Super Bowl LVI: How these Bengals were built

Cincinnati in the NFL’s title game in Zac Taylor’s third year as the helm

During the midst of a winless start through the first 11 games of Zac Taylor’s first season with the Cincinnati Bengals, the first-year coach delivered a message to a doubting fanbase, promising to “get this thing right.”

“And when we do, the fans are going to love it,” he said back in October 2019.

More than two years later, Taylor’s rebuild is complete as he prepares to lead the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since 1988. And yes, the fans are loving it. But took patience while Taylor and the staff retooled the roster and changed the culture in the locker room in order to see the benefits in an incredible run in the second half of the season and through the playoffs.

Cincinnati plays the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl LVI tonight in Los Angeles.

“This is just such a different team than we were two years ago,” Taylor said last week as the Bengals began building their game plan for the L.A. Rams. “We built on the foundation that we set in. There’s a lot of new pieces, a lot of guys who weren’t part of that are here now that are part of this current team and what makes this team so special.”

But asked how hard it was back in the beginning to believe what he was promising (he had similar comments in 2020), Taylor doesn’t hesitate to share “those weren’t just words.” He believed every step of the way here that the Bengals were going to get to this point.

The real change began with Joe Burrow.

When Taylor was hired in 2019, after helping Sean McVay’s Rams to a Super Bowl in his second season, the writing was on the wall for the mainstays left from Marvin Lewis’ five-straight playoff appearance teams that never won a postseason game. Taylor, a former college quarterback and offensive guru, was going to want to develop his own guy, and he brought fresh ideas that required a different type of quarterback than Andy Dalton.

While the Bengals were suffering through an 0-11 start in 2019 and ultimately a 2-14 finish, Burrow was tearing up the SEC and setting records en route to a national title with LSU. He was the clear No. 1 draft pick, and by April 2020, the Bengals’ new franchise quarterback. Tight end C.J. Uzomah said he knew that day the Bengals had someone special.

Taylor told Burrow his plan to turn around the franchise, and Burrow bought in from Day 1.

“I thought it would happen a little faster, to be honest,” Burrow said. “I thought it would happen last year. Unfortunately, I got hurt. But we weren’t super good last year. But this year, this is the expectation.”

Cincinnati knew Burrow was the pick well before April. He was the key to the offense and came along with a second-round steal in wide receiver Tee Higgins, but the defense needed overhauled with experience. In March that year, Cincinnati stunned the NFL with major spending in free agency. Most notably, the Bengals signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader to a four-year, $53 million contract to fix the run defense that ranked last in 2019 and added strong safety Vonn Bell from the Saints.

Reader said he was surprised by the Bengals’ offer but knew they were rebuilding around a No. 1 draft pick and wanted to be part of the project.

“I knew we had some really, really good pieces around us as a team,” Reader said. “I knew what they were probably gonna do with the pick, and I felt good in the organization. They called multiple times and we talked. We felt really comfortable. I think it’s just about the mentality. When I showed up, guys were really ready to work. Guys who have been here, they were ready to win, the coaching staff was hungry to win. We knew we had to make some adjustments. Things come with time. You gotta learn how to win, how to go about the process of winning, curating a routine, being pros and I think bringing in extra guys the next year and the draft picks, they’ve all taken hold of that and the guys who stayed, they pushed through and really survived.”

Cincinnati relied on the draft to fix the linebacker room, which began its rebuild in 2019 with Germaine Pratt’s selection in the third round. In the 2020 draft, the Bengals added Logan Wilson (second round), Akeem Davis-Gaither (sixth round) and Markus Bailey (seventh round), and outsiders wondered how a defense possibly could rely on such a trio of unknowns.

The thinking behind those picks became more evident this year when Cincinnati completed its overhaul of the defensive line and secondary through more free agent signings. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson replaced Carl Lawson and proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder last year with double-digit sacks in New Orleans, and now-injured defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi added an interior rush that had been lacking with Geno Atkins’ dropoff.

Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton gave the secondary two more reliable playmakers, and Eli Apple evolved into a more confident cornerback as the season progressed. The linebackers have thrived and showed their development this year with an improved defensive line opening up lanes for them to make more plays on the ball and a secondary more capable of locking down the deep threats.

“I’ve mentioned this before it’s a great collaborative effort by a lot of people, (Director of Player Personnel) Duke (Tobin) and his crew upstairs, the personnel department and the coaches,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “When you can work together, you’re not always going to agree and that’s a good thing on players. It’s a very subjective business when it comes to player evaluations. We were in line on all these guys and we were able to do a good job and get the guys we wanted and we felt like we added players who could do multiple things. It just makes it a little easier than when you get a guy that’s, ‘Hey, this is the one thing he can do and that’s all he can do.’ We’ve got some guys who can do a bunch of different things, and we’ve tried to show that along the way this year.”

The Bengals just needed two key pieces from the 2021 draft -- a deep threat for Burrow to really open up the passing game and a kicker with a big leg to win games from any distance. The Bengals decided former LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase would do more for Burrow than any offensive lineman they could draft, and they used a valuable fifth-round pick to take kicker Evan McPherson.

The rest of the draft added depth that likely will pay off more in the future, but McPherson has kicked five game-winners and Chase especially proved doubters wrong this season with a dynamic rookie season.

“We needed to be more explosive and you always want to put more pressure on the defenses,” Taylor said. “Again, it really goes back to a simple story that really drove it home for all of us, was Brian Callahan’s experience in Denver when he won a Super Bowl and they had three guys, including tight ends, that were difficult 1-on-1 matchups. In key moments in playoff games, they’d get man coverage and Peyton (Manning) would pick the one who’s got the best matchup and trust that he was going to win. We think when we’ve got the weapons that we now have, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. It takes the pressure off of Joe Burrow. You’re able to get the ball out faster because guys can win quicker because you’ve got those playmakers that can make those type of plays. So again, it’s allowed us to be more explosive, score more points, put more pressure on the defense and allowed us to get to the Super Bowl as well.”

Maybe Taylor and his staff knew what they were doing all along.

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