C.J. Uzomah laughed at himself after realizing how many times he had repeated the phrase, “it’s fun,” when talking about the way Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor is running things this spring.
Taylor is challenging the Bengals in new and different ways, and Uzomah – the fifth-year Bengals tight end – describes it as though Taylor is bringing back the enjoyment that players originally found as kids when they decided to commit to the sport.
“I keep saying fun, but it has been fun,” Uzomah said after the team’s fourth practice of Organized Team Activities. “It’s been an enjoyable OTAs so far.”
The smile never left Uzomah’s face as he spoke of the way Taylor has players run through plays in the offensive meetings prior to practices.
Players break into four-person teams and compete against one another to see who can correctly draw out the most plays on the wipe board. They even have themes for creating team names. One week it was a “Game of Thrones” theme, and another they had basketball team names.
“I think the way they are teaching us is good,” Uzomah said. “We’re going up on the board. We’re doing walk-throughs where he’s challenging us as players in front of the offense to go up and write out everything — not just what you have (to do on the play) but everything. So, we have a little fun with it. We have a little competition.”
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“It’s been fun. You don’t want to just be in a meeting and you don’t want to just continuously shove a piece of paper in someone’s face and say, ‘Learn this.’ So, I think the interactive way we are doing it, going up to the board, having walk throughs by ourselves, it definitely helps.”
When players mess up a play, there’s no harsh lashing out at them. They all have a laugh, and then go over it again.
“It’s light-hearted,” Uzomah said. “We laugh about it for a second, but ‘here’s what you need to know.’ I think that process of learning it has been unique and fun and a lot different than pretty much the entirety of my career.”
Wide receiver John Ross said it all goes back to Taylor’s emphasis on bringing the players together as a cohesive unit.
“The energy is completely different,” he said. “Everyone is just having a good time. Even in the locker room. It’s not just on the field. We come in here, and we’re in there playing basketball, we’re in the weight room having a good time, we’re in the locker room or training room and everyone is smiling. I know the season hasn’t started yet, but it’s good to see. It’s a good sign of good things coming.”
That focus on the team is routinely drilled into them.
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Taylor provided a definition of what it means to be a Bengal, and he expects the players to recite it on command. He warned them he would be randomly asking them to tell him the meaning, and Ross said it’s entertaining to see players scrambling around asking teammates, “What’s a Bengal?” to make sure they have it down. Uzomah said that was one thing everyone made sure to write down.
“He will come in and randomly say, ‘Alright, what’s a Bengal,’ and you’ve got to know it’s a ‘physical, hungry, accountable teammate, who’s willing to give his all for the team,’” Uzomah said. “If you don’t know that, he will just look at you a little bit and you can go through your notes and look for it. It’s holding us all to a higher standard and making us accountable for everything.”
On the field, Taylor is keeping things light, as well. Every day of OTAs has been structured differently so far, through four practices over two weeks. On Tuesday, the focus was on red-zone offense and defense.
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“There is a new emphasis every day,” Taylor said. “Today was more of a red zone emphasis. Some days will be third down, some days will be two-minute, some days will more protection-based or no-huddle based. So, every day is a little bit new, and then as you get later on in OTAs, you start to repeat some of the early days just to regain that focus you had weeks prior.”
Meanwhile, as the Bengals are moving forward with Taylor, former coach Marvin Lewis has landed on his feet with a new role at Arizona State, where he will serve as a special advisor to Herm Edward’s staff. Lewis’ daughter, Whitney, attended ASU, and Lewis has known Edwards for almost 30 years, according to a statement provided by the university athletics department.
Lewis was fired in January after 16 years with the Bengals .
“I envision just being another set of eyes, another set of ears, and doing anything I can to help the coaches,” Lewis said in the statement. “…ASU is a great university and is known for having an outstanding athletic program that has always been able to attract top athletes from around the country and I look forward to doing all I can to help the program.”