Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP
Only one year has passed since Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown felt the need to issue a statement explaining why he was keeping head coach Zac Taylor, whose Bengals had won just six of 32 games in his first two seasons.
Brown, the 86-year-old son of the late legendary Hall of Fame coach and Bengals founder Paul Brown, ended his statement with this kind-of-silly line (which should have been accompanied by the sound of a snarling tiger): “Next year, we will earn our stripes.”
It came as a surprise to the rest of the world, but these Bengals indeed have done some stripe-earning, winning 10 of 17 regular-season games, the AFC North for the first time in six years and their first playoff game in 31 years, outlasting the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday.
No doubt the Bengals, who are to play at Tennessee in the divisional round Saturday, would not have achieved what they have without unflappable second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, whose rookie season was cut short because of a torn left ACL and MCL.
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But the Bengals’ rapid rise from the depths would not have been possible without Taylor, the 38-year-old coach in whom Mike Brown still saw potential even when the Bengals pretty much stank it up his first two years. Brown saw, first-hand, that Taylor was building something.
“Personally, if I coached in any other organization in football, I probably wouldn’t be here right now in my third year,” Taylor said in a news conference after the Las Vegas game.
Taylor was explaining why he’d decided to give Brown a game ball. Taylor said he would be giving another game ball to long-suffering Bengals’ fans, and he did that a day later by dropping off a ball at the tavern he drives past (and sometimes stops in) on his way home from the office.
“Zac Taylor’s unrelenting optimism and faith in his players has helped create the team culture he spoke of so often in his first two awful seasons,” Paul Daugherty, the veteran sports columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, tells the Guardian. “The players trust him. They play hard for him and for each other, and that togetherness has been a reason for their success.”
Only one year has passed since Daugherty read Brown’s statement about Taylor and his team “fighting through adversity” and concluded in one of his columns: “I’d throw my hands up in the air, but it’s hard to type with my hands up in the air.”
Daugherty continued: “Show of hands: At your work, does your boss frequently praise you for ‘fighting through adversity’? Funny, I thought that was part of the job. Any job.”
After Burrow was carted off the field midway through a loss to Washington last season, the Bengals lost to the Giants, Dolphins and Cowboys to fall to 2-10-1. They were routed by Baltimore in an especially unsightly season finale, but they’d battled past the Steelers and Titans before that.
Those two victories without Burrow, the No 1 overall draft choice in 2020, might have bought Taylor one more year. It is possible that Burrow’s injury might have saved Taylor’s job, too, just because the quarterback was such an enormous part of the gigantic rebuild in Cincinnati.
Burrow, who led LSU to the national championship after playing high school football 150 miles east of Cincinnati, was superb during the 2021 regular season, throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns. Only Aaron Rodgers had a better passing rating among NFL starters.
“We expect to beat everybody that we play – not just hang with them,” Burrow, the son of a football coach, said after the Raiders’ game.
It helped that the Bengals won three of their first four games, and five of their first seven. But then came two ugly losses to the dismal Jets and to the division rival Browns, the team named after Paul Brown, and their hot start looked rather misleading. But Cincinnati have won seven of nine games since.
The city, one of the smallest TV markets in the league, is delighted. The Bengals made the playoffs five straight years in the 2010s under longtime coach Marvin Lewis, but they lost all five of their playoff games, and Brown probably allowed Lewis to stick around a little too long.
Taylor was just 35 when he was hired by the Bengals, with six years as an NFL assistant coach, none as a coordinator. An ESPN panel debated whether the Bengals had made a mistake before Taylor had even coached a single game. One of the talking heads, the former NFL coach John Fox, sounded less than convincing when he said of Taylor: “The Brown family has been around this league for a long time. They hired him because they’re thorough, and they believe he’s going to be the best guy for the future of their organization.”
Then the Bengals started 0-11 (earning their first victory against, guess who else, the Jets) and sagged to 2-14 in Taylor’s first season. At least they earned the No 1 overall draft pick for the first time since 2003, when they chose Carson Palmer, who did not play at all as a rookie.
Taylor started Burrow from Week 1. He won two of 10 starts before he got hurt, and Cincinnati won as many games without Burrow as with him. Then Burrow started slowly at training camp last summer. But Taylor said there was no reason to panic.
His steady hand surely benefitted his players, who, as Taylor said in another news conference Sunday, “haven’t had an easy game in a long time.” His demeanor is pleasant if a little bland, and he often resorts to coachspeak, dodging chances to crow about himself.
When Taylor was asked if he felt vindicated after two rough seasons, he replied, “I’m just happy for our team and our organization, to be honest with you.”
He told the story of driving up to the tavern with the game ball. He was with two old friends and his young sons, and when he was asked if someone should tag along to take photos or shoot video, he said, no, he planned to just run in and duck out. He wanted a low-key deal.
“Sure enough, there were 1,000 cell phones in there,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know what I was thinking was going to happen, but it was a good moment.”
The Bengals are 3.5-point underdogs against the Titans, so the ride might end this weekend. But the owner has not seen the need to issue statements about the coach’s future, because Zac Taylor will be around to bag himself a few more stripes.