Zac Taylor Penning A Season Worthy Of NFL Coach Of The Year Discussion

Zac Taylor at work.
Zac Taylor at work.

There may be two people left in the National Football League nowadays who use pens instead of printers.

One is Bengals president Mike Brown, who still sends legendary handwritten notes to everyone from college chums to his Pro Bowlers. The other is the guy he gave the go-ahead to coach his team three years ago, but Zac Taylor hasn't had time yet to jot the biggest chapter in his sprawling weekly journal that may very well be authored by the NFL Coach of the Year.

"I usually do it on the plane or in the hotel the night before the game. When all the game-planning is done," says Taylor, in between planning for Sunday's season finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Cleveland.

Taylor may have ushered the Bengals into the age of analytics, but he's all thumbs when it comes to the writing tools wielded by two members of his kitchen cabinet on offense, coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher.

"They've got the iPads and the note apps. I can't do that stuff. I need my notebook," Taylor says. "It helps keep me in line. Especially now as a head coach. There are so many things that can cross your desk and they're all important. If I don't write them down, I can lose track of things."

But as Taylor turns the page to prepping for his first playoff game, he's right on track with two of the longest-tenured coaches in Bengals history. Paul Brown and Marvin Lewis won their first division titles in their third seasons. They're also the only Bengals to win the Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year, a discussion that Taylor entered last month while steering the Bengals to more wins than they had in his first two seasons combined.

"He's got my vote," says Bengals assistant offensive line coach Ben Martin, who has been saying such things since he shared a wall closet of an office with Taylor and another grad assistant in the Texas A&M salad days going on more than a decade ago.

The days when Martin would look over at Taylor's computer in their down time and he was watching press conferences of head coaches.

"The thing is, he's the same guy. The office is bigger. But the guy hasn't changed."

Or, as Callahan says, "His temperature never rises."

Taylor's cool may not be enough to warm up the voters. Since 2015, the AP Coach of the Year has gone to either first-year coaches (Sean McVay, Matt Nagy Kevin Stefanski) or coaches that secured the top seed in the playoffs (Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, John Harbaugh). That may point to one of Taylor's phone buddies and old colleagues on McVay's offensive staff with the Rams, Green Bay's Matt LaFleur.

But Taylor has won a landslide on the generic ballot in that all-or-nothing precinct in the locker room. And it starts at the top with the precinct captain. He had franchise quarterback Joe Burrow at hello when they met at the 2020 NFL scouting combine.

"He knew exactly the vision that he expected to have for the team and the organization," Burrow recalled this week. "He had it really nailed down, understood what he wanted out of me as a quarterback and out of everybody else on the team and knew it was going to be a hard road. Just the way he talked, I understood that it just felt like it was fact, what he was saying."

He's also done what no coach in the league has done (except maybe New England's Bill Belichick) by winning with one of the youngest rosters in the league that was also buffeted by a huge influx of free agents during the two traumatic Zoom years of the pandemic. When he deploys his team at Paul Brown Stadium next week for the Wild Card Game, he'll have just five starters (Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Jessie Bates III, Sam Hubbard, Trey Hopkins) from his 2019 debut in Seattle.

(And you best believe that Taylor has pored over the journal entries of that 21-20 loss. "A thousand times," Taylor says. "We had every situation imaginable. Two-minute at the end of game and half. Timeouts. You name it, it happened.")

Paul Brown won the 1970 Coach of the Year with the Baby Bengals, an eclectic collection of hand-me-downs and kids that became the most successful pro sports expansion team of their time. Marvin Lewis coaxed through a roster in transition and tragedy to an AFC North sweep for the 2009 Coach of the Year.

Taylor put himself in the Coach of the Year conversation with similar credentials. As the play-caller and a former quarterbacks coach, he's overseen the greatest season ever by a Bengals quarterback in a year the offense cracked the top ten for the first time since 2006 and scored the most points in franchise history outside of the iconic 1988 AFC champs.

And while the Baby Bengals won their last seven games to win the 1970 AFC Central and the Bengals went 6-0 in the division to win the 2009 AFC North, Taylor's Bengals swept Pittsburgh and Baltimore by 89 points and knocked off the two-time AFC champion Chiefs.

He's done it without an outsized personality or a wall plastered with skins or big media market charisma. He's bookish, almost nerdy. He reads Malcolm Gladwell and the book shelf behind his desk has coaching bibles and The Bible.

He has no shtick. That's his shtick. He has no shtick.

"He tells the truth," Callahan says. "He's a very smart football coach who has a tremendous work ethic who can connect with people. What more do you want?"

And like John F. Kennedy said 60 years ago when he was forming another cabinet, "You can't beat brains."

"He's never wavered since he first got here," says backup quarterback Brandon Allen, who followed Taylor from Los Angeles. "He's not going to go out there and scream and yell all the time. In the winning and the losing, you kind of see him stay level and he's going to coach the same regardless of what's going on because he believes in us. Believes we're going to win every game.

"I think you're just kind of drawn to someone who's not going to over react or under react. Just kind of stay the course. I think that gets guys to want to follow that and believe in that."

Allen is the son of a coach. So is Callahan. He watched his father head coach the Raiders of 20 years ago. Taylor is also the son of a coach and the no B.S. Sherwood Taylor, who coached all his youth teams after he coached in college, remains his role model. A steady ship of state.

"I looked up to him. All my friends looked up to him," Taylor says. "Players respect any person who they genuinely believe can make them a better player. And if they believe that, as long as you're true to yourself and you can make players better, they tend to respect you for that and follow you."

Taylor got the same message from his father-in-law, former Packers head coach Mike Sherman, a guy that Taylor likes to remind in four of his six seasons The Pack won at least ten games.

"That's Mike Sherman's advice," Taylor says. "He would tell me players appreciate honesty and self-awareness a lot more than someone trying to portray an image of someone different than they really are. That's always made sense to me."

Steady as she goes. Like Callahan says, the temperature never rises. And it always seems to be room temperature.

When Taylor goes to make sense and solve problems, ranging from a COVID outbreak to a zone blitz, he consults the journals. He's been keeping them since 2014, when he was the quarterbacks coach with the Dolphins. If it's not a daily entry, it's a weekly entry, and it's pure football.

"I go back and look at how we handled situations. How I would have done it differently," Taylor says. "I'm refreshing myself on things because they don't come up maybe for nine games in a 16- or 17-game season. And you've got 40 seconds to make a call. So you have to go through your experiences to make better decisions."

The most compelling example of the journal experiences is last Sunday and the fourth-down calls on the goal line with the AFC North title an inch and a minute away and While the nation gaped in amazement he decided not once, but twice to go for it with the Taylor thermostat set at 68.

But they didn't know that there was that journal entry from three weeks before that was still pretty fresh. How when he opted to have Burrow hand it off twice instead of throw it before kicking a field goal in overtime. And then watched the 49ers go back down the field and win on a touchdown.

Their last loss.

But go back to a game that's now just as big. The week after that San Francisco game, a 15-10 absolutely must have in Denver on Dec. 19 that pulled them out of a two-game slide. Prepping for a game against head coach Vic Fangio's Broncos, Taylor flipped his 2018 Rams journal back to a game they lost to Fangio's Bears defense in a similar, bloody 16-6 game.

"In years past I probably would have tried to be overly aggressive on offense. That can end up costing you," Taylor says. "You have to understand how the game is flowing. I felt like we had control in the game. Playing a very tough defense. It's not always about being aggressive.

"You have to understand the moment a little bit. It can backfire. It's not always going to work out. It's just life. In that moment I felt like we had to run the ball on third down, punt it and trust our defense. I don't think I would have done that in the first two years."

Before Sunday's game in Cleveland, he'll sit at his desk in the visitors' locker room and write a little more personal. How he thinks the game is going to go. A family memory from the week. A basketball game or soccer game. Maybe he'll write out a Biblical verse.

"Just something that I can look back on 40 years from now and have an idea," Taylor says.

That's when he may write down the story after last Sunday's game. How he barely made it to 11-year-old Brooks' basketball game and when he got to the gym he put an AFC North Championship on his head.

Ben Martin shakes his head. The guy hasn't changed.

"We had just beat Texas and we're getting ready for the bowl game and we finally had a chance to sleep," Martin says. "But Brooks was born at something like six in the morning. He never got chance to sleep."

Write it down.

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