Even Tony Romo didn’t know what to say.
The upstart Cincinnati Bengals stood inches away from a go-ahead touchdown in Week 17. Inches from a comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Inches from their first playoff berth since 2015.
Cincinnati needed to break the 31-31 tie. But scoring too quickly would give the ball back to Patrick Mahomes. What’s a coach to do?
Second-and-goal? The Bengals ran QB sneak. The Chiefs called their last timeout.
Third-and-goal? No touchdown. The clock dripped under a minute.
“I’m going for it on fourth down. Well ... maybe not,” Romo told the CBS audience, before reconsidering. “You definitely kick the field goal. ... Ahh, this is a tough call. I’m torn.”
Zac Taylor, the 38-year-old Bengals coach, pressed his lips tight and studied his play sheet. His kicker stayed on the sideline.
“My goodness,” Jim Nantz exclaimed as the Bengals broke the huddle. “The call of the year right here.”
Pause here for a moment. We’ll return for the climax (in case you missed it).
Focus on the man making the call and his old friends and former teammates scattered across the country, watching in their living rooms. Imagine their stress seeing Taylor in the crucible.
They noticed something beyond the gutsy decision. The same traits they noticed in Husker huddles 15 years ago in San Antonio and College Station. Composure. Consistency. Control.
Taylor was always different. Even when crowd noise overwhelmed his ear drums, even when opposing pass rushers attacked his ribs, the Husker quarterback never lost his cool. It’s just one skill that makes Taylor such an intriguing NFL coach — the kind capable of guiding a franchise (and its star quarterback) for a long, long time.
“Zac’s not a big, scary guy,” former NU tailback Cory Ross said. “Doesn’t have that mean face or that dominant voice when you walk in a room. But as a player, you really don’t need that. At all.
“Most players can understand if a coach knows what he’s talking about as soon as he opens his mouth. When they see Zac, they see someone who knows exactly what he’s doing.”
'A special player'
In the winter of 2005, Bill Callahan was desperate.
After a disastrous debut season in Lincoln, the Nebraska coach needed reinforcements. Fast.
A top-flight recruiting class silenced critics, but it didn’t solve Callahan’s most pressing problem. Five-star quarterback Harrison Beck wasn’t ready to start. Nebraska needed a bridge.
“We had a profile,” Callahan’s former offensive coordinator, Jay Norvell, recalled this week. “We wanted a coach’s son. A guy who had grown up around it. A guy with a great football mind and temperament. And a guy with great leadership skills. We found all of that in Zac Taylor.”
Sherwood Taylor, a former Oklahoma defensive back, captain and assistant, groomed his oldest son to zip spirals and break down defenses.
In Callahan’s offense, the mind mattered more than the arm. Two years earlier, Callahan coached NFL MVP Rich Gannon. He had no interest in watering down his West Coast offense.
“I’m not saying that this is the right way to do it,” Norvell said, “but when we left the Oakland Raiders and came to Nebraska, it was like Game 23. It was not like we started over. It was a very, very high level introduction of offensive football. Not typical of a college experience at all.”
By the first spring practice of 2005, Ross recognized Taylor’s intellect. Other Husker quarterbacks stumbled through Callahan’s complicated calls. Not Zac.
“He would just spit out the verbiage like it was nothing,” Ross said. “I was like, ‘Whoa. OK. We got a different guy here.’”
Taylor didn’t shine right away. But Nebraska started 4-0, including a 27-20 double-overtime win over Iowa State. Taylor hit Ross for the go-ahead score.
“I still laugh to this day,” Norvell said. “I have a picture of Zac Taylor where he’s got a wristband on one arm, a wristband on another arm and a wristband on his belt. We had like 350 plays on a game plan. We just had Zac figure it out.
“We’d signal play 255 and he’d run it. We put a lot on him and he could handle it.”
The Huskers dropped four of their next five games in 2005 — panic mode — before Taylor led a late-season surge. He was spectacular at Colorado in a 30-3 upset, throwing for 392 yards — “Restore the order!” Then came the Alamo Bowl against Michigan, the night his old teammates remember most vividly.
In San Antonio, Taylor showcased his greatest physical skill — toughness. Over and over, Michigan linemen crushed him. Over and over, he stood poised in the pocket.
“You know me,” Ross said. “I’m looking to not get hit. I’m trying to stay clean. He stared it in the face and still made the throw. That’s a little different kind of toughness.”
Said Norvell: “I’ll never forget it. We ran a play called ‘stick lookie,’ and it was a bear blitz, and he just got lambasted. He threw a slant on the backside and it went about 60 yards. He would look down the gun barrel.”
Nebraska trailed 28-17 in the fourth quarter before Taylor threw two touchdown passes to win.
“He’s like the eye in the hurricane,” Callahan said afterward. “There’s flurry all around, and he stays as calm and as poised as any quarterback I’ve ever coached.”
Said linebacker Bo Ruud: “I always felt the essence of Zac Taylor was summed up in that game. He got hit so hard, he told me afterward that he didn’t remember the second quarter.”
It was a different era in college football, Ruud said. Before spread offenses. Before RPOs. Before targeting. Coaches didn’t protect quarterbacks. Neither did officials.
Taylor got sacked 38 times in 2005 alone. But he never criticized his offensive line or receivers. Always took responsibility.
“He was always really good at reading the room,” said Joe Ganz, Taylor’s apprentice at quarterback. “He understood when to just shut up and work. He understood when he needed to speak up. He understood when he needed to kick somebody in the butt to get ’em going and he understood when to put his arm around somebody. And he was humble enough to ask for help.
“When people know you want what’s best for them, it’s easy to rally behind.”
By 2006, Taylor had spent hundreds of hours in the film room, trading ideas with Callahan, Norvell and Ganz. How would you attack this defense? What drives your decision where to go with the football?
The Huskers were 7-3 going to Texas A&M, trying to clinch their first Big 12 North Division title since 1999. Big Red blew a 14-point lead and trailed 27-21 in the final minutes. Then, amid a wild Aggie crowd, Taylor led an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Purify.
“I’ve laid awake in bed for 23 years thinking about a game like this,” Taylor said then.
Taylor earned Big 12 offensive player of the year and years of adoration from Husker fans.
“Whatever we’ve been missing the last few years at Nebraska, we had in Zac Taylor in 2006,” Ruud said. “The chips are down, you’re playing a pretty good team in a hostile environment. You got a couple minutes to go. And you find a way to march the ball down the field and score.
“That’s the ultimate. That was Zac’s moment. He really solidified himself as a special player in Nebraska history.”
A fast rise
Three weeks later, Taylor walked shoeless through the claustrophobic hallways of Arrowhead Stadium.
He’d just lost 21-7 to his once-beloved Sooners. His voice was raspy. “I think it just hurts more because it’s a championship,” Taylor said.
Three interceptions — and six second-half drives into OU territory without a point — ruined his chance. That brutally cold night at Arrowhead Stadium exploited Taylor’s limits as a quarterback.
He never made it to an NFL training camp, landing instead with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in September 2007. He knew he wasn’t going to cut it in the CFL when he got off the plane at midnight and walked out on the field and the Winnipeg GM handed him a football. Sort of.
It was fatter than the American ball.
“I’ve got small hands,” Taylor said later. “As soon as I picked that ball up, I thought in my head, this ain’t gonna work.”
Taylor was the fourth-string QB in charge of the practice squad. The quarterback meeting room was so small that backups Ryan Dinwiddie, Kliff Kingsbury and Taylor shared a love seat during film sessions. The weather was so cold that Winnipeg’s offense and defense practiced separately to minimize time on the field. Taylor threw in ski gloves.
By 2008, he was ready to coach. He joined his father-in-law, Mike Sherman, as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M.
In 2012, Taylor followed Sherman to the Miami Dolphins, where the 28-year-old quarterbacks coach’s first big task was recruiting 35-year-old free agent Peyton Manning. One March day, Taylor got urgent orders to compile film cutups of Miami’s new offense to show Manning.
One problem: Miami didn’t have an offense yet. “I’m terrified,” Taylor recalled.
Taylor boarded a private plane to Indianapolis, alongside Miami’s owner, general manager, coach and offensive coordinator. The sales pitch to Manning failed. The next day, Manning announced he was signing with Denver.
Welcome to the NFL, Zac.
Taylor held his own in Miami, appearing in 2012 on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and rising to interim offensive coordinator after Joe Philbin was fired.
But his big break came in 2017. Fresh off a one-year stint at the University of Cincinnati — coach Tommy Tuberville resigned, leaving his staff in limbo — Taylor was playing golf one morning when his phone rang.
Sean McVay? The two met at the NFL combine a couple of years earlier.
McVay had heard good things about Taylor. They had mutual friends. The new Rams coach asked Taylor to be his assistant receivers coach. Give me a couple of days to think about it, Taylor said. A few hours later, Taylor hadn’t even gotten to lunch when McVay called back.
“What’s your decision? Are you coming or not?”
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
That spring, McVay, Taylor and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (now Green Bay’s coach) squeezed into a private plane and hopped around the country working out draft prospects, including eventual pro bowler Cooper Kupp. Mississippi to Atlanta to East Carolina. In workouts, Taylor played quarterback.
“The old peashooter got nice and loose,” McVay recalled in a 2021 “Flying Coach” podcast discussion with Taylor. “He was spraying it around.”
Taylor got promoted to quarterbacks coach. After the Rams won the NFC in 2018 — falling short in the Super Bowl — Taylor became an NFL head coaching candidate at 35.
“Nobody doubted how solid of a dude Zac is,” Ruud said. “Great guy. Super smart. He always had that solid foundation of character. But who gets a head coaching job that early? You can’t predict that kind of rise.”
In Cincinnati, Taylor didn’t progress without mistakes. Like his first preseason game at Kansas City (same stadium as his Big 12 championship loss).
With 12 seconds left before halftime, the Bengals had the ball at Kansas City’s 45, a short completion from field-goal range. Taylor called a play that developed too slowly, and his quarterback got sacked. Timeout. Now what? Punt? Run a screen? Or take a shot?
Taylor called a Hail Mary.
His quarterback threw an interception and the Chiefs started running it back. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Taylor recalled on McVay’s podcast last summer. “We’re going to throw a pick-six on a Hail Mary in my first-ever game as a head coach.”
His tailback chased down the play and made the tackle, but Taylor felt like “the biggest idiot on the planet.”
His 2-14 debut season didn’t instill much confidence, but it did deliver Cincinnati the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft: Joe Burrow. The LSU standout shared a Husker pedigree with Taylor. And a competitive streak. You don’t have to say anything to motivate him.
“He has the edge,” Taylor often says.
Burrow’s rookie year finished 4-11-1. How did Taylor maintain favor in the locker room? Sincerity and authenticity go a long way, his old teammates say.
“He doesn’t try to be something he’s not,” Ruud said. “If you’re trying to be something you’re not, it falls flat pretty quick.”
Said former NU wideout Todd Peterson: “It’s not too hard for college kids to spot bull—. And it’s really easy for professionals to spot that.”
The NFL has changed, Ruud said. A coach doesn’t need to intimidate or deliver fiery locker room speeches. “The rah-rah can be kind of hollow,” Ruud said. “That doesn’t work so well anymore.”
Taylor has explained the Bengals’ resurgence like this: Be honest about the process. Don’t change your attitude. And build around a core group of leaders. In time, that group gets bigger and bigger.
“When I had my first meeting with Zac at the combine,” Burrow said, “I knew exactly what kind of coach we had. And I knew exactly where I wanted to be. He’s a great offensive mind and a great leader of men.”
Call of the year
OK, back to Jan. 2. Back to the fourth-down conundrum. By now, you know what happened.
Burrow scrambled and found running back Joe Mixon, who nearly crossed the goal line. But wait ... two flags. Offsetting penalties.
What’s Taylor do with 50 seconds left?
“You still go for it, I guess?” Nantz says.
“No!” Romo says. “Kick the field goal.”
“But they still have the offense out there,” Nantz says.
Again, Burrow scrambles on fourth down and throws incomplete. This time, officials flag Kansas City for illegal use of hands. The Bengal crowd exhales again. Romo nearly faints.
Forty seconds later, Taylor calls on his field goal kicker. The Bengals win 34-31 as time expires.
Immediately the CBS camera captures the Bengals mobbing their coach.
“Welcome to the jungle!” Romo shouts. “They’re back.”
Afterward, Taylor didn’t hide his emotions or apologize for the unconventional fourth-down calls. “The things worth having,” he said, “you gotta go get ’em.”
Meanwhile, his phone was blowing up with calls and texts from old Huskers. “I texted him with like 10,000 curse words,” Ganz said. “I’m just so happy for him.”
Typically after a game, Taylor stays in his office a couple of hours before driving home. That Sunday, he hustled to his son’s basketball game. Traffic slowed him down, but the coach took a shortcut on the shoulder and arrived just after halftime.
He walked over to the bench and put an AFC North championship hat on his son’s head. Some 20 minutes later, his son delivered the game-winning assist in overtime.
“It was a good day for the Taylor household,” Zac said.
Even better days may be ahead.
On Saturday, Cincinnati hosts the Las Vegas Raiders, seeking the franchise’s first playoff win in 31 years. And win or lose, the Bengals’ young offensive core of Burrow (25), Ja’Marr Chase (21), Tee Higgins (22) and Joe Mixon (25) is among the NFL’s best.
“When you start building that culture — and it looks like Cincinnati is headed that direction — it’s beautiful to watch,” Ross said.
If you don’t mind the stress of fourth-and-goal.