Sam Schneider | May 12th, 2020
Forrest Gregg and Kenny Anderson. Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason. Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow? The former pairs both went to the Super Bowl together and we will know reasonably soon if a trip to the promised land is in the cards for the latter. Cincinnati is buzzing.
Tough Rookie Season
Announced as the new head coach for the Orange-and-Black on February 4th, 2019 after a delay (a run to Super Bowl LIII with the Los Angeles Rams), Taylor hadn’t had much time to prepare. Many of the coaches that fans bustled for were off the market and others, like Jack Del Rio, declined. Taylor assembled a coaching staff viewed as “ho-hum” by many and was second-guessed. Free agency began on March 13th, about a month after Taylor was hired. Without much time to evaluate his team, and a defensive coordinator that was added only three weeks prior, Cincinnati was nearly silent leading up to the 2019 draft. They took Jonah Williams in the first round and several players who would need time to develop.
The season was mostly a disaster, though the telling response was from the players. They were competitive in many high-profile games though missing their star wide receiver in A.J. Green, first-round draft pick in Williams and left tackle Cordy Glenn, among others. Expected by analysts was some frustration, worry, and lashing out from the players but it would never come. After every game, each member of the team professed their love for the new head coach and a willingness to fight to the end regardless of the result. They spoke in interviews positively about the organization and took to Twitter to hype their teammates time and again.
A Good Offseason
“Tank for Tua” had become a running gag among fans around the league until a young man under center for the “Bayou Bengals” of LSU put everyone on notice with the best statistical season by a quarterback in college football history. The kid who came into his own in Athens, Ohio (a three-hour drive from Cincinnati) was the presumptive first pick, even though many would suggest a trade. Then the Bengals shocked everyone by spending nearly $200 million in free agency, mostly on Anarumo’s defense and the moves had all the feel of a head coach in Taylor that finally had time to evaluate his personnel.
Dispatched were some hangers-on from the Marvin Lewis era (including multiple who remain unsigned at this time). For once, they took players from Mike Zimmer in Minnesota instead of the other way around. The starting secondary was overhauled with the additions of Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. A dynamic run-stopper in D.J. Reader was brought in to play alongside Geno Atkins. They added a veteran guard on offense and a leader to the linebacking core on defense. Just when fans thought they were done, in comes Vonn Bell, an exciting safety and former Ohio State Buckeye.
Turning it Around
April 23rd came and Cincinnati selected Burrow with the first overall pick, ending months of speculation about what they would do at the top of the draft. Burrow comes with cockiness and swagger that fits right in with the AFC North division which is notorious for trash talk between fans and players alike. Taylor got the face of the franchise that weekend and added a haul of players that included names like Tee Higgins and Akeem Davis-Gaither. With Green under the franchise tag and the organization eyeing an extension for Joe Mixon, the Bengals are in position to turn around their fortunes almost immediately, not unlike what they did in 2003 after first-year head coach Marvin Lewis took Carson Palmer number one overall.
Taylor may very well be the coach in Cincinnati for a long while. The results of this offseason are likely to determine his success. He has eschewed many of the previous practices of signing “promising” young players in favor of veterans and leaders which would suggest a level of comfort with the overall talent on the team and the desire to produce wins in “The Queen City” sooner than later. One of the youngest head coaches in the NFL has seemingly been provided with the foundation he asked for, including control. A trip to Tampa for Super Bowl LV is likely not happening but turning heads in 2020 certainly is. What happens from here is going to define Taylor and Burrow for a long time.
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