Zac Taylor said he’s thankful to still have a job after an “unacceptable” first season as Cincinnati Bengals head coach, but the organization has bought into what he’s trying to do to turn things around and is giving him time to do so.
The Bengals saw improvement in several areas during the second half of the season, and after a franchise-worst 0-11 start, they won two of their last five games, including a 33-23 victory over the Browns in the finale Sunday.
“There’s a belief here that we’re heading in the right direction, although it didn’t show in the wins and losses,” Taylor said. “We know that we’re going to get things turned around and that there’s going to be great days ahead, and I’m fortunate that the Brown family sees that and believes in that. … We always have that urgency to improve rapidly, because we need to get a lot better very quickly, and we all understand that.”
Seeing progress in areas such as the running game, the pass rush and run defense during the second half of the season showed that adjustments paid off and that players were buying in and gaining a better understanding of their roles.
Taylor switched things up with the running game after Joe Mixon got off to a slow start, rushing for just 254 yards through the first seven games. During the London game against the Rams in Week 8, he moved to more 12-personnel with two tight ends blocking for Mixon and after offensive line coach Jim Turner suggested a change from zone blocking to single-man assignments, that turned the tide. Mixon finished with 1,137 yards.
Cincinnati had nine sacks over the first eight games and allowed 177.6 rushing yards per game, but totaled 22 sacks over the last eight games while opponents averaged 120.1 rushing yards per game.
“I think there is room for a lot of improvement,” Taylor said. “We can feel it in a lot of areas, and now we get the chance to spend a whole offseason on it. One of the things that comes in is a new group on offense and defense, so there are a lot of things you work on in the offseason that you (tailor to) the way you think your team is going to play. And then as the season gets going and you get a better understanding of your personnel and the challenges of the opponents you’re facing, things evolve. You saw that in the second half of the season on both sides of the ball. Things evolved and improved. Now you get a chance to capture that the entire offseason, and the players come back with a better understanding of what we expect from them, and that allows for a drastic improvement in the next season.”
Draft position also should help, as the Bengals will be picking No. 1 overall for the first time since taking Carson Palmer in 2003, and they should be getting 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams back from a shoulder injury that sidelined the left tackle his entire rookie season.
Taylor wouldn’t talk specifically about players the Bengals might be eying, but said it helps to have the pick of the litter and not have to guess who will be available. The Bengals will take their time deciding what to do with that pick.
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“Our personnel staff has done a great job of starting the process and evaluating these guys,” Taylor said. “But obviously the coaching staff likes to watch the players as well, and we haven’t watched a snap on anybody yet. We’ll just piece together that process as we go.”
A chunk of the fan base already is lobbying for LSU quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow, but when asked if the team needs to pick a flashy player that will energize the fans in light of attendance woes, Taylor said that isn’t the sole focus. The Bengals’ season attendance of 377,432 paid tickets was the team’s lowest since 1993.
“We need to take somebody that’s going to help us win games,” Taylor said. “When we have the production on the field and the wins on the field, the fans will start to come back in the stadium. We know what we have to do to make that happen. I’m excited to get back to work today and start that process in the offseason because nobody wants to fill the stadium more than we do. It’s a lot more fun when you go out there and the stadium is packed and it’s loud.”
Free agent signings have the potential to excite the fans as well, but the Bengals haven’t been known for splashy offseason acquisitions. Taylor said he and the front office are on the same page when it comes to understanding what it will take to improve the roster in free agency and doesn’t believe Cincinnati is a hard sell despite the recent struggles.
However, the Bengals first have to decide what to do with big contracts of players like wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. According to spotrac.com, the Bengals will owe six players – Dalton ($17.7 million), Geno Atkins ($14.2), Dre Kirkpatrick ($11.1), Carlos Dunlap ($11.0), William Jackson (9.9 million) and Cordy Glenn ($9.5) – a combined $73.4 million in 2020, which is roughly 34 percent of the team’s payroll.
“We’ve been on the same page every step of the way,” Taylor said. “Those are conversations we’ll have this week to make sure we’re all heading in the same direction — which I know that we are — just with how we see the personnel going forward. ”
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