From hot seat to Super Bowl: Bengals coach Zac Taylor enjoying the ride

LOS ANGELES -- Zac Taylor never really had time to process what happened in the first Super Bowl he coached in. About eight hours after the L.A. Rams lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII to end the 2018 season, Taylor was on a flight to Cincinnati to complete his hire as the Bengals’ 10th head coach in franchise history.

Three years later, Taylor has guided the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years, and they are set to face a Rams team on Sunday that drew attention to him as a head coaching candidate in the first place.

Taylor, who was one of Sean McVay’s assistants with the Rams in 2017 and 2018, is hoping to walk off the field at SoFi Stadium on Sunday with the same joy he recalls seeing on the faces of the Patriots on the night of Feb. 3, 2019.

“It was a real conflict of emotions,” Taylor recalled this week when asked if the sting of that loss was lessened by his hire in Cincinnati or if it took any joy out of that process. “I can tell you that I don’t know that I’ve ever really processed the game in its entirety because you woke up the next morning, and it was an exciting time for myself and my family. … It was just such a wild conflict over really a 12-hour period for me, to get to where we were at. I still remember Tom Brady and Bill Belichick walking by me in the hallway after they won the game and the excitement on their faces. I’ve never forgotten that. It was crushing to see that, but again to wake up the next morning and be on a plane to come (to Cincinnati) for a press conference, that was exciting, and so I never really properly processed that.”

It’s been a roller coaster of emotions since Taylor left Mercedes-Benz Stadium following the Rams’ 13-3 loss three years ago knowing his hire in Cincinnati could then be complete. It took 11 losses to get to experience his first head coaching win in December 2019, and his first two seasons with the Bengals were rocky.

Taylor entered this year considered by many to be on the “hot seat” with just a 6-25-1 record.

Even this season had its ups and downs, but things fell in place after the Bengals swept AFC North games against the Ravens and Steelers. Cincinnati clinched the division title with a comeback win over the Chiefs in Week 17.

From there came the franchise’s first playoff win since the 1990 season, the first road playoff win for the organization and another comeback effort to beat Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC championship.

“I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times where it really tests you as a person,” Taylor said. “You wake up when you’re 0-9 or 0-10 on a Monday morning. You’re on your way to work and you think, ‘Is this really happening?’ You never envision it going like this, and it’s hard. But again, I think that’s what shaped us to be the way that we are. We have tremendous character in this building from top to bottom.

“... Looking back on it, wouldn’t change anything about the process. Some of the mistakes maybe that I made and we all made have shaped us to become better coaches and better players, because we’ve learned through those experiences. … (Was I) doubting myself? No. Enduring really hard times? Yes. But again, I think it’s shaped who we are as a team right now.”

Taylor said he didn’t mind the criticism over those tough times, but he did have to remind his two boys, who are 11 and 9 (he also has two younger daughters), not to let it bother them when they would hear negative comments about their dad at school or out in the community.

Now he’s glad to be able to share in more enjoyable experiences with his family. His wife, Sarah, and kids are in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl as well.

“That’s why I’m in this profession,” Taylor said. “I don’t want a profession that everybody just loves you all the time. I want to be able to compete. I want there to be critics. I loved driving into Arrowhead Stadium and everyone booing you and giving you the tomahawk chop. I’m not good enough to be a player in this league, so I went a different path to be a coach because you just love that competitiveness. You love the passion that people feel about your job, your team. Good or bad, that’s what fuels us all.”

“It makes me think that I’m doing something worth doing,” he added.

Players have said Taylor deserves credit for the culture he instilled and the freedom he gives them to provide input and take ownership of the locker room. It was easier to buy into what the coaches were saying, knowing they also cared about their feedback, and Taylor helped assemble a roster of guys that wanted to work hard to win games.

Asked what it meant for him to be the coach to bring Cincinnati back to the Super Bowl after such a long drought without even any playoff wins, Taylor said he doesn’t view himself as a “special coach.”

“I’m the head coach, and people look at that as the person to give credit to you, but that’s not the case at all,” Taylor said. “It’s these assistant coaches who have been through some really difficult times here, who’ve stood shoulder to shoulder and taken on all the adversity and gotten the most out of these players. It’s ownership and personnel from top to bottom being aligned ... because if you don’t have total alignment from top to bottom, then there’s no way you’re playing for a Super Bowl.

“So, I get uncomfortable when people phrase it like that because it’s everybody that’s a part of this organization that has helped bring us to this point, and everybody deserves equal credit. And, you know, if one piece is out of form there, then there’s no way that this can happen. So, I’m just proud to be a part of the Cincinnati Bengals organization.”

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