Zac Taylor loves the idea that during his first official game as an NFL head coach, he might be getting a glimpse of his future when he looks across the field at the opposing coach.
The 36-year-old Taylor will lead the Cincinnati Bengals onto the field for the first time in a game that matters Sunday, as they open the regular season against the Seattle Seahawks at the always-packed CenturyLink Field.
Playing the Seahawks in the comfort of their own loud environment is a big enough challenge on its own, but Taylor also knows he is going up against a much more veteran coach. Pete Carroll, at age 68, is the most tenured active coach in the league and Taylor is among the youngest.
Taylor is far too busy this week to think about where he will be at that age but hopes he’s still coaching. He begins that journey Sunday, looking to get the Bengals off to a good start as they seek to bounce back from three straight losing seasons.
“I love it,” Taylor said Wednesday when asked if he could see himself still coaching at Carroll’s age. “Every day I come in here, I’m really excited. I don’t know if people believe me or not. The hours fly by throughout the course of the day. It’s fun. I could imagine doing it for a long time, but I’m just worried about winning this game this week, so it’s hard to think about when I’m 68. But, right now, I could see that happening. It’s fun to be around. This is the environment that we create. We love being around the guys and all working toward a victory, that’s the key thing. It’s a fun process every single week.”
Taylor already has brought back some of the fun for the Bengals.
Throughout the entire offseason workout program players couldn’t stop smiling when describing some of the differences under the former Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach. He implemented little competitions and games into meetings and playbook review sessions, quizzed players on the definition the staff came up with for “what it means to be a Bengal” and brought back the ping pong table that disappeared from the locker room at some point toward the end of Lewis’ tenure.
Wide receiver John Ross in June described the mood around the team as “completely different – everyone is just having a good time.” Back then, that was “a good sign of good things coming,” he said. These days, things are a little more serious as the Bengals finally have an actual opponent to prepare for, but the energy created during the offseason carried into training camp and the excitement is back for a “New Dey” as the Taylor era officially kicks off.
Much of that enthusiasm stems from the element of surprise the Bengals hope to bring Sunday under a first-year coach who hasn’t shown his cards yet. Taylor kept things especially vanilla this preseason and held back the top playmakers even more than they had been in the past exhibition games, so players are fresh and opponents uncertain what to expect.
“People don’t see all the things we’ve been working on,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “There’s a lot of things that are unknown with this team with Zac taking over, and with some of the new pieces we have and the different things we’re going to do. We’re hoping to surprise a lot of people this year. We’ve got everything we need in place, so it comes down to us playing the best we can, and the way that we know we can play.”
Taylor hopes the unknown factor plays to his advantage Sunday. Right now, the best film the opponent has to prepare for Taylor’s system is the one Sean McVay established in L.A., but the Bengals coaching staff also put their own spin on things.
Cincinnati especially is looking forward to unleashing the running game, which was almost non-existent in the preseason as Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard played a combined 15 snaps. Mixon, the AFC’s top rusher last year, had three of them.
“We definitely held back plenty (this preseason),” Bernard said. “Obviously, we practiced all of our stuff and in practice we’re like, ‘Man we wish we could run this play,’ but coach Taylor obviously has his play list so we’re just really excited for this week because we have those plays that we really enjoy running. They will be up, and it’s an opportunity to show everybody what we’ve been doing this whole time.”
Pundits point to an ever-evolving offensive line and unproven defense — one of the worst in the league last year — as weaknesses for the team, though. USA Today picked the Bengals to finish 3-13 this year, and with A.J. Green expected to miss up to eight weeks because of ankle surgery, the oddsmakers aren’t giving Cincinnati much of a chance.
Despite all that, the team remains confident. Sunday is an opportunity to prove doubters wrong.
“A lot of people are ruling us out,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I feel like this city, the guys with the jerseys on, and this organization are the only ones who believe. If we go out and get the win, it’s going to be a great start for us.”