If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em.
When Bengals head coach Zac Taylor announced his first four staff hires Thursday, they came from NFL offenses his new team has had trouble deciphering in the past decade, particularly in a lethal running game version of Paul Brown's scheme that morphed into the West Coast Offense.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, as a quarterbacks coach, and tight ends coach James Casey, as a player, come out of Gary Kubiak’s version of the West Coast that never lost to Cincinnati in six what always seemed to be huge games when he was the head coach in Houston and Denver. Two of those were post-season games, one clinched the AFC South for the Texans and another eliminated the Bengals from a play-off bye. Offensive line coach Jim Turner, along with assistant Ben Martin, had the same jobs with the 15-17 Dolphins of 2012 and 2013 that knocked off the play-off bound Bengals in both Paul Brown Stadium and in Miami with head coach Joe Philbin’s West Coast playbook that was formulated, in part, with Taylor’s father-in-law, Mike Sherman in Green Bay.
Taylor is looking to bring the Rams’ version of the West Coast offense to Cincinnati, but on Thursday he said the Bengals’ playbook is going to be a collaborative effort spearheaded by Callahan, another coach’s son and an old 34 as he heads into his 10th season in the NFL. But it’s simply going to be the latest version of a West Coast look that was born in Paul Brown’s briefcase in the Cleveland of the ‘40s and ‘50s because the beauty of it is its flexibility.
Callahan is coming from one season under head coach Jon Gruden’s West Coast scheme in Oakland, but that’s not the first time he saw it. During Gruden’s first tenure with the Raiders at the turn of the century, he was a kid throwing training-camp passes to Hall-of-Famer receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown when his father Bill was Gruden’s line coach and then his offensive coordinator.
(The Bengals didn’t win that one, either, in 2003, when Sebastian Janikowski hit a 39-yard field goal with nine seconds left in a 23-20 loss.)
“It's certainly evolved,” Brian Callahan said Thursday of Gruden’s playbook. “I think there are some core fundamentals and beliefs in how he wants to run the offense that will always be there and will always be a part of what you see when you turn on Jon Gruden film. And I do believe he has adapted. Play calls might have been shortened, we might have changed how we called formations. We might be doing more no-huddle than he did in 2008. All those things as you study the game and it changes, you start to implement those parts of your offense.
“A lot of times you are going to find as guys branch away from wherever they started, they put their own spin on it. And, they get around other coaches that have been other places and there's new ideas and injection of what they've done before, and you go, 'OK, I like that. Let's incorporate that in what we do,' and it starts to change as you get further along in your career and it starts to become yours.”
Just what the final Bengals’ product is going to be is anyone’s guess. It will have both Grudens (Taylor’s boss in L.A., Sean McVay, worked under Jay Gruden in Washington, where Bill Callahan is now), a smattering of Mike Holmgren (Sherman worked under Holmgren and Philbin worked under Sherman) and a dash of Kubiak (when Brian Callahan worked at Texas A&M his fellow G.A. was Kubiak’s son Clint).What they do know is that it is coming out of proven and successful playbooks, which is one of the many reasons Taylor is here,
“I think you always start out with a core philosophy of what you want your offense to be as far as you're always going to want to run the ball, you're going to want to pass protect, you're going to want to run block,” Callahan said. “All the fundamental things are always going to be there, so you always start there, and within those fundamentals and what you believe philosophically is going to be a core of plays. Those core of plays may never change. You might have the same core plays for 30 years and they never change. They are going to start somewhere, but ultimately where it evolves to and how we implement is going to depend largely on the skill set of the players and what they do best.”
Taylor has brought together elements of the West Coast that have made the run a staple featuring the outside zone. For instance, when Casey was a rookie tight end on Kubiak’s 2009 Texans, they came into PBS and cooled off the 4-1 Bengals, 28-17. They rushed for only 87 yards, but tried it 31 times. Two years later Kubiak brought the Texans back for quarterback T.J. Yates’ first NFL start and clinched the AFC South title on a last-play TD pass for a 20-19 win set up on 144 yards rushing.
With Casey the blocking H-Back, that proved to be foreshadowing. A month later to open the 2011 postseason, Yates beat the Bengals in Houston with the help 188 yards on 35 carries. A year later Kubiak had his starting quarterback Matt Schaub back for the home Wild Card Game, but he handed it off even more than Yates in a 19-13 win fueled on 39 carries for 158 yards.
When the Bengals needed to beat Kubiak’s Broncos in Denver to secure a 2015 post-season bye with back-up quarterback A.J. McCarron, Kubiak faced them with yet another backup, Brock Osweiler, and carried the day on 113 rushing yards with one of the 21 carries going for running back C.J. Anderson’s 39-yard TD run that put the Broncos ahead in the fourth quarter of an OT victory.
In the middle of that run were the two losses to the Dolphins, one at PBS when they carried it 35 times for just 68 yards, and one in Miami on Halloween night when the Bengals allowed 157 yards on 30 rushes.
Callahan will tell you the league has changed over the course of that decade.
“I think just the idea of putting people in space and isolation and getting as many matchups as you can get one on one or your better athletes against their worst athletes in space,” Callahan said. “I think that's what you see in college a bunch. I do think that the precision of the passing game in the NFL has only gotten better and better as the years have gone on, both because the players have gotten better and also because people are doing a lot more of it all throughout the game. Passing almost used to be situational, drop back passing. And now you look at the analytics of throwing on the first down and doing all those things, the numbers support why it's effective.”
He says there are fewer big people in offenses nowadays in the effort for speed, but that doesn’t mean he thinks banging the ball on the ground is obsolete.
“I think there's a place for it. And I think everything in the NFL kind of works in cycles. At some point it will come back,” Callahan said. “What you're seeing is everybody has discovered the advantage of having speed on the field and opening the offense and finding mismatches in that manner. I think it's hard to find big offensive linemen and good offensive linemen that play in that manner. Everybody has gotten a little bit lighter, a little bit faster, a little more athletic. I think the game's become a little more wide open in that regard. And obviously the passing in this league has gotten so much different.”
The Bengals brought back the outside zone last year when offensive line coach Frank Pollack arrived from Dallas and that helped them gather 4.7 yards per rush, a yard better than last season and their best in two decades. But showing how committed Bengals president Mike Brown is to giving Taylor what he wants, he let Taylor hire his own line coach even though management loved Pollack and he had a year left on his deal.
Taylor admires Pollack, too. They had the same college coach. Bill Callahan. But Taylor is a stickler for communication and he wanted someone he knew well for that job. Turner, a colleague at Texas A&M and Miami, was his first choice and he got him. You’ll see the outside zone again, but the way Taylor wants it.
Casey, in his first NFL job, is the only one of Thursday’s four hires that Taylor didn’t know before this job, but it might be his favorite once this thing is said and done. Through his network Taylor had heard great things about Casey as he finished up his third season of coaching at the University of Houston. He loved what he heard about him as a player from his coaches. Always a favorite. Always doing the right thing. If Taylor is a stickler for communication, he’s also big on detail and a West Coast tight end/HBack is a big factor because they help give the scheme so much of its flexibility.
“I learned to appreciate James from that time,” Taylor said of the Texans games he watched with Clint Kubiak. “It’s a role he played that’s critical in the scheme. The tight end is valuable in this offense, so James has done it as a player. He knows how to teach the physicality and the details in that position.”
Taylor (Nebraska), 35, has a fellow details man in Callahan (UCLA), 34, two guys that played big-time college quarterback at about the same time. They think may have met briefly when Callahan’s father was coaching Taylor at Nebraska, but it’s not a big memory for either. What is big is they’ve been following each other careers and while they have a lot of the same influences, they’ve had just enough different experiences to make it interesting.
Callahan won’t call plays on Sunday. Taylor does that, but he’ll be Taylor’s eyes and ears throughout the week, an offensive chief of staff so to speak. Their roles conjure up Bengaldom Super Bowl memories of head coach Sam Wyche and offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet. Wyche also called that a collaboration of not just them, but everyone on staff, just as Taylor is describing it. Once Wyche called the making of his game plans “an eruption of ideas.”
“He’s been around a prolific offense in Denver and operated in similar systems that we did in L.A, so I think it will be a great blend of ideas and cohesion. It’s important to hire people challenging you,” Taylor said.
“As the head coach, you get pulled in a lot of different directions. As the play caller you always need somebody to get you started in the right direction. I can speak through him to the staff when I’m not around those (offensive) meetings. He needs to be a big idea guy. On game day I’ll be calling the plays, but it will be a collective effort with those guys. This is not all about me. It has to be about the whole group creating the game plan and coming through on game day.”
Callahan went to two Super Bowls with Denver. Taylor just got back from one with the Rams. Age, it seems, is relative.
“I think years in this league are like dog years. The amount of experience you gain in one year in the NFL, I think, is different than the traditional work environment,” Callahan said. “It’s so high stress. There are so many things that happen and move so fast. The amount of things that go on into a 16-game season and through the course of an offseason, you learn at an accelerated pace. I think that’s why you have so many younger coaches being able to handle these things.”
He sees plenty to do without calling plays.
“He has to rely on me and trust me to manage the offensive staff, get accomplished what we need to get accomplished in the meeting, have the information ready and really bring it back to him and make sure we're on the same page,” Callahan said. “He may give me a directive of things he wants me to get done with the staff if he can't be in there … Outside of just the game day, I think it would be the same as any offensive coordinator in the league.”
That’s the plan to make those dog years dogged.