Zac Taylor’s inexperience crippled Bengals in Super Bowl LVI loss

Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

All things considered, Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor may have out-play-called former mentor Sean McVay in the Super Bowl, but he made irrevocable game-deciding mistakes.

In Taylor’s defense, it wasn’t the worst game he called this year. Taylor has been known for being too conservative, such as in the Bengals’ regular-season game against the 49ers that went to overtime or the AFC title game against the Chiefs.

In Super Bowl LVI, Taylor found surprising success with long-ball shots against Rams corner Jalen Ramsey and even dug deep in the playbook for Joe Mixon’s crazy touchdown pass to Tee Higgins. Taylor’s play-calling was by no means the biggest factor in Cincinnati’s defeat, but…well, let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s talk about that Samaje Perine call.

Whereas the Rams never got their running game going, the Bengals fielded a strong rushing attack through Joe Mixon. The keyword there is: Joe Mixon.

Aside from his impressive TD throw, Mixon had 15 carries for 72 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per run.

Yet in at least two crucial situations in the game, Taylor opted to put the ball in Perine’s hands instead. One of them was a 3rd-and-1 on the 50-yard line with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, and Perine, a slower, less explosive back than Mixon, failed to get the first down.

What was Bengals HC Zac Taylor thinking on that Samaje Perine play call in Super Bowl LVI?

The worst part of that pivotal play call is that Taylor made the exact same decision earlier in the game on Cincinnati’s first drive. The Bengals were also at the 50-yard line and faced a 3rd-and-1, and they ran the ball with Perine who was stopped short.

It didn’t work the first time, so why would Taylor try it again in the highest-stakes moment of the game?

It would be one thing if your lead running back isn’t performing, but Mixon, a 2021 Pro Bowler, was averaging 4.8 yards per carry against the Rams.

Perine did have his moments in the AFC Championship when he went on a wild 41-yard touchdown run and ignited a second-half Bengals’ comeback.

This time, though, the circumstances were different. The Super Bowl hung precariously in the balance, and Cincinnati had just two downs left to try to tie or win the game. With everything to lose, Taylor made his most egregious mistake of the night and ran the ball with Perine.

When Los Angeles was in a similar do-or-die scenario in the fourth quarter, Sean McVay put the ball in the hands of his best player, Cooper Kupp. Not Cam Akers, Sony Michel, or Darrell Henderson. Kupp ended up rewarding McVay for his trust and sustained the Rams’ game-winning drive.

It’s the same, simple reasoning as to how one might choose who to start in fantasy football playoffs: Go with your big guns. Tinkering is criminal.

Had Taylor fed the ball to any star player — Burrow, Chase, or Mixon — and still failed to get a first down, he could at least justify his decision. “We tried our best.” And they truly did.

But Taylor went with a rotational backup, and that statement no longer applies. By all accounts, the Bengals only tried their “second-best.”

dark. Next. Winners and losers from Bengals’ crushing Super Bowl LVI loss to Rams

This offseason, Taylor will likely earn a sizable raise and new contract, but money alone can’t buy a ring. As the Bengals prepare for another Super Bowl run in 2022, Taylor better have learned from his costly mistakes.