The teacher meets the student as Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay meets Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zach Taylor in Super Bowl LVI.
There are so many storylines and themes heading into Super Bowl LVI. There’s the battle of former #1 overall pick QBs with the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow (ironically both guys wear #9, too).
There’s the matchup of the Rams’ dominant front four — led by future Hall of Famers Aaron Donald and Von Miller — taking on Cincy’s embattled offensive line. We’ve also got one of the rising star receivers in the game (Ja’Marr Chase) potentially drawing one-on-one matchups with arguably the top cornerback in football (Jalen Ramsey).
But the one storyline, in my opinion, that’s not getting the attention it deserves is Bengals head coach and former Rams assistant wide receivers and quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor taking on his former boss in Rams HC Sean McVay.
Not only was Taylor on McVay’s staff during his breakout 2017 campaign in which the latter was named AP NFL Coach of the Year, but the two were also last on staff together when the Rams fell at the hands of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
This is a rare feat. The fact that we even have two HCs who were formerly on staff together facing off for the Vince Lombardi trophy is a big deal, especially guys that collaborated on another Super Bowl team. The last two to do so were Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin coaching in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI after helping the 1990 Giants claim their second of four Super Bowl titles.
For Taylor, he’s got more to prove as the “underdog.” Not only do the Bengals currently sit at +4 on the point spread entering Sunday, but Taylor also enters his first Super Bowl appearance as a head coach with a 19-32-1 record in Cincy (including the playoffs). If you’re wondering, Taylor was only 6-25-1 in his first two years with the Bengals.
Some could say, “well he’s got Burrow, Chase, and a load of other weapons on offense to go along with his much-improved defense.” True. But we should laud him for that because things take time to develop in the NFL, especially with a more traditional franchise like the Bengals. Drafting well and hitting on value free agents is the key.
As dynamic as Burrow is — I prefer Joe Brrr, but that’s beside the point — he was only 2-7-1 as a starter during his rookie year.
And yes, Burrow now has the Robin to his Batman once again in Chase after scorching Earth in 2019 at LSU. But do you remember how much critics hated that pick? The Cincy brass has to be laughing about that now, and I’m sure Taylor is, too.
Adding Chase makes Tee Higgins your No. 2 wideout, then Tyler Boyd immediately becomes your No. 3. That makes it easier for guys like C.J. Uzomah to have career-best seasons. But let’s not forget Joe Mixon in the backfield, too. Many viewed him as one of the most complete backs in football coming into 2021 but setting career highs in rushing yards (1,205), yards from scrimmage (1,519), rushing touchdowns (13) and total TDs (16) reinforced that.
Even in the pass-happy, modern-day NFL, Taylor found ways to get Mixon the ball. That’s a trait McVay definitely passed down after basing everything in the Rams offense off the zone run game. In three playoff games, Mixon has averaged 98.7 yards from scrimmage. I think that factor alone has buoyed Cincy to the big game, despite the o-line’s struggles.
Their D has played well to get here, too. Not only have the Bengals limited opponents to 19.7 points per game in the postseason, but they’ve also forced seven turnovers in three playoff games.
That side of the ball has been led by those homegrown products like safety Jessie Bates, defensive end Sam Hubbard and starting linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. But let’s not forget those free agents I mentioned, like DE Trey Hendrickson, DT D.J. Reader, as well as the additions in the secondary with Von Bell, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton.
Just for context as to how many value signings the Bengals made on D, Hendrickson and Reader are the only active defensive starters with a cap hit of more than $10 million this season. So kudos to Taylor for developing a mostly homegrown bunch in an efficient manner.
Now when it comes to students supplanting their teachers, though, maybe McVay has another lesson to share with Taylor. The Rams HC just usurped 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in the NFC Championship Game after dropping their previous six matchups.
It had to be agonizing for McVay to fall flat so consistently against a guy whom he worked under for four seasons in Washington. But it’s not like he hadn’t beaten him before — over their first two seasons as HCs from 2017-18, McVay and the Rams held a 3-1 record over Shanahan and San Francisco.
So maybe that narrative was a bit overblown. But one that I don’t think was overblown was the fact that a lot of those losses showed what LA, and McVay in particular, struggled with the most; physical teams.
The 49ers rushed for over 100 yards in five of six wins over the Rams from 2019-21. Basically, San Fran took on the mantra of its top weapon, Deebo Samuel, and played bully ball, while LA stayed “Hollywood” as a flashy, speedy, finesse squad. But in 2021, that all changed, and it might have come due to some additions.
This is no offense to Jared Goff, who compiled a 45-30-1 record with McVay, but the addition of Stafford brought on a new toughness in LA. One of the most respected and toughest QBs in the game had a trickle-down effect. That’s what allows a team to shake off a three-game skid in November to win eight of the last nine played to play host for a championship.
Even having a guy as tough as Donald too, there was always one little piece of it missing in LA. But maybe adding guys like Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. was that toughness the Rams were missing. Two generational talents shipped off from situations they needed to be out of, who’s to say the chips on their shoulders didn’t rub off on the team?
That had to light a fire for Cooper Kupp, Leonard Floyd, former Bengal Andrew Whitworth, and the rest of LA’s Hollywood crew. So bringing all those names along should be praised as well for McVay. And now he can earn redemption from SB LIII.
There’s no question that McVay is proud of the first member in his head coaching tree to make it to the Super Bowl. Just look at what he shared on the Feb. 7 edition of the ‘Chris Simms Unbuttoned’ podcast:
"“You see the mental toughness and the resolve that he’s had as a leader. The consistent approach and the commitment to a philosophy and a belief, and then you get the right players. You understand, alright, you see their culture embodied. I think a lot of the things that are good about our team, you see reflected in their team.”"
McVay also shared how he “learned a lot from Zac” and feels that they “positively poured into one another.” But in the end, McVay’s competitiveness came out.
"“You’re right, it’s awesome, but we’re gonna to try to get after him a little bit and it’s gonna be two good teams going at it.”"
Taylor also had some kind words to share on McVay and confirmed the influence he’s had on him. The Bengals HC shared this quote in Ben Baby’s Feb. 4 Super Bowl story for ESPN:
"“Working with Sean was two of the best years of my life. It was fun. You loved coming into the building every single day. That’s a lot of our messaging to our building and our staff and our players. We want guys who are willing to come in here and work, but they enjoy the process of walking into this building with a smile on their face every day.”"
So rather than Matt LaFleur or Brandon Staley doing so, Taylor is the guy on McVay’s tree to make it to the ‘Bowl first. Now the question is will a branch of the tree be stronger than its roots? We’ll see on Super Bowl Sunday.