His period of mourning didn’t make it to morning, Zac Taylor experiencing the greatest victory of his football life before being able to digest his greatest defeat.
He called it “a wild conflict over a 12-hour period,” and that’s the bizarre Super Bowl perspective Cincinnati’s head coach brings into the Super Bowl LVI game Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
Taylor was the quarterbacks coach for Sean McVay three years ago when the Rams lost Super Bowl LIII. to New England in Atlanta.
Just a few hours later — as the rest of the Rams were still rubbing defeat from the corners of their eyes — Taylor was formally introduced by the Bengals, his hiring known for weeks but unofficial until the Rams’ season ended.
“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,” Taylor said. “I’ve never forgotten that. It was crushing to see. Then, to wake up the next morning and get on a plane to [Cincinnati] for a press conference, that was exciting. I never really processed that [defeat].”
Super Bowl LVI coverage
So it’s likely that Rams fans have thought more about the Super Bowl loss in February 2019 than Taylor has, his attention diverted before they’d swept the red and blue confetti from the floor of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Now, Taylor, 38, has an opportunity to heap more Super Bowl disappointment on his former team while launching himself past McVay in the unofficial rankings of the NFL’s best young head coaches.
Taylor said he and McVay exchanged text messages after the conference championship games. He said the two sat down for a joint interview in advance of Super Bowl LVI but have had no other interaction.
“That will probably be the extent of the communication,” he said, “until after the game.”
No matter what happens Sunday, Taylor said he knows he wouldn’t have this chance without McVay.
“The joke is always, ‘If you had a cup of coffee with Sean McVay, then you’re going to be a head coach in the NFL,’ ” he said. “There’s a ton of truth to that because, if you spend time around the guy, he gives you a ton of confidence in yourself.
“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, you know, for the last 20 years maybe around the league. There can be a different way of doing things.
“I think we all saw that from Sean. He was very open with how he did things, why he made certain decisions. That has allowed myself and a lot of other guys to go off and feel very comfortable leading a team.”
Taylor’s start in Cincinnati, however, featured few comfortable moments. His 2019 Bengals lost their first 11 games before finally opening December with a victory over the New York Jets.
His second season wasn’t much better, Cincinnati winning only twice in 10 games before quarterback Joe Burrow was lost to a season-ending knee injury in November.
Two years after coaching in the Super Bowl, Taylor was 6-25-1 and facing questions about his future.
“If I coach in any other organization, I would not be here in the third year,” he said. “That’s the truth.”
Cincinnati is a rather cozy, family operation led by 86-year-old owner Mike Brown. Before hiring Taylor, Brown employed Marvin Lewis for 16 seasons despite the Bengals never winning a playoff game under him.
So, a year ago, Taylor wasn’t going anywhere but into his third season, his appreciation for how Brown runs the franchise obvious when he discusses the owner.
A native of Norman, Okla., Taylor recently was asked about his upbringing and began his answer by saying, “My parents are my role models.” The family feel within Cincinnati’s NFL team matters to him.
“I don’t know if I fit with every organization in football,” Taylor said. “I really don’t. This is one that I certainly feel like I fit in with. I love being here, and it’s probably because of how I grew up in Norman.”
McVay praised his former assistant for orchestrating the Bengals’ quick turnaround. He said his respect for Taylor goes back to when Taylor was playing quarterback at Nebraska.
“He’s a special coach,” McVay said. “He’s got a great way about himself with the players. I think his even-keeled demeanor and disposition really show with the way his team plays.”
Taylor and Cincinnati rebounded by hitting on both Burrow and 2021 first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase. A defense bolstered through free agency last offseason served as a foundation upon which Cincinnati’s young offensive stars could shine.
“We felt that there were the bones of a special group here in the spring and in training camp,” Taylor said. “But there were also a lot of unknowns. How’s the team going to jell together with some of the new pieces? How were some of these guys going to come back from injury in some key spots?
“But I certainly think as we got to December that the feeling in the locker room was, ‘We have the ability to play with anybody in this league.’ We all know — those of us who have been in the league long enough — you just have to get hot at the right time, and we really felt like we were.”
When the Bengals won the franchise’s first playoff game in 31 years — 26-19 over Las Vegas in the wild-card round last month — Taylor presented his boss, Brown, with a game ball.
Now, he has a chance to set all of Cincinnati into a frenzy with what would be the biggest win in team history.
“I’ve always dreamed of being in these moments,” Taylor said. “If you’re not dreaming of them, they’re never going to happen.”