When the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor to be their head coach in 2019, they certainly expected a change from the previous regime. He was taking over for a coach, Marvin Lewis, who had been at the helm for 16 years, but went 0-7 in playoff games.
Taylor was an intriguing hire because he was just 35 years old (Lewis was 60), making him the second-youngest head coach in the NFL. The youngest was Taylor’s most recent boss — 33-year-old Sean McVay, the coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor had spent two seasons in L.A., one as the assistant wide receivers coach and one as the quarterbacks coach. That second season saw the Rams advance to the Super Bowl.
Helping guide quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams to the big game made Taylor a hot commodity, even though he had no full-time NFL coordinator coaching experience. Prior to L.A., he was the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and from 2012-2015 was the quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins, albeit with a brief stint as the interim offensive coordinator.
Given the “win now” nature of the NFL, Taylor needed to make an impact in Cincinnati quickly, or the Bengals would move on. He knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Then the team went 2-14 in 2019. That at least earned them the No. 1 overall pick for the 2020 NFL Draft, with which the Bengals selected quarterback Joe Burrow. He showed promise, but in his 10th game, he tore his ACL. Cincy finished 4-11-1.
A record of 6-25-1 might get a lot of coaches fired, but Cincinnati stuck with Taylor. The move certainly looks wise now. Aided by Burrow’s marvelous season (108.3 passer rating this year, second to only Aaron Rodgers among starters), Taylor has led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. That followed their first playoff win since January 1991.
Going up against his former boss and the Rams, Taylor and the Bengals are 4.5-point underdogs. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives L.A. a 66.3-percent chance of winning.
Cincinnati, which won its AFC North division at 10-7 and earned the AFC’s No. 4 seed for the playoffs, wasn’t expected to get this far. But now that they’re here, the Bengals aim to prove they belong.
“Our guys are excited for the opportunity to prove ourselves once again that we belong here and we can win this game,” Taylor said Monday during his time with the media.
In winning an AFC championship and subsequent Super Bowl berth, Taylor has proved that he belongs as a head coach. If his third season had been similar to his first two, the 38-year-old likely would have been looking for a job elsewhere. Maybe his first full-time coordinator role.
But he’s grateful for how this season has played out, and he says his faith is a reason. He was asked Monday during his media session about faith, family, friends and football, and how those things line up for him as he prepares for Sunday’s game.
“In that order, as you mentioned,” he said. “That’s how I was raised and certainly I’m a believer, and believe that my faith has put us in a position to do some really special things.”
He continued to talk about how important his family is to him, specifically his wife, Sarah. Together, they have four children — Brooks, Luke, Emma Claire and Milly.
“My family is very important. I think all of our coaches’ and players’ families are a big part of this, the support systems that we have at home. I’ve got the best wife going around and she’s been so supportive. It’s difficult for them too, and they get to enjoy these moments just as much as we do,” he said.
Taylor joked that the coaches and players are usually home this time of year, so the wives may be happy they’re not.
“We’re gone a lot and usually these are the times we spend with them, in January and February. We’re happy to not be doing that right now; I think they’re happy that we’re not around,” he said.
Sarah, however, knows the life of an NFL coach more than most. She is the daughter of former Green Bay Packers and Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman.
And it was Sherman who gave Zac his jumpstart in coaching. He brought his son-in-law on as a graduate assistant for four years at Texas A&M, before both moved on to the Dolphins — Sherman as the offensive coordinator, and Zac as the QBs coach. Sherman left the NFL in 2013.
Because of her dad’s various jobs, Sarah got used to moving around a lot. Then she met Zac while studying at the University of Nebraska, where Zac was the quarterback, and they were married in 2008.
Sarah looked up to her mom, Karen, to learn how to handle being a coach’s wife.
“I always think of how she remained calm in tough times, no matter my dad’s role,” Sarah told LivingProSports.com. “Whether is was a position coach or head coach, she was the same. She always made sure to have a life and friends outside of football and always took us to church. I have so much respect for her and how she lived her life in such a stressful environment and I ask her questions constantly.”
The lifestyle she grew up in has helped Sarah stay connected to God in leading her family at home.
“I always try to remember that when I get bitter or we are facing a heavy loss season, I think that there are a lot of young guys who would kill to have had the jobs my husband has had and he works really hard to get where he is,” she said. “The highs are high and the lows are low, but if you remain strong in your faith and keep God and family No. 1 in your life, it is incredible how this profession can bless you.”
Zac would share the same sentiment.
“We’re here with the team, it’s special, I love enjoying it with them,” he told the media on Monday. “But I also love going home and seeing the excitement on my family’s faces when we’ve done all these great things that we’ve done recently.”