Zac Taylor’s Inexperience Cost the Cincinnati Bengals Super Bowl 56

It was his first appearance in a Super Bowl in just his third season ever as a head coach. Four seasons ago, Zac Taylor was Sean McVay’s quarterback’s coach. He squared off against his old mentor in Super Bowl 56 and may have lost the game for the Cincinnati Bengals because of a handful of bad decisions.

It’s tough to blame a young coach in these moments, but it was clear that Taylor’s inexperience cost the Bengals the Lombardi Trophy.

Zac Taylor’s first big decision of Super Bowl 56 was the wrong one

The Bengals defense had just made two massive plays to set the tone of the game right off the bat. On the Rams’ first drive, Trey Hendrickson sacked Matthew Stafford for a loss of seven yards on 2nd-and-10. The Bengals then proceeded to stuff a LA run for minus-three yards, which set up a 4th-and-20 and, ultimately a punt. 

It was a statement stop for Cincinnati to start the game, and Joe Burrow and the offense got the ball back with pretty good field position for their first try. The Rams won Super Bowl 56 because of their defense, and that unit showed up from the get-go. LA forced what should have been a three-and-out on Cincy’s first offensive drive, but Taylor decided he wanted to be aggressive, which was ultimately his first big mistake of the game.

The Bengals couldn’t convert a 4th-and-1 and gave the ball back to the Rams at midfield. Just six plays later, Stafford found Odell Beckham Jr. for the game’s first touchdown. The Rams needed only 3:35 to score, and Cincinnati’s defense spent much of the rest of the first half on its heels.

It was all set up by Taylor’s foolish decision to go for it at that juncture of the game. Why not punt it and lean on a defense that came out ready to play? You can’t gift McVay 50 yards and expect to get away with it. 

Taylor’s late-game clock management was questionable

Zac Taylor Cincinnati Bengals
Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals calls a play in the second quarter during Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While it may seem counterintuitive to let the trailing team score with under two minutes to go in the Super Bowl, Taylor had the opportunity to save his team precious time and a timeout on LA’s game-winning offensive possession.

The Rams, down 20-16, had quickly driven down the field and found themselves with a 1st-and-goal at the two-minute warning. An offensive holding wiped out a touchdown with 1:44 to go, but because there was also a penalty on the defense, it set LA up with a 1st-and-goal from the Cincinnati 4-yard-line. The very next play saw a defensive pass interference call on Eli Apple that moved the ball down to the 1-yard line. 

The Rams were basically gifted three first downs within the 10 while still burning valuable time off the clock. On 1st-and-goal from the 1, McVay proceeded to call a quarterback sneak with Stafford that the Bengals stuffed, but one can’t help but wonder if the ultimate purpose of that play wasn’t to score but rather to burn more clock.

Anybody with any football sense knew the Rams were knocking on their door of a touchdown there. Case in point, Cincinnati called a timeout only to see Stafford hit Cooper Kupp for a touchdown on the very next play.

Again, it seems counterintuitive to let a team score, but had the Bengals let Stafford sneak into the end zone on first down, they would have saved a timeout for their last drive and roughly 20 seconds of game time.

The smart move would have been to let LA quickly score there and then regroup on offense.

It’s a risky move to make in the Super Bowl, without a doubt, and the counterpoint is that the Bengals weren’t able to respond anyhow. Still, how different would Burrow’s last few plays have looked if he had a few more seconds and an extra timeout in his back pocket?

Taylor blanked on the Cincinnati Bengals’ final drive

Zac Taylor, head coach, Cincinnati Bengals
Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on from the sidelines in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LVI. Will Zac Taylor ever get a chance to coach in another Super Bowl? | Rob Carr/Getty Images

However it played out, Cincinnati got the ball back with 1:25 to go and had the opportunity to, at the very least, tie the game and send it into overtime, if not walk-off win it.

Burrow started the drive with a beautiful sideline throw to Ja’Marr Chase for 17 yards and then a pass to Tyler Boyd for nine. The Bengals had quickly moved 26 yards and were faced with a 3rd-and-1 from the LA 49 after a deep right pass to Chase missed the mark.

The Bengals were nearing field-goal range and seemed to have the Rams on their heels with the passing game. For some reason, though, Taylor felt that was the opportune time to call a run play up the middle. He called the play not for Pro Bowler Joe Mixon, but with his backup, Samaje Perine. Aaron Donald stuffed the run, which set up the 4th-and-1 on which Donald chased down Burrow, forced a desperate throw, and ultimately won the game for the Rams.

After the contest, Taylor justified his decision to run the ball on third down, but it was undoubtedly the wrong call. 

“Yeah, they were getting a little softer and we thought we could steal a first down there and come back and take some shots at the end zone,” Taylor said via Pro Football Talk. “Just didn’t work out.”

Even if running was the right move there, why use Perine instead of Mixon?

Mixon had picked up 4.8 yards per rush at that point. Perine finished with two rush attempts for no yards. Sure, the Bengals were running a no-huddle offense, but the clock had stopped because of the incomplete pass. The Bengals also still had two timeouts at their disposal. If Taylor really wanted to run the ball and couldn’t get Mixon on the field in time, call a timeout. 

The Bengals were picking up chunk plays through the air to that point, though, so the decision to run it just made no sense.

With young superstars like Burrow and Chase at his disposal, this may not be the last time we see Taylor coaching in the Super Bowl. Perhaps he’ll learn from his mistakes because this time around, he cost his team a chance to hoist the Lombardi. 

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference. Contract information via Spotrac

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