Zac Taylor’s road to Super Bowl LVI

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CINCINNATI — Dark. Nearly pitch black. At 5:20 a.m., last Tuesday, I inched my rental car onto Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s street on the east side of town, and a deer stood in the middle of his street. The deer wouldn’t move. Must be a city deer. I drove maybe 3 mph around it, till I was clear. It still hadn’t moved as I parked, then walked the last 40 yards to Taylor’s driveway. Two rabbits sprinted out of the last yard next to his house as I walked by.

Not the normal feel of a place 13 minutes from an NFL stadium.

“This used to be a forest,” the Cincinnati coach said as he pulled his White Tahoe out of the silent development, “so we get our share of wildlife here.”

Now the wildlife is the shocked Cincinnati populace. Wouldn’t you be shocked if your team, 4-11-1 last year, was headed for the Super Bowl for the first time since Zac Taylor was 5? Wouldn’t you be shocked if phenom QB and Bengals historian Joe Burrow (more about that soon), in the span of eight days, sent home top-seeded Tennessee and heavy favorite two-seed Kansas City, less than four years after Burrow was sent into out-of-state exile by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer?

It’s all crazy. When I asked Burrow’s dad Jimmy, by text, if this season ever feels like a dream, he texted back, “Every day.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor drives into work one morning last week. (NBC Sports)

Taylor understands why the world is shocked. He’s not. He seems … grateful. The first thing we talked about: the game balls he and some players were spreading on surprise visits throughout the region—five per playoff victory, over the Ohio River at Walt’s Hitching Post in Fort Wright, Ky., up north in Mason at 16 Lots Brewing, on the west side at Maloney’s Pub West in Delhi, in a city neighborhood at Gametime, downtown on the river at the Holy Grail, and closer to Taylor’s hood at Zip’s Café in Delwood and Mount Lookout Tavern in Mount Lookout.

Where’d that game-ball idea originate?

“You’ll drive through, late on a Thursday night, Friday night, or coming home on a Sunday night from a road game or home game,” Taylor said, motioning to Delwood as he drove past. “Just packed. That’s not something we really get to experience during the season, people celebrating games. I always kind of dreamed of big moments and being able to go in there and share that with the people. They’ve been through a lot here. Some really fun moments that I got to enjoy with a lot of really cool people.”

A lot of people who, judging by the weepy videos of Bengaldom all over YouTube, are a lot more shocked than the flat-line Taylor. At 38, Taylor got his first NFL job coaching quarterbacks at Miami 10 years ago, then got here by being a branch on the red-hot Sean McVay coaching tree in 2019. Taylor didn’t know, obviously, after starting 6-25-1 in his first two years, that he’d be in the Super Bowl in year three. But year three brought beautiful play from Burrow, who has ascended to the lofty peak of Mahomesville in a flash, and better defense than anyone thought was possible, and a rookie kicker, Evan McPherson, who’s been hotter than any rookie kicker in the 102-year history of the NFL.

“I think it was impossible to know in training camp,” Taylor said. “We knew we had the right character and we had enough talent. But how was it gonna jell together? As you get really to the midway point in the season, you know what this league is about. It’s about getting hot in December. We started playing really good football after the [Nov. 14] bye. We felt like if we could just learn from some of these mistakes we made early in the season, anything is possible. That’s really how it’s played out for us. We’re winning these playoff games because we’re winning these close games. Our players have been situational masters.”

Four or five times in our 35 minutes together, Taylor talked about how smart his team is. Lots of coaches say that. But what does it mean?

Taylor thought of Burrow, and the play that put the Bengals into field-goal position to win in overtime. That’s how far ahead Burrow thinks. Early in the fourth quarter, against a certain KC coverage, Burrow told Taylor he wanted to run a 2-by-2 formation similar to a play they ran earlier when Ja’Marr Chase drew a pass-interference flag. Burrow wanted Higgins wide left, Chase wide right, and two receivers inside them, and he wanted Chase to run a shallow flat route to draw coverage, and Higgins ran a slant from left to right, about eight yards downfield.

Taylor said: “Joe said, this is how I want it called, this is where I want everyone at. I think Tee’s gonna get the ball.”

Taylor called it eight pass plays later, a full quarter later.

Higgins did get the ball. Gain of eight. Ball at the KC 32, and in field-goal range for McPherson.

“Joe is so prepared,” Taylor said. “That’s where the confidence comes from. I don’t see one ounce of false confidence with him. Everybody in our building sees how prepared he is on a Wednesday. We see it in the Saturday meetings when we’re doing our final quarterback meetings, and we’re playing Jeopardy.”

Jeopardy? Do tell.

“Pretty sure [former Bengals assistant] Alex Van Pelt started it with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay,” said assistant receivers coach Brad Kragthorpe, who’s the host of “Quarterback Jeopardy” the night before every game. “Alex was here a couple years. He’s in Cleveland now, but we’re still doing it.”

Who wins most often?

“I think it’s fair to say Joe wins more than his share,” Kragthorpe said.

The rules to Quarterback Jeopardy:

Six contestants, with turns taken in order by age, youngest to oldest. Burrow (25), number three QB Jake Browning (25), backup QB Brandon Allen (29), QB coach Dan Pitcher (34), offensive coordinator Brian Callahan (37), Taylor (38). This is not your father’s NFL: Oldest man in the room is 38.

Five categories, five questions in each. Twenty-five questions total, ranging from 100 to 500 points (just like the real game). If someone gets a question wrong, the next player can answer, then double-dip by answering his regularly scheduled question next.

Each player gets four questions. Kragthorpe keeps score, and he’s the arbiter in case of disputes.

There is a Final Jeopardy. At the end of the regular round, each player can wager any amount of his total for Final Jeopardy. Kragthorpe invents a Bengals history question, or some other wild card question. Each player writes the answer down, then Kragthorpe goes player-by-player to determine who gets the question correct.

Before the AFC Championship Game, the host and six players gathered before the evening team meeting in a meeting room at the Loews Kansas City to play. Game on.

Burrow went first.

“Chiefs Defense for 300,” Burrow said.

List all of the starters in the Chiefs’ sub package at linebacker and defensive back, the position they play, the key backups, and a strength and a weakness for each one.

Burrow started the answer, naming two linebackers (Willie GayAnthony Hitchens), and saying Nick Bolton comes in at times. He named five DBs: left corner Charvarius Ward, right corner L’Jarius Sneed, nickel Mike Hughes—“Rashad Fenton subs in,” Burrow said—with Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill starting at safety “and Daniel Sorensen plays” in various packages, he said. [I could not learn the strengths/weaknesses.]

Nine players. Burrow went nine for nine.

Final Jeopardy: In the two previous times the Bengals won the AFC Championship, who did the Bengals play, and who was our starting quarterback?

Burrow: Cincinnati over San Diego, 1981, with Ken Anderson at QB. Cincinnati over Buffalo, 1988, with Boomer Esiason at QB.

Bright guy. Studies defenses and the media guide.

The night before Burrow led the Bengals back from a 21-3 deficit to win the franchise’s first AFC title in 33 years, he won Quarterback Jeopardy. Was there ever a doubt?

Taylor was pulling into his parking space underneath Paul Brown Stadium now. The subject turned to the Super Bowl.

“Joe’s built for these stages,” Taylor said. “I think he’s played in state championship games in high school. He’s played in national championship games in college. He always knew he was gonna be on this stage in the NFL. It’s something he’s envisioned and worked towards and expected it to happen. I’m very confident that he’ll walk onto that field a very confident quarterback.”

Taylor on an early-morning coffee run last week in Cincinnati. (NBC Sports)

Who knows what the big day brings for the emotions of Taylor? For now, he’s not gee-whiz about it. He grew up in football-mad Norman, Okla., son of a coach and eventually became the son-in-law of one. His wife Sarah is the daughter of former Packers coach Mike Sherman. Taylor is one of the Sean McVay tree branches. He was on McVay’s first Rams staff in 2017 as a receivers coach, and graduated to QB coach in 2018, the year the Rams got to the Super Bowl against New England. That catapulted Taylor onto the Bengals’ radar after they fired Marvin Lewis.So, yes, Taylor will coach against one of his former bosses, McVay. He’s grateful for what he learned from McVay—“Everybody feels like they’re a part of what we were doing”—and he said he loved walking into work every morning because it was imagination overload.

“Sean’s so outgoing, obviously,” Taylor said. “So positive, so inclusive. And this is a good story for everyone. But we have no focus on that. Every week, you’re close to somebody on the other sideline. It’s just part of being in the NFL.”

Pupil doesn’t sound like he’ll be overwhelmed by teacher on the other sideline Sunday. Doesn’t seem like his quarterback will be either.

Read more in Peter King’s Football Morning in America column