Even the cafeteria was different on this day, Tuesday, the first day Zac Taylor spoke to the Bengals as their head coach. During Taylor’s introductory three-hour interview with the Bengals back in January, there were moments he punctuated his vision with snaps of his fingers for the tempo he sought and the last 24 hours have been much like that.
At 7:50 a.m., ten minutes before he introduced himself in the team meeting to start the off-season program, word is the cafeteria was barren. No stragglers. Nobody even rushing out of there while munching on fruit or slurping cereal. It seemed like they wanted to make sure they got off on the right foot with him. And it sounds like Taylor got off on the right foot with them.
Make no mistake. No one knows coaches better than players. Forget the fans and the pundits. A coach’s harshest microscope always belongs to his players.
“He took control of the room. Something everybody was watching,” said Dre Kirkpatrick, the eight-year cornerback and the secondary’s senior man. “He’s got everybody’s respect. He’s the captain of the ship.”
Taylor has been in the NFL as long as Kirkpatrick, long enough to know that players know and he knew all eyes were on him at 8 a.m. starting his first head gig at age 35, a year older than his oldest player, long snapper Clark Harris. He’s been thinking about making a speech like Tuesday’s a lot longer than nine years.
“You think about that a lot,” Taylor admitted Tuesday. “This felt like game day to be quite honest with you. You’re up early in the morning, you’re ready to go and you’re ready to get in front of the team. I was excited, and I know the coaching staff was excited, so I think the energy comes with that. But it was good. The players were focused and ready to go. They got good workouts in with the strength coaches, and had time well-spent in the meeting rooms with the position coaches and the coordinators. (It’s been) an exciting first day.”
It was the players’ first day, but it was a lot like most of Taylor’s days since he took the job the day after he coached Rams quarterback Jared Goff in the Super Bowl.
On Monday he arrived at Paul Brown Stadium at 4 a.m. Maybe not as early on Tuesday, but he was still spotted with a coffee at around 5:30 a.m. or so. There was leading the team meeting as the head coach, conducting the offensive installation as the play-caller and chairing the news conference as the face of the franchise. And then at 2:30 p.m. he went into a draft meeting. If Tuesday was a game day, what exactly was Monday night, given he’s still in a hotel with the wife and four kids eight and under?
“(It was like) the night before a game,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I’ve had many ‘nights before a game’ here recently. The bottom line is that it’s exciting, that’s why I came here. You feel like you’re competing already, even though you’re just in meetings and there is really no opponent. We’re all excited to get this process started. There’s been a lot of work to do these last couple weeks, but now to finally get the players in the building, it’s real. I walked out on the field yesterday really for one of the first times. You look around the stadium and get a sense that this is coming at us, and I’m excited about it.”
The veterans say he got his points across. Consistency. Reliability. Communication.
Taylor knows he has to reach the team elders, so he has to feel good about how their first day together went. While his best player, wide receiver A.J. Green, observed, “It’s like he’s been there before,” the heart-on-his-sleeve Kirkpatrick endorsed Taylor with, “He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s very smart. I can tell he’s smart and he’s somebody I’m ready to follow. He talked about unity. We’ve got to come together.”
Taylor unveiled the team’s motto on the T-Shirts hanging in their lockers Tuesday morning even while painters contemplate finishing stamping it on the monstrous wall above the weight room.
“It’s About Us.”
“All that matters is what’s inside these walls. There are so many distractions, so many different things going on outside these walls that can distract you and divert you away from what’s really important,” Taylor said. “I just want to make sure that our players and coaches understand that as we take care of business inside these walls, we’re going to be able achieve the things we want to achieve.”
Kirkpatrick is attracted to the unity theme and how Taylor urged them to reach out to their teammates.
“Look around. There are guys here you might not usually talk to,” Kirkpatrick said. “Talk to them. Build that bond with guys you don’t normally build bonds with because at the end of the day they may be on the field with you. That’s his message, that’s our message, that’s the team message.”
Among the many messages Taylor sent Tuesday is central to why he was hired. Offense. That means he’s going to be a hands-on head coach. That’s not to say his predecessor wasn’t. But except for the last half of Marvin Lewis’ 16th and final season, he didn’t call the defense. And Lewis remains popular in this locker room and building as the winningest coach in franchise history. It's just different now, that's all. It’s been a generation since the Bengals had a head coach start the season as a playcaller and Green and quarterback Andy Dalton sat up and took notice that the head man was installing the offense on Tuesday.
“He’s the one teaching us the formations,” said Dalton, who loves that since he’s had a defensive head coach ever since Katy High School.
Green likes it, too.
“It’s my first time being with an offensive-minded (NFL head) coach,” Green said. “Being the head coach, being in the meeting rooms going through everything on offense, it was very exciting for me.”
Which is one of the reasons for Taylor’s early wake-up calls. But that’s why he’s here. Which is how the day all started, even before the bacon sizzled in The Paul.
“It’s all part of the job,” Taylor said. “You have to take it one task at a time and not try to do too many things at once. Be very focused.”