Three years ago, it was one of the biggest jokes in football.
If you ever had a cup of coffee with Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, you had a good chance of becoming an NFL head coach yourself. Three years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor to be their coach after he spent two seasons coaching wide receivers and then quarterbacks under McVay.
Whether that constituted a cup of coffee or something more substantial, nobody is laughing at that hire now as Taylor will face McVay in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 (6:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
“Working with Sean was two of the best years of my life,” Taylor said. “It was fun. You loved coming into the building every single day. That’s a lot of our messaging to our building and our staff and our players.
“We want guys who are willing to come in here and work, but they enjoy the process of walking into this building with a smile on their face every day.”
When the Bengals hired Taylor on Feb. 4, 2019, he spoke about how much he learned working for McVay, but he said he was going to do things his way.
Fast-forward three years, and Taylor is again talking about his friend and former mentor, but the context is much different. Taylor is no longer a rookie head coach with no experience as a coordinator. He’s now a proven winner, someone who took a team from the bottom to the precipice of a championship.
But the process was not without growing pains. The Bengals were a franchise-worst 2-14 in Taylor’s first season, and slightly improved to 4-11-1 the following year. But this season, despite some bumps on the road, the Bengals put together a historic turnaround, matching the 2003 Carolina Panthers and the 1981 San Francisco 49ers for the fastest turnaround from the league’s worst record to a Super Bowl berth.
It’s easy to see how the Bengals improved this season, but McVay saw something in 2020 that told him his former assistant was on the right track. In Week 15, the 2-10-1 Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football with third-string quarterback Ryan Finley. The following week, second-string quarterback Brandon Allen led the Bengals to a win over the Houston Texans on the road.
“Those are the things to me that say, ‘This guy’s got all the right stuff in him,'” the Rams coach said on an episode of the “Flying Coach with Sean McVay and Peter Schrager” podcast from June 2021. “That’s when it’s the most difficult as a leader.”
“[Sean] affects everyone he’s around. It’s more than just scheme,” Taylor said during his introductory news conference. “He is brilliant at creating mismatches, but … he gets the most out of the people, players and coaches that are around him every day. I’ve always felt that’s important. Sean is another example of doing it the right way and good things will happen.”
Taylor credited McVay’s example for emboldening young coaches around the league to not follow the status quo.
“He’s really shown a lot of us young guys that you can do it your own way,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been done for the last 20 years around the league. There can be a different way of doing things.”
Mike Tannenbaum, a former NFL executive who is ESPN’s front office insider, said McVay strikes the necessary balance by building an inviting culture that also has standards that must be maintained.
“He’s really shown a lot of us young guys that you can do it your own way. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been done for the last 20 years around the league. There can be a different way of doing things.”
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor
“He’s relatable, has a lot of energy, and from what I can see, creates a real, positive environment where guys want to be there,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s a player-friendly environment where they’re also held accountable.”
Cincinnati special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who joined the Bengals in 2003 and was a holdover from Marvin Lewis’ coaching staff when Taylor was hired, sees similar traits in Taylor.
“It’s unbelievable the way he deals with the players, the level of confidence that he brings to our guys,” Simmons said. “I think our guys trust him. Our guys believe in him.”
The similarities don’t end there. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Rams and Bengals were first and second in the league, respectively, in the usage of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow were also the only players in the regular season to throw for more than 1,000 yards from empty formations (only the quarterback in the backfield).
The overlap has also had some unintended drawbacks. In a 2019 game against the Baltimore Ravens, Finley yelled “Omaha” at the line of scrimmage as a pre-snap communication to the wide receivers. Cornerback Marcus Peters, who had also been with the Rams under McVay, immediately understood the message. Before Taylor could call timeout to stop the play, Peters intercepted Finley’s pass and returned it for an 89-yard touchdown.
“Working with Sean was two of the best years of my life. It was fun. You loved coming into the building every single day.”
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor
But don’t expect that to be a problem on Feb. 13, and verbiage isn’t the only difference between the head coaches.
“If I try to be Sean McVay, I’m going to fail,” Taylor said during that introductory news conference. “To be quite honest with you, we’re different people. I’ve learned a lot from him, but I’m going to be Zac Taylor and do the best I can my way.
“And not my way, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals way, right? Everyone’s on the same page, and we’re going to get the most out of everybody here.”
The next step is to find out if that way is good enough to beat McVay in the biggest game of the season.