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As NFL Coaches Meet Again, Bengals' Zac Taylor Moves To The Big Kids' Table For Year Five

Zac Taylor, after last season's win in Pittsburgh, has a handle on his locker room.
Zac Taylor, after last season's win in Pittsburgh, has a handle on his locker room.

Since the only two things that really hold Zac Taylor's interest are his family and coaching the Bengals, he only has to look at the biggest items in his Paycor Stadium office to realize how far both have come.

They are the four giant photo portraits of his kids lining the top of a bookcase. Milly, mischievously there on the end, turned one just two months after he got the job. He and Sarah and the kids were still living in the hotel and his quarterback was Andy Dalton, his main man was A.J. Green and he had never called a play or handed out a fine in the NFL.

"She runs the house," says Taylor, and with Milly turning five next week the same could be said of her dad in the AFC North.

He gets another reminder this week of how far everyone has come at the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix, Ariz. The posh Arizona Biltmore is the scene of his first league meeting in 2019 and now he and his buddy from that rookie class, Matt LaFleur of the Packers, are the league's eighth longest-tenured coaches as they start their fifth seasons in an industry that eats its young.

He's done it lasering on his two passions.

"He's consistently himself. He doesn't try to be anybody else," says Brian Callahan, his offensive coordinator through it all, not to mention his fierce opponent in any game he can concoct.

From all-or-nothing 18th holes in golf to vicious pickleball tournaments for his coaches where he makes the rules, the draw sheets and everything else.

"Right there. Next to the two footballs," says Taylor, proudly pointing to an impressive piece of glass symbolizing his championship in last spring's Bengals coaches' pickleball tournament like no other. "I got it made for myself. I created the tournament and I got first place."

Callahan is convinced it is this anytime-anywhere-any-game competitiveness that has put him at the table. Whether it is daring his eight-year-old son to beat him at chess or finding himself in a best-of-five free-throw contest in front of his team against his quarterback and hottest guy on the planet the day before Joe Burrow started the Super Bowl.

"He does a really good job with staying the course and handling things that make some guys lose their minds. He never loses his," Callahan says. "He's the same guy every day he walks into the building. You never see him rise or fall. He handles adversity as well as anyone I've ever been around. Just look at last year. Started the season 0-2 and the expectations are much higher. He was the same as he was yesterday in March in the offseason."

Zac Adversity Taylor turned out to be the same guy as Zac Postseason Taylor.

"It's not like he grew a superman's cape overnight," says his chief of staff, Doug Rosfeld, who first coached with him seven years ago at the University of Cincinnati. "He can narrow his vision on a specific problem as equally as he can widen it to empower the whole team. The whole locker room. The ability to communicate is the sign of a professional. I've noticed it from the jump with him."

When Taylor sits down Monday morning at the AFC coaches' media breakfast, only three of them have done what Taylor did two months ago when he took his team to back-to-back AFC title games: New England's Bill Belichick, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Kansas City's Andy Reid. Two Hall-of-Famers and one on the border. Add Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin (closing in on a Canton lock himself) along with Jacksonville's Doug Pederson and Taylor is on that short list of AFC coaches with at least five playoff wins.

"I understand how to do the job better," Taylor says. "I hope people would see the same person from five years ago."

The same what kind of person? Taylor has been known to call himself a nerd. But on second thought . . .

"Nerd would imply book smart and I don't think I am," Taylor says. "Boring is the word I would use. And I am comfortable with that."

Boring is good. His .714 winning percentage in seven playoff games is better than anyone at both coaches' media breakfasts who have coached that many. He may be boring but he isn't a bore as he tries to become the first AFC North coach to win three straight division titles.

Take the recent NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. By day, home of drills and scouts' stopwatches. By night, a mega social gathering for the league and midnight hangers-on and wannabes looking to glimpse the big names. They didn't find Taylor.

Oh, he went out one night for agent Bob Lamont's annual combine dinner but left after about an hour. Another night he ducked out of downtown to have dinner with some league buddies off the grid. But always asleep early because about the time many of the names were getting back from the nights out is about the time his girls are waking him up in Cincinnati.

"I need the sleep," Taylor says. "They've got bunk beds, but don't use them. They sleep in the same bed and when one gets up, the other one gets up and they come to wake me up."

There is a line of demarcation during the offseason and season. During the season, "I get to nothing," involving the kids.

The empathy his staff raves about comes through on those in-season Monday nights. He knows he's not the only one marooned by the season, so he's instituted a 90-minute or so family dinner at the office where he orders pizza and salad as the kids get to run around while the moms visit before the dads go back to the game plan.

"They leave and there's a new set of exuberance and energy for work," Rosfeld says. "He's a human being and he knows he's working with human beings. He treats everybody the same."

But Taylor's offseason? Not boring. Hectic, yes. But far from boring.

Taylor may be the only guy sitting down at breakfast Monday who carpools.

Once a week he drives fifth-grader Brooks and three other teammates to AAU basketball. On the Friday he introduced Orlando Brown Jr. to Bengaldom, Taylor briskly left the podium and drove to Columbus for a weekend of AAU ball spiced by attending the NCAA's opening rounds with a raft of kids and parents.

With the offseason in full swing, Taylor hasn't missed a basketball game and has made all but one of Brooks' volleyball games. It's been tougher to get to his lacrosse games, but even Brooks has a tough time making them because he plays so many different sports. Once flag football starts in two weeks, dad will make them all.

"Golf is on the way soon enough," he says.

Wednesday nights are for tennis at Eastern Hills with the wife. He and Sarah play doubles and when he gets home he puts his daughters to bed as they play a game reciting as many NFL teams as they can. Emma Claire is on her way. She gets about half of them. The girls are the youngest. Emma Claire is six and Milly is closing fast. "Both girly girls," he says.

And since it's the offseason, every day when he gets home he plays two games of chess with his third-grade prodigy Luke. He bet him $100 he couldn't beat him and that is now off the boards.

"He started beating me more regularly," Taylor says. "It started out as dominant by me for a while against my third-grade son. I just wanted to get him to play. I never paid him $100. He's trying to win a video game. He learned all my moves."

A take-no-prisoners game against his son surprises exactly no one. Particularly Callahan and strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese, who have dueled with Taylor in golf, pickle ball, and a grueling game of offseason lunch-time 21 on the basketball court of the Kettering Health Performance Center.

"Fastest time possible," Taylor says. "Make a layup. (Run to) touch half-court. Shoot a free throw, touch half-court. Shoot a three-pointer. Touch half-court. You have to go in that order. The guy who can only make a layup is going to do it in about ten minutes."

Boese, like Callahan, his close friend, is his partner of pulse in gauging the team vibe at any particular hour. He currently holds the record with something ungodly, like 1:15 or 1:20. Taylor did have the record last offseason, not without some controversy.

"Boese didn't miss a shot," says Taylor, for once the temperature rising. "If your strength coach doesn't miss a shot and he's running as fast as he can, it's going to be difficult for me to replicate that. Not only do I have to hit every shot, but I have to run as fast as he does and we're not in the same shape.

"Justin Hill arguably had the record," Taylor says of the running backs coach. "There's an asterisk. A foot on the line situation."

His games are even more challenging since Taylor makes up many of them and the ensuing rules, as he did during that idyllic 1950s boyhood in the 1980s and 1990s on the Norman, Okla., cul-de-sac where he'd organize one-on-one hoop tournaments. Making invites via phone across the city. Setting up the courts, the brackets, the rule book. There were moments, he says, his buddies suggested they thought he wrote a few of the rules to suit him or his teams.

"Don't ever mistake his demeanor for anything other than he is a fiercely competitive human being and that's why he's where he's at," says Callahan, whose father was Taylor's head coach at Nebraska when he quarterbacked the Cornhuskers to a fourth-quarter comeback over Michigan in the 2005 Alamo Bowl before he was named the Big 12's 2006 Player of the Year.

"If you watched him play football at Nebraska, he is one of the toughest, fiercest competitors," Callahan says. "We were about the same age. I watched all that stuff. He wasn't necessarily gifted with a bunch of physical traits. But he got by because he was really smart. Really tough … I was at that bowl game they beat Michigan and he played well in that game. He's good, he's competitive. You see him play basketball down there. He doesn't want to lose to anybody."

That's how runs practices, too, and doles out the end-of-week sprints on Thursday after a week of tallying points off a few one-on-ones in coverage and on pass rush. Last play of the week is the last play of the game. Ball on the 5-yard-line. First offense vs. first defense. For the fifth point of the week to break the tie and run the sprints.

"That's where Trenton Irwin got a chance to get a lot of reps in front of the team," says Taylor of the break-out wide receiver. "It's a way to get the team involved. It's so easy to elevate guys from the practice squad on game day now you need those guys to be sharp and feel like they've got real practice reps."

That coaching staff Taylor loves to engage in competition has served him well, winning accolades across the league. Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo have interviewed for multiple head coach jobs. Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher, his star rising with Burrow, interviewed for the offensive coordinator job in Tampa Bay. It's a staff that last season crafted the longest winning streak in franchise history (10) despite injuries to a slew of key players.

"Zac knows what kind of guy he wants around. Players and coaches," Boese says. No one in the building wants to lose at anything.

"He wants guys comfortable here. Nothing worse than having guys dreading going to work. That goes for players and coaches. You can see the camaraderie with the coaching staff when they work out or play basketball at lunchtime … One of Zac's greatest attributes is he's well aware of what's going on around him. He has a good sense of the pulse of the team and what's going on in the locker room. It's a matter of trust. He asks them for their opinion, he listens and they feel that he's not going to shut them off."

It can be as big as Taylor listening to Pitcher on third down of the second series in the AFC Divisional and Burrow converting the call on third-and-seven for a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst and a 14-0 lead in the Orchard Park snow.

"No ego," Callahan says.

It can be as small as listening to the players and opening up the cafeteria after practice. Or doing it subtly after the 155-play overtime loss to the Steelers in last year's opener with a Wednesday walk-through instead of the usual full-scale practice.

"We're going to do the best we can," Boese says of the message, "to take care of you."

In an age where players have taken more ownership than ever of their careers, has anyone read the room better than Taylor as NFL coaching graduates from the old school? Callahan points to Taylor's experience under Rams head coach Sean McVay.

"He was the age of a lot of guys," Taylor says. "Whit (left tackle Andrew Whitworth) had him by several years. Maybe most of our offensive line had Sean beat age-wise. I just saw how receptive he was. How transparent he was with the players and you realized you can be transparent with the players. That's not how a lot of teams operate, but that's how we operate.

"If you open up a suggestion box, you'll get plenty of suggestions. You have to be careful because you're not going to make everybody happy. But there are guys now that have gotten to the point with me where they know, 'I'm not going to bring up everything, but if I bring up two or three things he'll listen.' I think the balance has been very fair of what they brought to my table and what we've been able to get done."

Just look at the relationship with his quarterback. Because Taylor and Callahan watch and listen, they no longer are the under-center-bootleg-play-action offense they envisioned when they arrived. They are playing to the strengths of Burrow, the cerebral all-Ohio point guard. Shot-gun-get-it-out-quickly.

"I'd prefer to say 'evolve,' rather than 'ripping it up,'" Taylor says. "There is feedback from him."

"He's involved in the game-planning portion of things. There are active conversations on game day where we need to go during the game. He plays a big part in that.

"If you respect the mindset of your quarterback, the work he puts in, how prepared he is, he is an extension of the coaching staff. You feel like you need to know what he thinks. He's the one that's going to be out there operating out there on game day. It's important we're on the same page during the week."

A lot in common there. Both Taylor and Burrow are the sons of college safeties in the old Big Eight who went on to coach defense. Taylor pays Burrow the ultimate compliment when he calls him "The ultimate competitor." And he doesn't have envy.

"He's made it a lot further in life than I'd say I have. So you kind of have to give the nod to Joe," Taylor says. "You can see that in him. That's a big part of how he operates the way he does. He's the ultimate competitor."

Taylor likes to end each day-before-the-game walk-through with a one-on-one event and choosing the participants with the help of Boese. Usually offense vs. defense and it could be anything from foul shooting to ping-pong to soccer penalty shots. A few laughs to lighten the load is OK, too.

It can be coaches, too. Once veteran defensive coach Louie Cioffi found himself catching punts. The day before the Halloween game, the veterans commanded the rookies to wear costumes, and Taylor and Boese picked the two best. So Allan George ("The Vision") and Yusuf Corker ("The Scarecrow") went at it in a punt, pass, and kick contest. Also, the idea of pitting two guys who scuffled during the week has intrigued Taylor from time to time.

"No one knows they're doing it until we bring it up. I tell them what time the meetings are that night and if we're on the road, what time the buses leave. Then we tell them and do it," Taylor says. "I've been on teams that get tight on Saturdays. This is a way to end the week on a competitive, energetic, fun note and get them in a good mood walking out of the locker room."

No one really knows how the Burrow-Taylor free-throw contest the day before the Super Bowl in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion practice facility came to be. Boese says, "We had a lot of time to think about it … I think we said something to Joe about how he had never done it and it just kind of sat out there. What better way to have the head coach go against the franchise quarterback?"

Best of five shots in front of all those national championship banners.

"No contest. Joe's a heck of a shooter," Taylor says. "I don't think it got to five. It was over quickly."

But that's OK for the man quite content with boring.

"I'm good," Taylor says. "I got what I got."