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Zac Taylor’s disappointing coaching tenure with Bengals is a symptom of a bigger problem

The Zac Taylor era has been a massive disappointment thus far. But, will making a swift change at the coaching ranks really provide a long-term solution for the Cincinnati Bengals?

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As the 2018 NFL season concluded, fans of the Cincinnati Bengals were ready for the 16-year coaching tenure of Marvin Lewis to be over. While Lewis presided over some of the best individual and consecutive strings of seasons by any Cincinnati team, the 0-7 playoff record and massive embarrassments on primetime television were the fire in which the Bengals’ faithful lit their torches as tools in the call for his job.

The masses were given their wish and the Bengals’ brain trust opted to go in a completely different direction than that of the old-school, defensive-minded Lewis. The wunderkind from the Sean McVay coaching tree, Zac Taylor, knocked the socks off of the Browns, the Blackburns and Duke Tobin in the January interview process.

Taylor was awarded the job, but also given autonomy in a lot of different areas: coaching staff construction, draft strategies and free agency spending being the main areas.

While there was hope he’d become the next great offensive mind in the league, what has ensued is teetering on utter disaster. Smoke signals were there early on in the forms of the “mutual decision” for offensive line coach Frank Pollak to move on, as well reports of well-established defensive coordinators (Dom Capers, Jack Del Rio) balking at the idea of working under an inexperienced coach.

We all know what has transpired since: four total wins (with none being on the road), a 1-14-1 record in one-possession contests, a 1-9 record in the AFC North (including already being swept by hated Cleveland this year), a myriad of injuries, as well as scathing reports of veteran player dissatisfaction and some of those same guys publicly lobbying for their exits from the Queen City.

There are many reasons to blame Taylor for the failures seen under his watch. The naming of some of these veterans as captains and then, in some behind-closed-doors way, reportedly alienating them, is one that tops the list.

The continued support of “his guys” who are underperforming—both coaches and players alike—is also something that confounds us all amid a 4-23-1 record. The most egregious of errors, probably from a combination of Taylor, offensive line coach Jim Turner and the front office, is their strategy with franchise quarterback Joe Burrow.

Cincinnati’s powers-that-be continued to tell us that they liked their offensive line much more than the rest of us dummies who point fingers from our couch and that both Burrow and Taylor’s innovative system would mask most deficiencies up front. The lack of resource allocation on the offensive line and the high volume of pass attempts led to Burrow’s premature exit of his rookie season, thanks to a number of sacks and hits—the last one tearing multiple ligaments in his knee.

Questions linger about Taylor’s future with the Bengals, but recent reports suggest that he is safe for 2021, so long as an assistant coach shake-up is in the works. Any who have followed, covered or watched this team for an extended period of time assumed the organization would be patient with Taylor, as embedded excuses for his struggles are plentiful.

We’ll see.

Hitting Bengals fans this week was a doozy in the form of news that Lewis is supposedly going to be a hot name on the coaching front next offseason. Some have met that with cynical laughter, while other Cincinnati faithful are clamoring to the trademark .500 seasons ol’ Marv seemed to annually net the men in stripes.

Personally speaking, it caused me to go down a rabbit hole of Bengals thoughts. “It was long overdue to move on from him”, was one, while “Just how good was he, given the situation?” was another.

The latter question is where this post and a lot of other content produced this week have stemmed. While it’s easy to slam Lewis’ lack of big-game success in over a decade-and-a-half with the Bengals, the post-Sam Wyche/pre-Marvin era netting a record, and Taylor’s own 4-23-1 record following Lewis’ tenure speak volumes.

On this week’s Orange and Black Insider podcast episode, we had former Bengals wide receiver Tim McGee join us. Aside from being one of our favorite guests in general, we had some poignant questions for him, as we felt his opinion bore quite a bit of weight as a player for this franchise under both Wyche and Dave Shula.

When we got to the recent Lewis topic with McGee, not only did he feel that ship has sailed, in terms of a reunion with the Bengals, but he feels Lewis will have an even higher amount of success elsewhere than he did with Cincinnati. In fact, “HELL YES” was his response when we asked him that question, as you can see in the clip below. And, this was followed by “I absolutely love the Bengals’ management and am loyal to them”.

Make no mistake—this conversation isn’t about the Bengals crawling back to Lewis to fix what has been broken after his departure. Rather, the dialogue should center around one critical question: “Is the Bengals’ current organizational structure set up for coaches to be successful?”.

If you were to ask many around the league, the majority would likely say “no” as an answer to that question. A small-sized scouting staff, a lack of a true General Manager and other critical infrastructures are not in place for many coaches to have sustainable success in Cincinnati.

We must give the Bengals a lot of credit for their free agency spending this offseason. They opened up the checkbook for a continued rebuild on quality players, it’s just very unfortunate that many have suffered injuries.

Nevertheless, as McGee notes in that snippet, Bengals head coaches are responsible for “wearing more hats” than in any other staff around the league. It’s a big reason why they find the “opportunity” to coach in the Senior Bowl following a poor season so valuable—their coaches get intimately engrained in the scouting process.

Zac Taylor presumably had a masterful blueprint laid out for Bengals management upon interviewing. The energetic and hungry Taylor also assumed offensive play-calling duties, which now seems to be a grave mistake.

But, is that because he has to have his hands in (and with greater depth) many other areas of the football team, wherein his peers do not have that worry? So, it all gets me to wondering: if the organizational tentpoles aren’t there, then well, what’s that old adage from poet Robert Burns about the best-laid plans of mice and men?

There are a lot of reasons for Bengals fans to run Taylor and his crew out of town after what has transpired over the past 28 contests. But, if that goal is achieved and the next head coach comes in, should we expect a high level of success from that staff if the current organizational structure remains in place?

It’s possible that Taylor wouldn’t be a successful NFL head coach wherever he landed. But, with the injuries, the late start to his offseason in 2019 and the Covid-19 crisis affecting this one, placing some of the heaviest amounts of various responsibilities in the NFL on a first-time head coach (at any level), seems to have an obvious setup for failure. There are many things inside and outside of Taylor’s control that are contributors to what we’ve been seeing.

In his infrequent public chats, Mike Brown has lauded Robert Kraft and the Rooney Family for making the Patriots and Steelers the flagship organizations in the league. Pittsburgh’s continuity at head coach is part of what led Brown to stick with Lewis for so long.

But, Lewis and Wyche were the outliers, in their ability to achieve success with the Bengals, despite organizational shortcomings not seen in many other NFL cities. Wyche had eight years with the Bengals, while Lewis had 16, but from 1992-2002, the Bengals cycled through three head coaches. Not exactly the continuity Mike Brown apparently covets.

If you want to consider Lewis a “failure” as a head coach (I personally don’t, overall), then that means we are looking at five straight hiring failures (Taylor, Lewis, Dick LeBeau, Bruce Coslet and Shula) by the Bengals after Wyche left.

Either this team is absolutely awful at selecting head coaches (a hint of that is possible, given their passing over of Bill Walsh back in the day), or they aren’t giving them all of the tools necessary to succeed. Maybe it’s both, seeing as how an effective internal staff should identify “the right guy”—one who can work in unison with the G.M. and a robust scouting department.

The long-winded point is that the Cincinnati Bengals would be wiser to allocate proper resources to internal operations (that basically every team boasts) in an effort to give the best chance of success to a coaching staff. This would achieve Brown’s desire for coaching continuity and greatly lessen the coaching carousel we saw in “The Lost Decade” from 1992-2002. It may even salvage the Taylor era, should this endeavor occur immediately and they continue to place faith in the young coach.

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