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Execution or play-calling? The Zac Taylor conversation needs nuance

Cincinnati’s wild loss to Green Bay cannot be fairly placed on any one person’s shoulders.

Green Bay Packers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Results drive narratives. Always have. Always will.

37 games in, Zac Taylor should know by now.

Sunday was destined to feature a close game between Taylor’s Bengals and his buddy Matt LaFleur’s Packers. Green Bay were playing without a few important starters, and the Bengals’ starting lineup was getting back to 100% health. Conversely, LaFleur’s offense is spearheaded by arguably the most talented quarterback of all-time, and Taylor’s offense has much to prove. Equal forces were at play.

Just as destiny would have it, Joe Burrow and the offense tied the game at 22-22 with 3:32 remaining after conducting a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. They even got the two-point conversion to put the pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Instead of Rodgers doing his usual thing, he handed the ball off and watched Aaron Jones sprint inside easy field goal range for Mason Crosby, the silver fox with a perfect right leg. A few plays later, Crosby was an extra-point distance away from giving Green Bay the lead back.

Wide left No. 1.

This was it. Burrow got the ball back with just over two minutes remaining, two timeouts left, and a crowd that has seen this scenario unfold twice in the last month. Little did we know Crosby’s hook would be the domino that sparked the wackiest 40 minutes of recent Bengals history.

At this point, Burrow was in the spotlight, not his head coach. Everyone knew the second-year quarterback was capable of getting rookie kicker Evan McPherson in field goal range. It was just a matter of how close the attempt would be. Hurdles then proceeded to get in the way.

Many have pointed to how the drive ended. Right before McPherson doinked his 57-yarder with 21 seconds left, Taylor called a Samaje Perine run up the middle on a third-and-five from the 42-yard line. Against a light box, Perine only picked up three yards and forced the field goal unit to set up just inside 60 yards. That’s within McPherson’s range, but it’s still a tall task to achieve considering the circumstances.

Would a pass on third-and-manageable have resulted in the chains being moved, or at least something closer to a first down? Based on the way Green Bay was keeping things in front of them, you could surely convince yourself of that. Is it just more of an acceptable decision to put your fate in the hands of Burrow instead of Perine? That’s an easier question to answer.

These are the moments that sign leases to live rent free in every fan’s mind. Taylor’s conservatism isn’t a constant, but it stings when appears. It’s also a convenient cover up for mistakes that Taylor has no control over.

Earlier in the drive, Burrow connected with running back Chris Evans over the middle on first down. Evans had just enough space between three defenders to convert the first, but he juked to the outside and came up two yards short. The very next play featured perhaps the worst drop in Tee Higgins’ young career. Had he secured the ball after running his 15-yard comeback, it would’ve been first-and-10 at the Packers’ 42 with the game-clock stopped at 1:07. Instead, Burrow and Tyler Boyd hooked up for eight yards. A new set of downs was earned, but yardage was lost regardless.

Very simple errors helped the Packers stall the Bengals’ offense outside of comfortable field goal range, but it was Taylor’s response to witnessing failed execution that appears more damning in the moment.

That should’ve been the game as the Packers trotted Crosby out for a 51-yarder at the horn 21 seconds later.

Wide left No. 2. We go to overtime.

On an afternoon when Taylor opted to throw 31 times on 49 first and second down plays, he had Burrow in empty for the first play of the fifth quarter. Burrow then threw what can only be described as a horrific interception to the ghost of Boyd’s would-be option route. The Packers would take over inside the red zone. The game is over. It has to be. No way Crosby misses his third-straight field goal and his fourth kick of the day.

Wide left No. 3. The door is somehow still open.

Taylor abandons the early down aggression after watching his quarterback nearly gift the Packers a win. Joe Mixon is stuffed behind the line on first down and Perine makes up for it on second down. Taylor gives the green light for Burrow to redeem himself and opts for a go-route to Ja’Marr Chase down the right sideline. Burrow and Chase can connect on back-shoulder with their eyes closed at this point, so of course it works out.

That would be the last time Burrow threw the ball, and it’s not like he needed to drop back again. Mixon ran for eight yards on the next two plays and, upon further review, probably got the two yards he needed on third down. Nevertheless, McPherson had a chance inside 50 yards. These are the same goalposts he’s hit both of his game-winners in-between. The wind just had other plans this time.

There would be no wide left No. 4 for Crosby.

It’s both third-down runs that are prompting fans to put Taylor’s face on dartboards. When Burrow is under center, he’s the best bet for the offense to gain their desired results, and what did we say about results at the top of the article?

But when Burrow practically throws the game away, when Higgins lets a key first down fall through his gloves, when Mixon can’t fight for one more inch, and when the fifth-round kicker forgets to activate his clutch gene, the blame is not equally distributed. Players win, and coaches lose. That’s the tired trope we all know and love.

Winning on another last-second field goal would’ve spared Taylor from being the center of negative attention. Climbing up to 4-1 and being the untouched leader of the division would’ve silenced a lot of narratives. Beating Rodgers and LaFleur in itself would’ve done wonders for his resume.

But here we are, talking about why we still aren’t sure if he’s that guy.

It’s a fair conversation to have, provided objectivity reigns supreme. A few decisions may’ve cost Taylor the win, just like a few miscues made it more difficult for his team to prevail victorious. But following a game that featured the most potential game-winning field goals missed in the Super Bowl era, isn’t the old “this head coach is a bum” slant a bit unbecoming? At the very least, it’s lazy.

The Bengals will lick their wounds, still mathematically atop the AFC North, and begin preparations to face a winless Detroit Lions team in six days. The calling for Taylor’s head can wait for a more appropriate afternoon.