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The Zac Taylor Conundrum

Taylor just led the Bengals to the Super Bowl and their best season in 31 years. But is that enough to mask his offense’s issues—and show that he’s the right person to develop Joe Burrow?

Before the game-deciding play of Super Bowl LVI, Sean McVay knew Aaron Donald would be the one to finish things. How? Well, largely because he understood what the star pass rusher is capable of—and what the Bengals’ alignment meant.

“When it was fourth down, and you could see they got in the shotgun, and they were probably not going to run the football,” McVay said, referring to Cincinnati’s failed fourth-and-1 play with under a minute left. “I said, ‘Aaron’s going to close the game out right here.’”

McVay was indeed prophetic, but I would hardly call his prediction bold. Donald is the greatest interior pass rusher the NFL has ever seen, so his wrecking the play didn’t shock anyone. As for the Bengals not running the ball, that may have been an even easier call to make. Cincinnati sported an 89 percent pass rate from the gun during its playoff run, per Sports Info Solutions. And the offense wasn’t too hard to figure out when Joe Burrow went under center, either. During the postseason, the Bengals passed the ball on just 24 percent of their under-center snaps.

All season, it seemed as if the Bengals were running two different offenses: The McVay-inspired scheme that Taylor brought to Cincinnati after being plucked from the Rams staff (the under-center portion with the presnap jet motion and outside zone running plays), and the spread offense that was partly inspired by the scheme Burrow ran at LSU in 2019.

That Taylor was willing to employ a spread passing game at all after working under McVay, who prefers operating out of condensed sets, is commendable; that he’s been unwilling and/or unable to design a run game that complements it is a big reason why there’s still a debate over the performance of a coach who got the BENGALS to the SUPER BOWL. Taylor’s offense was inconsistent to the point that it finished 24th in DVOA variance. And in four playoff games, the Bengals averaged just 23 points largely because of woeful performances in the red zone.

Wednesday morning, the Bengals announced that they’ve extended Taylor through the 2026 season. (If I were Taylor’s agent, I would’ve worn a “My Client Got the Bengals to a Super Bowl” T-shirt to every negotiation.) But while extending Taylor was probably a no-brainer decision for the organization, the concerns surrounding the offense he built still raise questions over whether he’s the right coach for this team—and especially the right one to develop Burrow.

No matter how poorly the offense was designed, the Bengals were never going to move on from Taylor this offseason. By doing so, Cincinnati basically would have been starting over. And immediately after a narrow Super Bowl loss is an awkward time for a reset.

But that line of thinking also assumes that progression is linear, and that this up-and-coming Bengals offense, led by the 25-year-old Burrow, will build on what it did in 2021. Now, Burrow and his young group of receivers will almost certainly be even better individually next season. But that does not guarantee improvement for the unit as a whole.

The Bengals’ 2021 production will be hard to replicate if there’s little change schematically. For starters, Burrow was the NFL’s most efficient passer when under pressure this season—at least, when he was able to avoid getting sacked. He led the NFL with an 8.3 yards-per-attempt average on pressured dropbacks (including postseason numbers) and finished with the league’s third-best passing grade, per Pro Football Focus. But because Burrow was so good when things broke down, it was much easier to ignore the fact that Taylor allowed things to break down a lot.

Burrow was sacked 70 times this season, and for the second straight year he’ll be heading into the offseason with a knee injury. So even though he’s been able to perform under those conditions so far, it’s fair to ask how long he can withstand that level of punishment. PFF has also found that quarterback play under pressure is highly volatile year-to-year, so while Burrow could pull off this type of performance again, it’s not something the Bengals can bank on. If you want proof of that, just look at how Burrow did under pressure during his truncated rookie season:

Joe Burrow Under Pressure, 2020 v. 2021

Season Attempts Yards/Att Passing Grade (Rank)
Season Attempts Yards/Att Passing Grade (Rank)
2020 102 4.2 44.9 (28th)
2021 175 8.3 63.9 (5th)
Pro Football Focus

The offense also relied on deep throws to the perimeter in 2021. No team produced more EPA on passes aimed outside the numbers and that traveled at least 5 yards in the air, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Passes Outside the Numbers and 5 or More Air Yards, 2021

Rank Player Att EPA
Rank Player Att EPA
1 Joe Burrow 139 91.87
2 Kirk Cousins 140 79.63
3 Patrick Mahomes 146 63.99
4 Dak Prescott 160 50.11
5 Josh Allen 178 47.45
Sports Info Solutions

In fact, Burrow’s 91.9 EPA on those throws was the most in a single season in the past five years. But here’s the problem: The other quarterbacks who enjoyed big seasons in this area all regressed the following year.

Is Cincy’s Deep Perimeter Passing Game Sustainable?

Season Player Attempts EPA EPA/Att Next Season EPA/Att Diff.
Season Player Attempts EPA EPA/Att Next Season EPA/Att Diff.
2021 Joe Burrow 139 91.87 0.66 ??? N/A
2018 Patrick Mahomes 127 86.95 0.68 0.28 -0.40
2018 Russell Wilson 145 84.02 0.58 0.23 -0.34
2017 Matthew Stafford 149 81.43 0.55 0.36 -0.19
2020 Deshaun Watson 152 79.92 0.53 Did not play N/A
2021 Kirk Cousins 140 79.63 0.57 ??? N/A
2017 Tom Brady 164 78.47 0.48 0.32 -0.15
2018 Aaron Rodgers 204 73.24 0.36 0.27 -0.08
2020 Kirk Cousins 150 71.51 0.48 0.53 0.05
2019 Dak Prescott 194 68.32 0.35 0.32 -0.03
Sports Info Solutions

I’m not so sure the “Rely on Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase to Pull Something Out of Their Ass” offense will take over the league anytime soon, namely because while that unit’s peaks were very high, it didn’t perform well on a down-to-down basis—which is a weird thing to say about an offense that featured Burrow, Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon. The Bengals finished the season ranked 17th in success rate, per, and 18th in offensive DVOA.

Sure, the offensive line had some major weak points, and that contributed heavily to the pressure on Burrow and limited what Taylor could call in obvious passing situations. But what roster doesn’t have holes? The Bengals had more than enough pieces to become a top-10 offense—it just never operated like one consistently.

I could keep going with this—pointing out that the Bengals were one of nine teams to produce a negative EPA on play-action passes, or that they finished tied for 24th in EPA per attempt on under-center runs, per Sports Info Solutions—but I think you get the point. All of this is a bad look for an offensive-minded head coach who calls the plays.

The flip side of that, though, is that designing the offense isn’t Taylor’s only job as a head coach. In fact, it might not even be his most important one. The head coach’s most crucial role is team manager, and in that, Taylor has passed with flying colors. Cincinnati has done a fine job of developing younger talent as well as incorporating vets into its system. And given how much talent matters compared to coaching—as evidenced by Cincinnati’s own success—that level of cohesion shouldn’t be ignored when evaluating what Taylor did this season.

We also shouldn’t overlook Taylor’s willingness to acquiesce to Burrow’s vision for the offense, something the young signal-caller explained to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark in August:

I like having as many routes available to me as possible. Five people out in the route just to stress the defense. Because what I’m good at is feeling space, feeling defenders, feeling where they’re supposed to go, feeling the zones that open up behind them. So when there’s only one or two guys out in the routes, that’s not where I’m at my best. … Some coaches will ask you and put it on a list and then forget about it, and not actually call it in the games. Zac calls it in the game.

Many analysts (including me!) have criticized Taylor for not doing more to protect Burrow by keeping extra blockers in to help the Bengals offensive line, but we’re also not privy to the conversations happening behind closed doors. Taylor has put his full trust in his quarterback, and it seems the feeling is reciprocated. Burrow isn’t alone, either.

Now, imagine telling that locker room, coming off a Super Bowl run, that you’re moving on from the head coach who helped lead the way. The Bengals weren’t going to do that, even if the decision would have made sense in a vacuum. But given the play-calling performance Taylor put in this season, the questions won’t end for Cincinnati even now that Taylor’s new deal is inked.

I’m not sure if there is an obvious solution to this dilemma. Maybe a middle ground would have been best: Giving Taylor that contract extension, but doing so on the condition that he brings in a play-caller from outside the building. A fresh voice who may have better ideas on how to marry the team’s run and pass concepts—at least to a point where the opposing coach can’t predict run or pass based on the formation alone.

Regardless, keeping Burrow happy and productive should be at the top of Cincinnati’s priorities list for as long as he is with the team. Retaining Taylor should take care of the first part. But whether Taylor can take care of the second will dictate this team’s ceiling for the next half-decade.

This piece was updated with more information after publication.