Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has already switched gears into the offseason as he delves into reviewing his team while re-assuming his role as chauffeur for his four children. Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson caught Taylor on the horn one dinnertime this week in between drop-offs for basketball practice as he reflected on 2023 and 2024.
GH: Given all the adversity of this past season, do you think this was your best coaching job of your five years here?
ZT: I'm proud of the way these coaches and players fought together. That's a hard opinion for me to give. I know that we learned a lot and gained a lot of experience out of this. It's going to serve us well in the future. Myself included. Five years of head coaching now and you learn something new every year.
GH: Do you think this year made you a better coach?
ZT: I do. You learn through all these experiences you're in. Every year is a little unique and we certainly faced some adversity like all teams do, and I certainly feel that I'll be an improved head coach going forward and I'm excited to help the team improve as well.
GH: How do you think you grew? Did you grow as both a coach and as a play-caller?
ZT: That part is hard to answer. I certainly feel like we played a lot of really good teams this year that posed those challenges and you had to make sure you communicated really well as a staff to put our team in a good position and have a chance to win the game. I know that we worked really hard at it, and we always put our best plan forward. And I think there are a lot of things that we can take to really help our offense next year.
GH: Working with Jake Browning, did that maybe throw a new light on some things you and Joe Burrow can do?
ZT: It's hard to say that (the style) would have been different with Joe because it was kind of the way we were playing when he was healthy, anyway. But certainly there's confidence as a team that we can still continue to play when one of our better players is down. We can still experience success. And so that's one of the things you can continue to build on.
Obviously, we'll be happy to get back who we think is the best quarterback in football in the mix and that's nothing towards Jake. I love coaching Jake and I think he's shown that we can win with him and the team's got a lot of confidence in him. But I'll be excited to get our guys back to full strength.
GH: You said recently you don't know what you've got until it's gone. What's the one thing with Burrow that you missed the most and maybe didn't appreciate and maybe took for granted?
ZT: I think we've always appreciated Joe to his fullest just because of the things that we've seen him do. But I don't think there's anything that changed. There's just a magic to Joe. You know every game he's going to do a couple of things that are just un-coachable and that's why he's the number-one-pick-Heisman-Trophy- winning-national champion-$250 million man. There are just some things that are innate in him that are difficult to describe. I'm excited to watch him play again.
GH: You've mentioned how some of your younger guys are taking on leadership roles and how you've got to bring them along.
ZT: That's the job of the head coach, and other coaches and leaders on the team. But it's something I'm excited to continue to do as a head coach and groom some of these young players as the age transitions on our team. We still have veteran leaders we're counting on. There's also a lot of youth here this year, and possibly next year, that haven't played in the championship games with experience. We're going to have to continue to grow the leadership on the team to all ages and I'm excited to attack that starting this offseason.
GH: Did you realize how young you were in some spots? Or did you realize that when you started playing?
ZT: You know it, but it's another thing when you get in the middle of the season and you can feel it in some areas sometimes. And that's not a bad thing. It's just the way that your team evolves. So I'm excited about a lot of the young talent and why I think there's a lot of energy there.
There's a lot of talent there. The one thing they lack is experience. I think they got a lot of that this year. And that's going to serve us very, very well in the future and I'm excited to watch these guys continue to grow in conjunction with some of the veteran players we already have.
GH: DJ Reader was quite eloquent about how he feels like no matter what happens this offseason, you're still going to have a core of leaders. Burrow, Sam Hubbard. Trey Hendrickson. The two linebackers. Mike Hilton. This will probably be the biggest turnover since Burrow arrived. But the core would seem to be intact.
ZT: I think Duke (director of player personnel Tobin) has done a great job of building this team where there's always stability in the areas you just mentioned, and you continue to build around it. And some day, hopefully years from now, it'll transition to where those young DBs are the veterans.
Now you're bringing guys along in other positions. Obviously, that's way down the road. Years down the road, but that's just the evolution of a team. I bet you Sam Hubbard can remember everything about his rookie year like it was yesterday and he's going into year seven. I'm excited about the way this team is built. I think we're in a really good position to keep growing as players and add whatever comes this offseason.
GH: I have to believe that safety Dax Hill, in his first year starting, wasn't that far off a young Jessie Bates III.
ZT: Sure. It's easy to remember how these guys finished and what they got to as veterans, but they went through their challenges as rookies and second-year players. That is nothing unusual. There's a lot of guys, you see the talent, you see the potential, and they're going to continue to improve and learn from that experience. You can mention a lot of guys that have really improved from year two all the way to years five, six, seven, eight. You have to be learning from your experiences and I expect our guys that played this year to be able to do that.
GH: I think your philosophy is pretty well set when it comes to culture and offense. But would any experience in the division this year maybe have you thinking about tweaking? I'll answer my own question. You have won the division back-to-back when Burrow is healthy. But what do you think of your division formula?
ZT: There's no question we fell short this year of expectations in our division. Yes, it's a difficult division, but you have to find a way to just plug out wins. We didn't do that this year.
But we feel good about how we've approached the divisional games in years past every year. You've got to continue to evolve and look at ways that you can do better and that's something we'll certainly embrace this offseason. And take the steps we have to take to keep evolving so we can get back to the top.
GH: Once Burrow got healthy in that five-game stretch, is that where you feel like you are at this point?
ZT: I feel like that's when we were really rolling. From that Arizona game. The Houston game we lost, but we had our opportunities. But we really felt like in that 4-1 stretch, we were playing really well. That's just the way you have to continue to embrace those challenges that come at you and then find ways to win and we fell short. But that certainly was a stretch we felt really good about and really showcased the team that we have the potential to be.
GH: How do you get the defense back to where it was? Is that just a lack of experience in some spots and there's simply going to be a jump from the young guys?
ZT: The whole thing works together. Young players have to continue to learn from that experience on defense. And at the same time, it's a whole complementary deal. When you're scoring points early on offense and putting the pressure on other teams, they have to play a certain way. And I don't think that we complemented each other that great at the end of the season that way. So we've got to do better as a team, but I think defensively there are a lot of positives in that unit.
There are a lot of things that we want to improve next year. Those young guys on the back end are learning from this experience and they're going to be so much better for it next year. Just from an alignment, communication, playmaking standpoint. I'm really excited about the potential of that group and we're looking forward to finding ways to get it out of the entirety of the unit.
GH: You've started 0-2 the last two years and the one common denominator is that Burrow has virtually had no preseason because of an illness or injury. The closest thing he had to a training camp in 2021, you started 3-1 and went to the Super Bowl. But you also have done a great job cutting back work in the spring and training camp in order to be fresh for late in the year, where you've played much of your best ball when it counted most. Any thought of tweaking the regimen?
ZT: It's something we've got to really look at and assess. How do we start faster than we started the last two years? Whether that's changing the structure of how we do things, those are all conversations that we'll have as we move forward because starting 0-2 and putting ourselves in a hole really early is obviously not the start we're looking for.
That's something that we have to evaluate and it's not something we have to do today. But it's something we have to do over the next six months. Make sure we give our team the chance to start fast.
GH: You played so deep into the last two seasons. Now you have basically an extra month of the offseason. Does that affect the schedule?
ZT: It certainly did and it certainly will. The spring schedule will be different because of this year compared to the last two years. Excited to get that extra work in. It's a balance. Getting our guys to Sunday healthy is important.
GH: Now that you're in offseason mode back at the house, how many practices have you driven to in your role of chauffeur in the first couple of days of the offseason?
ZT: It's makeup duty now. This is my first one of the season tonight. But I'll start getting some school pickups and dropoffs here starting this week. And I'm excited for all that. Plus, two sons in the middle of basketball.