CINCINNATI — New Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor talked a lot about changing the culture of the program when he was hired back in February.
That same subject came into question days later when he added controversial offensive line coach Jim Turner to his staff, a decision he defended, but his intentions have become even clearer since then.
On Tuesday, with the start of the team’s voluntary offseason workout program at Paul Brown Stadium, Taylor’s message was impossible to miss. T-shirts with the Bengals’ new slogan, “It’s about us,” were hanging in each locker, and players said the saying also was displayed in the weight room and other places around the stadium.
Taylor wants the focus to stay on the team, and that is what he believes will lead to success.
“All that matters is what’s inside these walls,” Taylor said in his first press conference of the spring. “There are so many distractions, so many different things going on outside these walls that can distract you and divert you away from what’s really important. I just want to make sure that our players and coaches understand that as we take care of business inside these walls, we’re going to be able achieve the things we want to achieve.”
That, more than anything else, was what Taylor wanted his players to get out of his first team meeting Tuesday morning. He also presented players with the new playbook, which they seem anxious to delve into. But on-field preparation takes a back seat for now as the culture is established.
“It’s not about the scheme; it’s not about all of the Xs and Os we put behind us,” Taylor said. “It’s about getting to know each other, connecting with each other and playing for each other. As I mentioned the last time I sat up here two months ago, those things have not changed. We feel like we’re going to have great Xs and Os that’ll put us in position to win, but the players have to bring it to life and they have to play for each other. Once they do that, we become a real team. We’re not just a bunch of talented players, we’re a real team. We’ll be ready to achieve some really good things here.”
Taylor entered the meeting room promptly at 8 a.m. to find a group of attentive players already waiting for him – some curious about how the 35-year-old first-time head coach would present himself and everyone anxious to get started in what players unanimously said is a suddenly more energized environment.
His message was well-received. The Bengals are ready for some change after three straight seasons missing the playoffs, and a new spin on the game and a different direction in mentality were welcomed by the players.
“Look around -- the whole building is different,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I've been gone two months, so the change I've seen, I love it. It makes everything all about the team. It's not about the older guys that played here. I used to see all the legend guys. Now it's about us. 'It's about us' is kind of his message. It made me feel good. I am just excited to be back.”
Wide receiver A.J. Green has been around Taylor more than most while spending some time in Cincinnati this offseason rehabbing from toe surgery, which ended his 2018 campaign early. So he had an idea what to expect Tuesday but still was excited to see how Taylor would address the team for the first time.
Green said it seemed like Taylor had been in the position before, because he’s a natural leader and came off well-prepared and well-spoken. He liked that Taylor was emphasizing the team aspect so much, and noted the players already are buying into the new concepts.
“Everybody is held to a high standard, and that's the big thing we're going to preach,” said Green, who is no longer limited physically and likely will ease back into workouts with the team. “Nobody is different. Everybody is equal.”
“Football is not an 'I' game,” Green added. “It's a lot of guys doing the job the right way. That's the biggest thing for us. We all have to do our jobs for us to be successful, and that's what we are preaching.”
Taylor had already weeded out a couple of players whose actions on or off the field could potentially damage that focus when the Bengals released linebacker Vontaze Burfict and, more recently, running back Mark Walton.
Burfict’s questionable character and history of suspensions have been distractions in the past, and Walton, a fourth-round draft pick in 2018, brought negative attention to the team with his third arrest since January last week.
“It’s hard anytime you deal with a player who’s put a lot of work into their career,” Taylor said when asked specifically about the difficulty of releasing Walton. “The unfortunate thing about these situations sometimes is that you don’t really get a chance to know the player when you’re a new head coach. There’s a human element to this stuff, but we want things done a certain way, and we’re appreciative of the players that are here in the building and doing things the right way. That’s our expectation here at the Bengals.”
When the players are setting the standards themselves, Taylor said, then he'll know they are headed in the right direction.