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Game Within The Game: Zac and Press Taylor In A Brotherly Shove

Head Coach Zac Taylor during the Bengals-Ravens game during Thursday Night Football on November 16, 2023.
Head Coach Zac Taylor during the Bengals-Ravens game during Thursday Night Football on November 16, 2023.

The backyard games at all hours on Cynthia Circle in the NFL's most famous cul-de-sac come full circle under the blazing Monday night lights in Jacksonville when Bengals head coach Zac Taylor calls his X and then waits for younger brother Press to call his O as the Jaguars offensive coordinator.

They have now coached something near a combined 400 NFL games. If you count last year's rollicking playoffs where Zac steered Joe Burrow to an easy win in the Buffalo snow while Press talked Trevor Lawrence through a 27-0 deficit to melt the Chargers in L.A.

Among them are those four awkward games chiseled on their dad's "Bro Bowl," trophy after their teams have actually played each other.

(They both know Press has the lead at 2-1-1.)

But finally, for the first time, in a way, they call plays against each other. Zac on the sidelines as play-caller and head coach; Press in the booth as Jags head coach Doug Pederson's first-year play-caller.

"It's going to be fun," says Press Taylor during this long week in Jacksonville. "It's a little bit different than this now. It was fun back then, too."

Not as much matching wits on Madden in those days as there were skinned knees and trash-talking spilling across the Liddells' cathedral lawn when Zac quarterbacked one gang and Press the other in The Wonder Years of Norman, Okla. There could be as many as 30 to 40 kids over there at a time with bikes sprawled all over the place after Zac worked the phones and made up the draw sheets or a draft.

That's the last time they really called plays against each other. You can hear the remnants in a Bengals practice huddle, where Zac Taylor says, 'SP,' for same play or "SPOS," for same play, other side, and he can see guys start to roll eyes.

"You wouldn't survive two seconds playing at Liddell Field if you came from another neighborhood," Zac tells them with a gleam in his eye. "We would have torched  you."

With no pro teams of any kind in Oklahoma until The Thunder rolled in around the time Press left to quarterback Marshall University, the high school and college games hooked them more than anything.  Even their last name says, "Friday Night Lights."

Now Saturdays are reserved for catching up with each other.

"It's been a little harder to keep up the last two years. I don't have as much free time as I used to as a coordinator," Press says. "But in some way, shape, or form … Maybe on a Saturday I'll buzz through the game pretty quickly, looking at my iPad just to see what they're doing."

Zac, in turn, makes sure he sees the drive sheets first before calling or texting and asking how it went.

"We try to get in touch once or twice a week," Press says.  "We tend to keep it to when one of us is driving home. Since we're in the same profession we understand how valuable our time is. We don't take it hard if the other person doesn't answer and sometimes it can go a few weeks."

Back in his Norman, Okla., office, the man who started it all, Sherwood Taylor, is telling the delivery guys he'll get those boxes out of the door once they leave. He's still running his letter jacket business outfitting much of Oklahoma's high school population.

"No," he is saying as he thinks about what "the boys," are doing this week. "I don't think they'll have much conversation between them."

Sherwood Taylor, the old Oklahoma captain who patrolled safety for Barry Switzer as the '70s discoed into the '80s, is OK these weeks. It's his wife who is in misery. It's not great for their father, but their mother Julie  ….

"She shows it more than I do," Sherwood Taylor says. "It's a game to me and I like watching the game and the things that take place in the course of the game. It doesn't bother me as much because I'm used to winning and losing. For her, it has nothing to do with football. It's about her children."

And it's not going to go well for one of them, which is never part of a mother's plan. She may have been the only one happy after the last time they met, an infuriating 2020 tie in Philadelphia.

"Neither team played well that day," Sherwood says.

"My dad grew up in it," Press says. "He understands it. Our wives are biased. They just want us to win. It probably hurts my mom. My dad gets it."

That's because Sherwood not only played, he coached. After six years in the college grind, he decided to settle near OU as he and Julie raised their four kids while he coached them. Zac, the oldest now 40, and Press, 35, played youth football and basketball for him. Their sister Quincy got him in track. Kathryn, 22 months younger than Zac and their high-functioning Down syndrome child, still oversees them all.

"She's in charge of everything," says Sherwood, which is always the answer when you ask how Kathryn is doing.

Kathryn will be there Monday night with her parents. She's wondering what quarterback she'll meet. Sherwood thinks she met Burrow once, so he's off her radar.

"She has player favorites. Trevor Lawrence is her favorite because she hasn't met him yet. I'm sure that's the reason," Sherwood says. "Once she meets them, somebody else becomes her favorite."

They'll be sitting where they usually sit. In the wives' section. They try to make three games each every season. When they're at home watching, they bring two TVs into the room to catch. But in the stands Monday night, Sherwood and Julie are on the same page just like Zac has to be with Jake Browning and Press with Lawrence.

"We have to keep our mouths shut. It's better that way," Sherwood says. "Even if you say 'Good job,' that's going to offend somebody."

You can't offend Zac and Press on game day.

"It's not hard on Press. It's not hard on me. We don't care. We just want to win," Zac says. "I would love for him to feel not as great as he usually does after this game. Then I'll root for him after. It's very simple for us."

So is their relationship. Press grew up emulating Zac as the perfect role model and still does. Zac admires Press' scrappy climb up the coaching ladder that mirrors his climb on the field. They both beat rival Norman North High on game-ending drives that reflected their differences.

Zac, the textbook quarterback, went down the field with the only three plays out of a quick game pass offense. A lot of slants. Maybe one smash route to the corner. Press, the better athlete because he had to play positions other than quarterback to get on the field quicker, swash-buckled for the yards, and on the last play at the goal line with Oklahoma-bound running back Mossis Madu back there, Press kept it for the winner. Sherwood is pretty sure the original call was for Madu.

"I think it was just a scramble off a movement," Press texts. "Tough to remember that far back now. Lots of football plays between then and now."

Like the "Philly Special," Press pulled from hours of tape and earned him the nickname "The Vault," and the Eagles a Super Bowl win over the master Bill Belichick. Not unlike Bengals running back Joe Mixon throwing to wide receiver Tee Higgins for a touchdown a few Super Bowls later.

"If there's a common opponent, they'll help each other out," Sherwood says, and Zac confirms that when they talk or text once or twice a week during the season, football is not off limits. Except this one, when they probably won't call or write.

But that doesn't mean Zac might not pull something out of last week's film of the Jags outlasting the Texans at the end. The same Houston team that beat the Bengals at the gun three weeks ago.

"We're following teams that are similar to us and Jacksonville is in that category," Zac says.

He knows Press skimmed through the Steelers' game last week to see if he could pluck anything from Browning's first NFL start because he knows his little brother is always grinding. That's what he admires so much.

"I probably had more opportunity in my playing and coaching career. Things came a little easier for me, whatever the reason," Zac says. "He really had to scratch and claw for every scholarship he got as a player and every opportunity he got as a coach.   Volunteering. There was a time he had his clothes in a car. And look at what a great career he's had."

He looked up to Zac during the Liddell days. He still is.

'He was such a great role model. He had so much success as an athlete," Press says. "I know a lot of people like to break off as their own person, but I saw someone who was a very successful person who treated people the right way. Highly respected. And I found that's somebody I wanted to be. I emulated a lot of the way I thought he was.

"The biggest thing is the way he treats people. The respect he gains from peers, his friends. I don't know his team, but to hear the way they talk about him in press conferences. And in interviews. The way he treats people. Let's players be themselves. Gives them that space to operate in. I have a lot of respect for that."

The quarterback brothers have ended up with overall No. 1 quarterbacks. The elephant in the room is that Zac no longer has Burrow this season and is trying to stay alive at 5-6, last place in the AFC North. Lawrence has the Jags rolling atop the AFC South at 8-3. Brother against brother in an NFL civil war.

Sherwood says he's barely mentioned the Burrow injury when they've talked. Maybe a joking question, like, do you have any eligibility left? But he says there's no cloud over this one. Like Zac needs it more than Press.

"Not at all and that's because it's never come up," Sherwood says. "I don't think anybody would bring it up. Who needs to win over the other. They both need to win for different reasons."

Press arrived in Jacksonville last year, when Lawrence was in his second season. Because they have different styles, he didn't really pick Zac's brain on how to handle a No. 1 quarterback. But he took plenty of notes on how Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl in his second season.

"More so than talking through how to handle the quarterback, it was more so (talking through) building an offense managing all your different personnel," Press says. "We both have No.  1 picks, but I think they play the game pretty differently, so that's been cool. You always tailor your systems to what your guy does well, so since our guys are somewhat different, our systems are a little different.

"(The Bengals') entire staff has adapted to (Burrow's) strengths. They built the offense around the things he does well. The run game reflects things he does really well. I think that's one of the hardest things when you have a really special player. You have to be willing to bend the system around whatever their strengths really are. I think some people want to still control some of that. I think they do a great job of leading into Joe's strengths, but also the strengths of their receiver room. It's been really cool to watch."

Both Burrow and Lawrence have a tendency to stun and excel when the play breaks down. Press, who drove for the winning basket against North instead of passing like he was supposed to, gets it just like his brother.

"I had a fairly successful run as a player," says Press, if he the coach would have got mad at Press the player. "If I'm coaching and we're winning,  you tend to put up with a little bit more of, 'No,  no, no, OK. Good job. Don't do it again.' That's what you're going to get with great players and give him some boundaries, but at the same time you let them do what they do."

And that's what impresses Zac about what Press is doing this season as he gets 95 yards per game from running back Travis Etienne running and receiving, more than 60 yards per game from wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk, and 50 yards per game from tight end Evan Engram.

"They do a great job getting the ball to all their weapons and they've got a lot of weapons," Zac says.

It's Thursday. First day of the week. No more texts. No more phone calls. Just play calls. Not that far removed from the old days.

"Everybody who participated at Liddell Field will be watching," Zac Taylor says. "I can promise you that. All 40 of them."