Cincinnati again serves as pivotal opportunity for Bengals' Zac Taylor

CINCINNATI -- Three years ago, Zac Taylor had the boxes packed from his family’s home in Cincinnati’s Mount Lookout neighborhood and figured a return was unlikely.

He was fresh off his lone season as the University of Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, a year that resulted in four wins and a coaching change. The Taylors had their belongings shipped to Los Angeles, where Taylor was set to join the Rams’ staff as an assistant coach.

Now most of those items are back in Mount Lookout, a few blocks from where they used to be. Taylor is coaching in Cincinnati again.

But this time he isn't an assistant for a Group of 5 school. When the Bengals open the season on Sunday at Seattle, the 36-year-old Taylor will be one of the youngest coaches in the NFL.

"We [Taylor and his wife, Sarah] would never have bet that three years later, we’d have this opportunity," Taylor told ESPN. "It’s important to put your nose down and make the most of it because we know how fortunate we are that this happened and feel like we’ve earned the opportunity as well."

The two jobs appear to have little in common, aside from geography. In 2016, Taylor was trying to beat the likes of Tulsa and East Carolina. Now he inherits a franchise that is coming off three consecutive losing seasons and hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991.

But after further review, the tasks have a lot in common on a fundamental level, which explains why Taylor is back in Cincinnati. With the Bearcats and the Bengals, Taylor was viewed as the bridge between what traditional offenses looked like and what they might become.

That’s how he ended up in this city in the first place.

After two seasons as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, Taylor got his start as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, where he worked for his father-in-law, Mike Sherman. In 2011, the Aggies went an unremarkable 6-6, which led to the firing of the coaching staff.

But what A&M was doing offensively caught the eye of Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Until that point, Tennessee used a traditional pro-style offense. Chaney invited Taylor to Knoxville to learn how A&M used an offense that blended Air Raid concepts with schemes that featured strong protection and multiple tight ends or running backs.

"I think Chaney had a lot of respect of who was on that staff, knowing their background and knowing and seeing how they had transitioned to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense but keeping the same principles of a pro-style system," said Blake Rolan, a Tennessee quality control assistant at the time.

Rolan and Taylor swapped numbers and kept in touch after that meeting. After A&M, Taylor was an assistant for the Miami Dolphins from 2012 to '15, and he helped develop former Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In Taylor’s final year, Tannehill threw for a career-high 4,208 yards.

But then Taylor was looking for work after the Dolphins made a midseason coaching change during a 6-10 season in 2015. Rolan was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, which happened to be looking for an offensive coordinator position and reached out to see if Taylor was interested.

He was. Jim Turner, the Dolphins’ former offensive line coach who was also with Taylor at Texas A&M, knew Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville well. Turner also vouched for Taylor, in part because he was a knowledgeable teacher who related to players well.

Turner was familiar with Taylor’s playing history, which includes stops at Wake Forest and Butler (Kansas) Community College before Taylor ended up at Nebraska under coach Bill Callahan.

"He’s been through the storm, so he knows how to relate," Turner said. "He knows how to talk to people. He’s a great teacher. I think he was a perfect fit. He’s done a heckuva job."

Taylor said he turned down other coordinator jobs at "Power 5" schools to join Tuberville’s staff.

"This was one where you get a chance to go and kind of figure out what your identity was going to be in college," Taylor said. "It was an opportunity that I thought I needed to take."

He quickly realized that he was in for a tough season. Taylor inherited an unstable quarterback situation as Tuberville was on the hot seat. The Bearcats lost seven of eight conference games and were looking for a new coach at the end of the season. In Taylor's one season with the Bearcats, they averaged 19.3 points per game, sixth-lowest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"He was very patient," said Rolan, now the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois. "We had a bunch of young receivers at the time. We weren’t a very great offense. We were young at a lot of positions. It was frustrating, probably, for sure, to see how we want to do things and not be able to do them."

Despite the tough year with the Bearcats, Taylor had done enough to get an offer from Sean McVay to be a Rams assistant coach. Taylor knew McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur well enough that they felt comfortable with him. He said he again turned down offers to be an offensive coordinator at the college level to be on McVay’s staff.

Over the next two seasons, McVay turned the Rams into one of the NFL’s top offenses, which led to last year’s Super Bowl LII appearance.

"It worked out as well as I would have hoped," Taylor said.

In February, Taylor was hired by the Bengals to replace Marvin Lewis, who was fired after 16 seasons. The franchise went from a 60-year-old coach with a defensive background to a 36-year-old steeped in modern offensive philosophies.

This year, the Bengals will do what Taylor is most familiar with: meshing an up-tempo offense with formations that feature multiple tight ends and running backs.

"I know exactly how we’re trying to attack certain defenses, why he’s calling certain things," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. "I really enjoy everything that we’ve been running and what Zac’s implemented into this team."

Taylor has also instilled a more relaxed vibe around the team facility and emphasized rest and recovery, which have been appreciated by players such as running back Joe Mixon.

"At the end of the day, a player like me, I want to do nothing but take care of him," Mixon said. "And that’s the ultimate goal -- getting him wins. It makes me want to go harder for a guy that does the things he does for us."

Three years after he was with the Bearcats, Taylor and his family are back in the city Sarah loved the most of all their stops. And unlike in their first stint in Cincinnati, they now have roots in town.

The Taylor family, that includes four children between the ages of 1 to 8, lives in Mount Lookout again and remains friends with all their old neighbors. Zac and Sarah still frequent their favorite date spot, E&O Kitchen and Bar in Hyde Park.

Around 5 a.m. most days, Taylor will roll into the Starbucks on East Fourth Street, order a Venti black coffee and get ready for his first season as an NFL head coach.

Even though he got an NFL coaching job more quickly than he anticipated, he isn’t nervous about this stage of his career. Instead, he’s confident -- maybe, he said, to a fault -- in his staff and their plan to make the Bengals the best they can be.

"Yeah, there’s moments that as a first-year coach, you run into things that you just have to learn through experience," Taylor said. "But not for one second has our confidence wavered, that we’re not prepared for this. We fully expect to come in here and get the job done."