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Paths of Bengals' Zac Taylor, Titans' Ryan Tannehill cross again on Sunday

CINCINNATI -- There was a time when Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor and Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill were ordinary cogs on a college team.

Back in 2008, Taylor was a graduate assistant for his father-in-law at Texas A&M, while Tannehill was a backup quarterback masquerading as a wide receiver. Four years later, both arrived in Miami with hopes of establishing long-term NFL careers.

In some ways, Sunday's game (1 p.m. ET, CBS) between the Titans (5-1) and Bengals (1-5-1) is a culmination of those aspirations. Taylor is in the middle of his second year as Cincinnati's head coach, while Tannehill has reestablished his place as an NFL starting quarterback.

In the buildup to the first meeting between Taylor and Tannehill since their days with the Dolphins, both have spoken highly of the other and the roles each played in helping the other's career.

"I have so much respect for him and how he coaches the game, his work ethic," Tannehill said of Taylor this week. "He put so much time and effort into preparing me each week. I learned a lot of football from Zac and I'm appreciative of all that he did for me."

Taylor was Tannehill's assistant quarterbacks coach in 2012 when they entered the NFL. The Dolphins drafted Tannehill with the eighth overall pick that year.

At A&M, Taylor started out as a graduate assistant before he became a tight ends coach on Mike Sherman's coaching staff. Tannehill was mostly a receiver for the first two years at A&M before he became the Aggies' starting quarterback in 2010 and 2011.

Taylor noted that the notion Tannehill was a receiver-turned-quarterback has always been a misconception. At A&M, Taylor said Tannehill was not involved in the wide receivers' position meetings and rarely took practice reps at that position. If anything, the fact that he was able to play both positions at a Power Five school was a testament to his athleticism and acumen.

The Dolphins' scheme allowed for Tannehill's transition to be as seamless as possible, which gave him and Taylor an added level of familiarity as they made the jump to the NFL.

"His familiarity with the offense allowed him to come in on Day 1 and instruct some of the veteran players on some of the nuances of the offense, which right out the gate gives them confidence in the guy," Taylor said of Tannehill.

In 2012, Tannehill ranked fourth in total QBR among rookies. The next year, Taylor was promoted to be the primary quarterbacks coach, a position he held for the next three seasons. In their time together, Tannehill threw for 15,460 yards, third highest in NFL history by a quarterback in his first four seasons.

By the end of 2015, Taylor was the interim offensive coordinator on a lame duck staff that was fired at the end of the year. The Dolphins eventually decided they had seen enough of Tannehill as well.

Miami traded Tannehill to the Titans for draft picks in 2019. At the time, Tennessee was still leaning on Marcus Mariota as the starter. But after Mariota was benched during a Week 6 loss, Tannehill took over and helped the Titans reach the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. He was named to his first Pro Bowl and arguably had his best season since he threw for a career-high 4,208 yards in 2015, his final year with Taylor.

That success has carried over into 2020. Through Week 7, Tannehill ranked third in total expected points added among quarterbacks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, trailing only Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. In a call with Tennessee media, Taylor said Tannehill's confidence is apparent and he'll be a challenge for a Bengals team looking to avoid its fourth straight loss.

And in some ways, there are parallels between Tannehill and Taylor's current quarterback, Bengals rookie Joe Burrow.

"They both have very similar mental makeup in that they push themselves," Taylor said. "They're two of the smarter players I've ever coached. They're going to do whatever they can to prepare themselves to be ready to play."

When Miami drafted Tannehill, he was aided by the familiarity with the offense. In Cincinnati, Taylor has helped create that for Burrow by incorporating some of the concepts that helped him thrive at LSU and become the top overall draft pick.

Burrow is on pace to break Andrew Luck's record for most passing yards by a rookie and has raved about Taylor's role in his development this season.

"He's just great at communicating what he expects," Burrow said. "It's also a dialogue that I'm comfortable enough with him to share what I expect from myself as well and from other players on the team on the offense."

On Sunday, Burrow will get a chance to measure himself against Tannehill.

"The team really believes in him," Taylor said of Tannehill. "He's really the perfect quarterback for the Tennessee Titans and he's done a tremendous job. He's playing at a really, really high level right now."