area to blame it on. We're all a big part of that and we've got to improve it for this week.
GH: There are two or three sacks he took where he could have thrown it away. There's a fine line that he has to learn, too, right?
ZT: There's not a perfect science to that. He's made a lot of plays when it did not appear there was a play to be made. Where I would have said throw it away over the last 19 weeks and he hasn't and it's turned out to be spectacular for us. That's just a balance he has to strike. He'll continue to learn from experience. When to extend the play and when not. He does a great job taking all that in and processing those decisions.
GH: We've all grown up loving this day. The games to go to the Super Bowl. Do you remember this day as a kid?
ZT: I do. I remember those Dallas-San Francisco games. I talk with (offensive line coach) Frank Pollack about that all the time because he was a part of those. I can remember sitting in my neighbor's living room watching Dallas play the 49ers. That would have been the early '90s. Those are some of my earliest memories of pro football. They were definitely those conference championship days.
GH: Now you're on that stage.
ZT: It is. We're just focused on winning the AFC championship. There are other things people can talk about beyond that, but we just need to put together our best seven days this week and focus on the Chiefs, find a way to win and move on.
GH: What happened in Kansas City last Sunday in the last 13 seconds would seem to vindicate what you were trying to do on the goal line here against the Chiefs a month ago and get the touchdown with Patrick poised.
ZT: We spend a lot of time and energy talking through situations like that. Who your opponent is. Who the other quarterback is. You have to take all of that into account. It happened to work out for us on that day. It doesn't mean it's always going to go your way and you have to be prepared to live with those consequences and the second guessing that comes with that. That's just part of the job.
GH: That had to be going through your mind watching that.
ZT: It wasn't not going through my mind, I'll tell you that.
GH: If it was vindication, it also shows the tremendous challenge that you guys face. As well as you guys played in the second half against them back on Jan. 2, how do you hold Mahomes and Hill and Kelce down for that long again? Those are the three guys, right? 15, 10, 87, that have to be stopped?
ZT: They've got a lot of weapons. That's what makes Kansas City so good. There are lot of guys that maybe don't get the same focus nationally as some of their top guys. But they certainly have done a really good job building up their depth and they've got a lot of complementary pieces that can make you pay.
GH: This is Chiefs head coach Andy Reid's ninth conference final and this is your first. You've probably watched a lot of Andy Reid tape down through the years. What do you respect about him the most?
ZT: Creative. Always going to be aggressive. Always going to be in attack mode. They just do a really good of getting the ball to their playmakers and putting a lot of pressure on the other team. He's one of the best to ever do it in that regard.
GH: An update on the game ball tradition. It hit a few more places last Saturday night.
ZT: I talked to C.J. (Uzomah) and Kevin Huber and let them make a decision where they wanted to take it down town.
GH: Could it be a tradition even after regular-season wins?
ZT: No. This is only reserved for the playoffs and we plan on continuing it forever.
GH: Have you heard from any old Bengals?
ZT: Oh yeah. Ken Anderson. Anthony Munoz. I actually ran into Anthony at a basketball game the day after our game as I often do. His grandson plays at the same place my son does. I talk to Kenny all the time. Willie Anderson. Jim Breech. T.J. Houshmandzadeh. All those guys. They reach out pretty regularly over the course of the year and I love to hear from them.
GH: You have to feel connected to those guys.
ZT: Absolutely. They're a huge part of this and there's such a tremendous history here and I hate they can't be around because of COVID. Because I remember my first year meeting these guys at training camp and I haven't seen a lot of them in person in a really long time, but they've done a great job with texts or phone calls and I feel honored to be in communication with those guys.
GH: The alums are really jacked up about this team.
ZT: All my interactions with them have always been great. They've been there in the hard times. Ken Anderson has texted me almost every single week for three years. He loves the direction the team is headed and he's got our back and I've appreciated that from him. Willie's been great. I've talked to Willie quite a bit. Willie's been awesome.
GH: To join Forrest Gregg and Sam Wyche as coaches who have taken the Bengals to this game has to mean a great deal to you.
ZT: Just the legacy of coaches who have been here is unbelievable. It's a credit to the teams we've had the opportunity to coach. It's not about us. It's about the players and my assistant coaches that helped get us to this position. I'm proud of all those people that surround us.
GH: Friday night before the last game, I know you don't usually have the players talk then, but it sounded like it worked put pretty well with the captains speaking.
ZT: The thought was they've gotten us to this point and let them take it from here. I thought it was good. They did a great job. It was very thoughtful. From the heart. And the guys responded well to it.
GH: Could we be in for an encore in Kansas City Saturday night?
ZT: It's not their job to make them get up there and speak. I like that to be on me so they can just focus on the game and they don't have to worry about that stuff. . Situations call for stuff like that and they answered the bell.
GH: Can you bring in somebody special in Kansas City?
ZT: You can't because of COVID. Trust me. I've thought about it.
GH: Do you have somebody in mind in house? A couple of people?
ZT: Yeah. That's usually the middle of the week for me (to decide).
GH: What does this team have to do Sunday to put it in the Super Bowl?
ZT: We have to continue to do what we've been doing with the turnover battle. Our guys have really taken a lot of pride in that all season, but particularly in these last couple of weeks. It ends up putting you in great position to take control of the game and I think that's going to be a big part of how this game plays out.