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Zac Taylor Keeps Bengals Connected Even As His Coaching Staff Undergoes First Major Change

Head Coach Zac Taylor speaks with Dan Pitcher during practice on December 29, 2022.
Head Coach Zac Taylor speaks with Dan Pitcher during practice on December 29, 2022.

While his predecessor Brian Callahan talked about bringing offensive collaboration to his role as the new head coach of the Titans, new Bengals offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher recalled one of its high points in head coach Zac Taylor's laboratory.

Such as third-and-seven from the Bills 15 in the first ten minutes of last year's AFC Divisional in the swirling Buffalo snow.

"Forever etched in my memory for years to come," Pitcher is saying Thursday near the runway to the Bengals locker room. "When you do find yourself in those moments when it works out exactly like you scripted it to work, that was pretty fun."

Even though it is Taylor's show, and he says he'll still call the plays, he also thinks a division of labor is healthy and smart. Among Callahan's many responsibilities down through the years were protections and red zone. As the quarterbacks coach responsible for their techniques and progressions, Pitcher was also in charge of third down.    


Like this third down in Buffalo.

With Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in the huddle calling the second-down play, Pitcher popped into Taylor's headsets with his call on third down, pending on the second-down play.

"He could ask a question or maybe bring up a coaching point," Pitcher says. "'Hey, I'm concerned about this. I don't love that. Got anything else?'"

Taylor must have loved this call.

Burrow pumped like he was throwing a screen pass to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, pulled back, and saw tight end Hayden Hurst floating behind everybody else wide-open for the touchdown pass that put the Bengals up an insurmountable 14-0 and secure a second straight conference championship game appearance.

"That's because Ja'Marr is a heck of a decoy," Pitcher says. "You've got some plays that work because of the design. But a lot of the plays that work are because you've got really good players who do something to make it work."

Taylor says Pitcher's voice is now going to be the loudest in the headset. But since Pitcher's voice has already been on it and at key times, the sense in the building is this is going to be as smooth a transition as possible.

"Relatively the same," Taylor said of the play-calling process. "I think every year's a new year. And as personnel adjusts on our staff, we have an open quarterback (coach) job. That process has begun and will be ongoing into next week as we evaluate all the proper candidates and see what the best fit for us is. We'll sit down as a staff and continue to go, but certainly his voice will be the loudest on the headset as he and I work together and as we piece through what the whole thing will work for."

Pitcher showed up for work the first time at Paycor Stadium as an offensive assistant a few days after the 2015 season and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson taking the head coaching job in Cleveland. It was the second time in two offseasons the Bengals had lost their OC to the head coaching ranks and they were faced with another different playbook.

When the Bengals went through another change a year after that, part of the decision to make a young offensive guru like Taylor the head coach was that the offense would always be in place no matter what assistants left.

"(Pitcher) has been a bigger voice as the years have gone by, and so it was natural progression to make him the coordinator once Brian left. I know that our staff feels the same way," Taylor said.

Taylor, Pitcher, and Callahan spent Thursday reminding everyone this is still very much a people's game built on relationships.

In Nashville during Thursday's introductory news conference, the emotional Callahan couldn't get through his praise for the Bengals without choking up. It started when he haltingly called Bengals president Mike Brown, "probably one of the greatest men that I've ever met. I'll get it together in a second, don't worry. No worry. "

He listed Brown's family members who help him run the Bengals, as well as director of player personnel Duke Tobin, before again tearing up.

"Probably most importantly, Zac Taylor. He's a great friend, he's been an incredible mentor and he's a fantastic football coach," Callahan said. "Thank you for everything. Thank you to the players and the coaching staff. Obviously, without an incredible amount of hard work, I don't get to stand here. And there's a lot of people that go into that, staff, players."

He also introduced a man in the audience who had arrived via the redeye. Callahan had summoned him from San Mateo, Calif. Patrick Walsh, the head coach at Serra High School, gave Callahan his first coaching and teaching job 15 years ago.

"He's one of my closest friends and incredible mentors," Callahan said. "I would not be sitting here in front of you without his love, support and guidance and he's always been there for me. Thanks, P-Dub."

Callahan is well on his way to replicating the player-friendly culture Taylor has established in Cincinnati with a deft handling of relationships. Pitcher helped build it with his own experiences, although Greg Roskos wasn't in Paycor Stadium Thursday.

Instead, Roskos, Pitcher's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when he quarterbacked Cortland State to some of its finest moments before they won last year's Division III national title, saw the Bengals news conference roll up suddenly to the top of his social media.

"A great friend to this day," Pitcher says. "He's the one that kind of shaped my philosophy toward how you treat the player and the willingness to listen and the health of the relationship that is a product of that. I attribute a lot of that to him."

Roskos, coming to Cortland after a stint as the University of Minnesota assistant quarterbacks and quality control coach, didn't play quarterback. So he continually picked the brains of those who did. He picked Pitcher, a sophomore who had transferred from Colgate, a lot.

Pitcher likes to tell people he was short, slow, and smart. Smart, definitely. Roskos could see that right away since Pitcher was sitting in his interview. But the fact he was good enough to go to Colgate? Roskos assures you he could play a little bit and was terrific that senior year in 2011 the Red Dragons went 9-2.

"I was his coach, but it was more like friends, like colleagues," Roskos says. "That player-coach relationship helped me become a better coordinator right away. I had to have all the answers for this really smart dude I had to coach. I knew he was going to be prepared.

"He was a heck of a quarterback. He tore his Achilles' early in his sophomore year and I had to use four other guys. Nobody was close. He came back in his junior year and he was good, but he was still recovering. His senior season, he was a grad student. He was really like both an assistant coach and a quarterback. That 2011 season was pretty special."

Cortland, a busy, small city of about 17,000 between Syracuse and Binghamton in Central New York, is also Pitcher's hometown. But it was in college where he discovered coaching.

"In that leadership position," Pitcher says, "I found my footing, my voice, my confidence."

Callahan certainly sounded all of that in what has generally been regarded as a home-run news conference in his first at-bat. If you listened closely, it sounded a lot like Zac Taylor's "Connected," introductory news conference of Feb. 5, 2019:

Taylor: "We're going to be a connected team. This business and this sport is all about the people, and we want people that are all pulling on the same rope, with the shared vision. … We want to bring great things to this city and to this franchise. We do that by having a connected team and everyone in this building being on the same page and sharing the same vision, and we will accomplish that. I think everybody wants to be a part of something that's bigger than themselves."

Callahan, in what could have been an ode to the Bengals of Mike Brown and Zac Taylor: "We're going to be a connected organization. I believe in it. If you don't have a connection, it's really hard to do anything worthwhile. The business of the sport really is all about people and relationships. And so, if we don't have any sort of connection, there's really no point in us doing our jobs the way we do it. This is what makes it fun. This is what I enjoy the most, is being able to be connected with the people that I work with every single day. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. That's what makes this sport special."

Near the locker room runway during his first day on the job and Cali now with his own club, Pitcher thought about that third down in Buffalo everyone owned.

""We've kind of got it down to a science in regard to how we communicate on game day," Pitcher says. "There's a pattern of communication."