CINCINNATI -- For a moment, it looked like Zac Taylor's trademark optimism might have disappeared.
One couldn't fault the Cincinnati Bengals coach for finally slipping in a bit of cynicism after a fifth straight loss, this one a 30-7 rout by the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 13. Instead, Taylor faintly laughed during his postgame news conference, shook his head and assured his virtual audience that yes, the optimism still existed.
Taylor's cheery disposition has been unshakable despite a 4-24-1 coaching record in two seasons. It's a hallmark of not only his coaching style but his overall demeanor.
That optimism is being tested by reality. Starting with their clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Bengals will need one upset in their final three games to avoid another two-win season. A losing finish will raise the big question surrounding Taylor: Does he deserve a third season in Cincinnati?
But winning might be easier than shaking Taylor, 37, from his conviction and belief in what the team is doing.
"That may be hard for people to believe given our track record of wins and losses, but there will be unbelievable days ahead and I'll remember these days," Taylor said the day after the Cowboys loss. "I think a lot of people will forget them when we're playing for championships and playing for division titles and you're seeing great things on the field from our guys."
In Cincinnati, that idea might be as far-fetched as replacing the Brent Spence Bridge or the Bengals building an indoor practice facility. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since January 1991 or reached the postseason since 2015.
The Bengals hired Taylor, whose top previous NFL experience was as an interim offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins for five games in 2015, with the vision the then-35-year-old could change all of that.
Taylor's penchant for finding the silver lining in anything is a default setting, even during a 2-10-1 campaign and a season-ending knee injury to rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. It's a trait the former Nebraska quarterback picked up from his parents, but especially his mom, Julie.
"She always told me I was going to win the Heisman Trophy and be the first pick in the draft," said Taylor, who went undrafted and never played in a pro game. "She was lying to me, but I think she really believed it."
That optimism was evident in his first season at the helm of Cincinnati's rebuilding project. When Taylor, who is also the offensive playcaller, talked about plays that didn't work in 2019, he didn't often look at why they failed. Instead, he saw the design for what it could be -- a block here, some execution there and suddenly a 2-yard loss becomes a big play or touchdown.
Even on a day when nothing went right against Dallas in Week 15, that didn't change. With less than nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati had a rushing touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. The score could have cut the Bengals' deficit to six. Instead, the drive stalled after a failed fourth-down attempt.
Taylor brought up the missed opportunity to the team to show how close it came. It was another example of the young coach looking for what went right in yet another defeat.
Bengals defensive tackle Christian Covington, who was acquired in a trade right before the start of the season, said Taylor's outlook can be "soothing" and "uplifting" during a year no one thought was going to be this bad.
"No matter what the outcomes of our games have been, he's always been there to be that support, to be that optimistic voice that we need during times of uncertainty and during times of defeat we've had to go through," Covington said.
Bengals safety Jessie Bates, a 2018 second-round selection who could be the first Bengals draft pick to make the Pro Bowl since Tyler Eifert (2013), said Taylor's message in recent weeks has stressed the importance of high-character guys in the locker room. That was a major point of emphasis in Taylor's first full offseason in Cincinnati.
"Unfortunately, that hasn't equaled into wins because we have good guys in the locker room," Bates said. "But I think that is a key component about building the right environment around here is having good guys. He just continues to preach how close we really are."
But there comes a point when it's impossible to overlook reality. As Bates pointed out, good teams are able to overcome struggles and win games.
And right now, things look pretty bleak for the Bengals.
Taylor has the worst winning percentage of any coach in Bengals history. Cincinnati has played in 15 games decided by eight points or fewer. The Bengals have lost 13 of them -- by far the most in the NFL during that span, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Last offseason, the Bengals' front office shelled out the most money ever in free agency to improve the roster. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader ($53 million) and cornerback Trae Waynes ($42 million) are among several key players who have spent most of the season on injured reserve. Since Burrow was injured in Week 11, the Bengals haven't scored more than one offensive touchdown in a game and rank last in points per game (10.3) and yards per game (220).
There has been no indication from the front office regarding Taylor's status. But it's key that he has an important ally in Burrow, who showed promise before his injury.
"I think we have a really good thing going," Burrow said on Oct. 28 of the relationship with Taylor and the offensive coaches. "We're going to continue to build on it and start winning some games but Zac's an awesome coach. I'm excited to be with him."
If Taylor does make it to 2021, he will have to find a way to square his optimism with the undeniable results. It's a process of self-evaluation that requires brutal honesty.
"You have to be critical of yourself," Taylor said. "You have to be critical of some things you really believe in strongly."
But for Taylor, that doesn't include a bleak outlook. Despite all the defeats and the dread that has surrounded the Bengals for decades, Taylor remains upbeat about the future.
Even three more losses to close this season might not be enough to change that.
"This isn't a character," Taylor said. "This is me."