Zac Taylor is finding it a whole lot harder than his former boss did to engineer a one-year transformation of a longtime losing franchise.
The fans of England will see whether Taylor’s rough project can break through against Sean McVay’s much more polished work when the Cincinnati Bengals (0-7) face the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams (4-3) on Sunday.
Taylor hopes his winless Bengals will look across the Wembley Stadium field to see what they hope to become — and hopefully start to make it happen a little faster.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t happen Week 1, Week 5 or necessarily Week 7. But at some point, it clicks to where more and more guys start to understand it, and the standard is raised. It transfers over to Sunday, it transfers over to wins and it transfers over to championships, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
When McVay took over the Rams nearly three years ago, he both inherited and assembled the ingredients to build a great offense immediately. Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Rob Havenstein were already on the roster, and the Rams quickly added Robert Woods, longtime Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and a host of supporting players to create one of the greatest one-season turnarounds in NFL history.
When Taylor left his job as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to take over the Cincinnati Bengals last winter, he brought intimate knowledge of McVay’s offense and the wisdom of two years behind the Rams’ curtain. He installed an offense quite similar to McVay’s schemes, and he is calling the Bengals’ plays himself, just as McVay does for LA.
Trouble is, the Bengals had a fraction of the resources available to McVay, and they clearly didn’t add talent with the same success. Their running game is the NFL’s worst behind a poor offensive line, which means the McVay offense’s play-action schemes aren’t fooling anybody.
And Cincinnati’s standout offensive player — receiver A.J. Green — still hasn’t returned from ankle surgery in training camp.
Taylor and McVay have talked frequently during the season, although the calls and texts slowed as they approached this meeting. They’ve both had plenty of work to do: McVay’s Rams had a three-game losing streak that left him searching for new ways to get the past two seasons’ results, particularly since his play-action success has also stalled with a mediocre running game.
“You learn a lot about people when you go through some of these adversities,” McVay said. “I thought it was good for us to be able to go through some of these things we’ve experienced over the last month. I have talked to Zac. I have a whole lot of respect for him. I love him as a friend. To see the way that he’s handled things only further demonstrates why he’s a special person.”
More things to know about the 22nd NFL game played at Wembley since 2007:
While Cincinnati has been saddled with just one previous overseas trip, the Rams are out of the country for the third time in four years — and it would have been four if the Azteca Stadium field in Mexico City hadn’t been ruined by a concert last November. The Rams don’t think their passport stamps give them an advantage, although Goff knows they’ve made plenty of fans across the pond with their frequent trips mandated by the NFL’s relocation rules. “I don’t love traveling over there, but playing over there is not bad,” Goff said. “I do enjoy the fans and the different type of atmosphere over there, where oftentimes they’re cheering for the field goals. I think it’s cool.”
HELLO OLD FRIEND
The Bengals will be reunited with Whitworth, who spent 11 seasons in Cincinnati before going to the Rams. Whitworth was one of the Bengals’ leaders and best players, and he has stayed in touch with some former teammates. The Bengals’ offensive line fell apart after they chose not to match the Rams’ contract offer, and Whitworth reached the Super Bowl with LA last season. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season and are well on their way to a fourth straight losing season.
“Whit was really good for us,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I loved every year that I got to play with him. You see the business of it. He had an opportunity in LA, and he took it. Is he the reason things haven’t been exactly the same? I don’t know. Whit was a big part of this team and a big part of the leadership on this team.”
The coaches’ connections could lead to defensive insights by both teams, and Goff is particularly wary of going against his former position coach’s defense. “(Taylor) does know a lot of stuff, not only about me, but about our whole offense and our whole team,” Goff said. “With that being said, we have changed a lot in the last 6½ months. Since he was here, we’ve changed offensively, defensively, schematically at times. There are the thoughts that he might be a step ahead of us, but we’re going to go out and play our game.”
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Cincinnati remains winless because of a bad combination: The Bengals have the worst run offense and the worst run defense in the league. They’ve been held under 35 yards rushing in four of their games. In a 27-17 loss to the Jaguars last week, Dalton accounted for all 33 net yards. Also, they’ve given up at least 200 yards rushing in the past three games and four times overall.
“Being one-dimensional is hard,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “There are a lot of things that make it difficult when you have to drop back and throw the ball. The running game standard has got to be higher and we’ve got to do a better job of it.”