Brussels sprouts, bad starts and lessons learned: Bengals' journey to AFC title game one to savor

CINCINNATI -- In the private room of a restaurant in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Hyde Park, Bengals coach Zac Taylor went with his gut.

And that meant trusting the gut of the chef at E+O Kitchen. It was a fall night in 2021, and as Taylor's party settled in, he knew one of the items to expect as part of the chef's choice.

It was a salad featuring Brussels sprouts and kale, and it's been a staple for Taylor in the city ever since he arrived as Tommy Tuberville's offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati in 2016.

It's a salad that offered Taylor something to look forward to during the down times, including the Bengals' franchise-worst 2-14 2019 season, which was Taylor's first as an NFL head coach. It's been something for Taylor to savor along with the team's improvement. And if Cincinnati can beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday's AFC Championship Game (3 p.m. ET, CBS) and make its first Super Bowl in three decades, it's a dish that likely will be part of the celebration.

A victory salad might not compare to the cigars Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has become known to celebrate with, but if there's a metaphor for how the Bengals have transformed from a bottom dweller to a Super Bowl contender in three seasons, it might have something to do with how they learned to eat their vegetables and do the things necessary to build a winner.

It's called the E+O Famous Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Kale Salad. Chef Rodelio Aglibot first created the dish at the original E+O -- which stands for "Earth and Ocean" -- location in Chicago that was bought and re-created in Cincinnati in 2015.

It's the culmination of frying kale and Brussels sprouts for 30 and 45 seconds, respectively, and combining them with purple cabbage, red onion, pickled Fresno chilies and jalapenos, shrimp poached with white wine and a chili-lime vinaigrette. Aglibot, who died of a heart attack in 2020, refused to make substitutions. Now, for an upcharge to the $18 dish, people can swap out the shrimp with salmon, steak or chicken.

"From Chef Rod up in the heavens, he'll probably gonna strike me down because I just told you that," said Tim Weiss, E+O's director of operations.

Taylor loved the original version of the salad when he first arrived in the city, and when the Bengals hired him, after three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams as assistant wide receivers coach and then quarterbacks coach, it didn't take Taylor long to find his way back to E+O.

"It is the first meal I had when I took this job when I came back to Cincinnati," Taylor said. "It is the first place I went and the first food item I tried to get."

One evening during his first offseason, Taylor and Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan went there for an early dinner. Taylor immediately recommended the Brussels sprouts salad. The third-year coach said everyone he'd introduced it to had fallen in love with it. Typically, Callahan ate the vegetable at places "where they basically just fry the s--- out of them." But Taylor insisted that the salad at E+O was the best.

"He ordered it and I tried it," Callahan told ESPN. "He was right. It was fantastic."

E+O became a go-to option for lunch delivery among the Bengals coaches, joining the Chipotle across the Ohio River from Paul Brown Stadium. At least once during the 2019 season, Taylor ordered the Brussels sprouts salad for the entire staff on a Thursday evening.

For Taylor, the meals provided brief happiness in an otherwise miserable year. The Bengals lost the first 11 games that season, the longest losing streak to start a season in franchise history. By the end of the year, it was clear Cincinnati was a bad team, nowhere near a playoff contender. And it had a coaching staff that had a lot to learn.

When the Bengals hired Taylor, he was fresh off helping the Rams to a berth in Super Bowl LIII. Taylor had never been a full-time coordinator in the NFL. Neither had Callahan nor Lou Anarumo, who were hired to lead the Bengals' offense and defense, respectively.

"You don't really know what you're made of and really understand how to work through the conflicts of the job until you start, and the pressure is really on you to perform and win every week," Callahan said.

Soon, it became clear the Bengals needed a complete overhaul in order to be a competitive team again. After an 0-8 start in 2019, Taylor benched longtime starting quarterback Andy Dalton in favor of rookie fourth-round pick Ryan Finley.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Dalton spoke to reporters in the locker room and was frustrated with how close the decision came to the trade deadline, citing the lack of hours for his agent to potentially find him another team. After Finley struggled, Dalton was renamed the starter three games later. The Bengals finished with the league's worst record and Dalton was eventually released after Cincinnati drafted Burrow out of LSU with the first overall pick.

Ahead of Sunday's game against Kansas City, Taylor said the biggest lesson he learned during that 2019 season was the importance of building quality relationships.

"If there is no communication, if there is no relationship amongst the coaches to coaches, players to coaches [and] there's no real trust there, it becomes much more difficult to get on the same page and overcome that adversity," Taylor said.

The next season provided more tough moments. A rift between defensive end Carlos Dunlap, one of the best edge rushers in franchise history, and the coaching staff became so deep Dunlap forced the Bengals into an uncharacteristic midseason trade. Then Burrow, the starting quarterback as a rookie, and defensive tackle D.J. Reader, the most expensive free-agent signing in team history at the time, both suffered season-ending injuries.

"The accumulation of those two years of hardship has galvanized our team, has really strengthened our team and put them in a spot where they said, 'You know what? We're capable of more,'" said Callahan.

"'We can be better.'"

There were two times when Cincinnati could have buckled during the 2021 season. After winning five of their first seven games, the Bengals lost twice before their Week 10 bye, including a defeat at the New York Jets that was one of the worst upsets in franchise history. Cincinnati also had a two-game skid in November -- losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers -- that dropped the Bengals to 7-6 and threatened their playoff chances.

But the patience the Bengals' front office showed in Taylor and the core parts of his coaching staff paid off when Cincinnati clinched the AFC North and its first playoff berth since 2015. The Bengals rallied to win three of their final four games, including a thrilling 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that allowed Cincinnati to rest its starters while losing to the Cleveland Browns in the Week 18 finale.

Speaking after the win over Kansas City, Burrow said Taylor won him over when the two first met at the 2020 scouting combine, their only in-person interaction before the draft.

"I knew exactly where I wanted to be," Burrow said. "He's a great offensive mind and a great leader of men. He does a great job, and I couldn't have asked for a better situation."

Bengals special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, a holdover from the previous coaching staff who has been with Cincinnati since 2003, said it's been a "trial by fire" for many on the staff who were adapting to new roles. But Simmons praised Taylor's ability to gain full command of the locker room after being an offensive position coach for most of his time in the NFL.

"He's taken a huge step this year about really learning how to control the whole team," Simmons said. "I think that's fantastic. I think that was different early on in his time here because he had never really had to deal with that."

Callahan said when the staff arrived in 2019, they knew failure was going to be part of their growth. But without it, Cincinnati might not be a game away from a Super Bowl.

"It's a sustainable way to build something, when you really start from scratch and you dive into the whole thing with everything you've got," Callahan said. "And you fail miserably -- which we did, particularly that first year.

"It wasn't all what we hoped and thought it could be for a million reasons. But we ended up where we ended up."

As the Bengals have marched toward their first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1989, the Brussels sprouts salad from E+O has remained a steady part of Taylor's diet.

Taylor and his wife, Sarah, remain frequent E+O customers. Callahan and his wife, Allyson, visit the restaurant in Hyde Park roughly once a month and will place to-go orders around once a week.

"Door Dash has a lot of my money," Callahan said.

Ben Toney, the restaurant's 39-year-old corporate chef, is a Cincinnati native who agreed that it's very unique E+O's signature salad is a big hit in a city where the most famous meal is Cincinnati-style chili.

"That is the reason this restaurant is as successful as it is today," Toney said.

It's the meal that has sustained Taylor from the lowest points in franchise history to the cusp of greatness. And he won't be shy about pushing it on others, either.

"You just gotta try it for yourself," Taylor said. "It's pretty dang good."