As Bengals head coach Zac Taylor began his third season Monday pledging to evaluate all aspects of his program ranging from assistant coaches to personnel needs, he and his boss made it clear that the future is now.
Echoing Bengals president Mike Brown's statement released earlier in the day, Taylor said he expects a winning record next year.
"That's my expectation. Certainly I'm tired of losing," said Taylor after concluding a four-win season. "We've put in a lot of work and we believe in the players we have and the coaches we have. We certainly expect to win a lot more football games than we have. That's the standard we have to set going forward."
But Taylor kept his comments very general, saying those evaluations are taking place over the next few weeks. He said he is reviewing which of those coaches and players they'll take into next season and he said he has the say on the staff. He wouldn't talk specifically about which assistants he'll retain, although indications are he's keeping his coordinators because multiple reports have identified only a handful of position coaches moving that include both line coaches.
"We are not discouraged, but instead feel motivated and confident that next year will reap the benefits of the work that has been done to date," Brown said in a statement. "We must capitalize on the opportunities in front of us. Next year we will earn our stripes."
Some of the Bengals top players who Zoomed with the media Monday endorsed the move to keep Taylor and his schemes.
"I think he's the right guy for the job. We just have to find a way to keep guys on the field," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd, whose 79 catches led the Bengals for the third straight season. "It just sucks to go through another rotation with a head coach. You have to re-find the chemistry, move to another system. It's just too much at times, especially for what we've been through."
What the Bengals have been through in the 39 games since then head coach Marvin Lewis fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin after the ninth game of the 2018 season is injury, turnover and the price has been just seven victories. They are hitching their wagon to the consistency of Taylor's offense and the high-ceiling abilities of Joe Burrow, the overall No. 1 rookie quarterback they feel like needs at least two years in the same system.
"He's a player's coach. He relates to everybody in different ways," Boyd said of Taylor. "He feels for guys and he's not just a hard core, smash-mouth, hard-ass coach who just gets on you. He's going to coach you to the best of his ability and make sure you get better. He understands how to practice and how to scheme different teams. He knows a lot. He's a great offensive coach. He knows so much and I trust him and this offense. I feel like we can be the best offense next year."
Management has a lot of faith in Taylor and Burrow. The model is in New Orleans with the long-term Super Bowl partnership of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
But Burrow's rookie year and the $120 million overhaul of the defense was delayed and then truncated by the pandemic. Then it was decimated by season-ending injuries to last year's four biggest off-season investments stretching from Burrow himself (who injured his knee in the tenth game) to $53 million free-agent nose tackle D.J. Reader (who injured his quad in the fifth game) to $42 million free-agent cornerback Trae Waynes (who injured his pectoral muscle in August and never took the field) to two-time 1,000-yard rusher Joe Mixon's $50 million extension (before he went down in game six with a foot injury) and the Bengals left 2020 with 10 starters and regulars on injured reserve.
Taylor points to the depth revealed by the injuries as a big reason in his confidence at turning it around.
"Just the growth that we've seen in our players and in our staff. This league you're always going to deal with injuries and what that gave us an opportunity was to see a lot of players that were maybe sitting at No. 2 or No. 3 on the depth chart when the season started," Taylor said. "It gave us a great opportunity to build for the future. I do look forward to getting a lot of guys back that are key parts of this thing. One important thing is this league is that your key players play and unfortunately for us we suffered some injuries at some key positions. Excited to get them back in the building, but also excited for the depth that we've developed over the course of this season and feel like we're going to have a strong roster going forward."
Taylor stopped short of saying there wouldn't be overhauls like the massive ones both the offense and the defense took on last year.
"Hard to say right now. Again, we will start those conversations as these weeks go forward in the offseason," Taylor said.
The loss of Burrow and Mixon and a revolving offensive line that featured 10 different starting combos sentenced the Bengals to No. 29 in offense. But they'll be back.
C.J. Uzomah, the starting tight end who caught Burrow's first touchdown pass on the same night he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the second game, sees the talent all over. He's excited by the prospect of Burrow having a second year with Boyd and rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins, but he's also hesitant to say when it is all going to get off the ground. He says it will, but nobody really knows when.
"Being able to watch (Boyd) I think he's a freak, the way he runs routes is unbelievable," Uzomah said. "Being able to watch Tee this year I think Tee is going to grow and he is going to grow into a really good receiver for us. Watching some of the things we were able to do later on in the year when we were able to get some momentum, I'm like, OK, nice. This is … what is to come. I think it's hard to 100 percent say, hey, we are going to take off and this is what our identity is going to be because we were missing a bunch of pieces. We didn't get to have that offseason with Joe (Burrow) and things like that."
The Bengals defense went into Sunday's finale ranked 22nd, but the Ravens' No. 1 rush offense wrecked that with 404 yards on the ground and they finished 26th. Still, when the Bengals look at the starters they had on the shelf on Sunday, they believe Hurricane Lamar was a perfect storm.
"Obviously we lost a lot of key players throughout the year," said left end Sam Hubbard. "I'm really wishing those guys like D.J. and Trae Waynes a healthy recovery. We just need to come back together. Everyone go in the offseason, refresh their bodies and minds, put in their work and come back and start off fast in 2021."
Hubbard is one of the guys that Taylor views as part of the glue keeping his program together (look for him and free safety Jessie Bates III to be in extension talks this offseason) and the feeling is mutual after he met with Taylor Monday.
"I'm excited Zac's coming back. We believe in what he's trying to build here and excited for another year and we're going to keep taking steps forward to get where we want to be," Hubbard said. "I just had a great meeting with him. I'm excited about working with him and doing my part to get us where we want to be. (Talking about) Just ways for us to improve. Having the results we want to have at the end of next year."
The depth that Taylor likes to talk about can be seen on special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons's charts. Simmons rebuilt the NFL's 2019 No. 1 kicking game starting with three rookie linebackers, versatile veterans Shawn Williams and Giovani Bernard teaming together to make up for the loss of Clayton Fejedelem, tight end Cethan Carter and running back Samaje Perine continuing their consistency and safety Brandon Wilson's Pro Bowl-like skills.
The offense may have finished 29th and the defense 26th, but the roster was good enough to produce a top ten special teams unit. Football Outsiders ranked Cincinnati No. 9 and Simmons said the goal on Sunday against a Ravens team tied for first was to make sure they didn't finish first. After Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson broke the longest punt against the Ravens all year with a 28-yarder, Baltimore finished second.
As Simmons begins building again, Erickson is one of the free agent he hopes to keep, along with Wilson, Carter, linebacker Jordan Evans and all three specialists. He says punter Kevin Huber, who'll be 36 next season, earned another shot with career highs in net and gross.
"We have quite a few unrestricted free agents that we have to get back that are critical, critical parts to what we do here and I think critical parts to our team," said Simmons of what's at the top of his off-season agenda,
Simmons, also the assistant head coach, has a unique view of the locker room. As the specials teams coordinator, he deals with a large chunk of the players.
"I think it's a good locker room. I think there are a bunch of good guys in there that want to do well," Simmons said. "I think they're dying to win and they want more. They're frustrated just like we are. The work we've put in hasn't always led to as many victories as we want. That has to be our charge. We have to find out why that is and make the changes necessary to fix that."