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SUPER CRYSTAL BALL: THE BIG GAME PRIMER AND A PREDICTION
Originally published February 12, 2022 at 9:56 p.m. ET
My friends, THE GURU and the family are ready for Super Bowl LVI. The menu is set, THE TRE MAN is resting comfortably at my right and THE FAIR CLAUDINE is counting the seconds until the scoreboard reads all zeros and another football season is in the books.
As I tend to my appetizers and get comfortable on the couch, let’s take a look at a few of the participants and storylines as the Bengals and Rams get closer to kickoff.
TWO YOUNG COACHES FACE OFF
Just a year after a Super Bowl pitting the oldest coaches to meet – 68-year-old Bruce Arians and 62-year-old Andy Reid – we’ve got the youngest duo to meet on football’s biggest stage. Indeed, these whippersnappers are a combined 74 years old with third-year Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor (38) pitted against the LA head man, Sean McVay (36).
Appropriately with two young coaches, we’re looking at a pair of franchises with just one Super Bowl victory between them as the Bengals and Rams enter Sunday with won-loss records of 0-2 and 1-3, respectively, on the sport’s biggest stage. The lone win occurred when the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, coached by Dick Vermeil, defeated the Tennessee Titans, 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV.
That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to label these two coaches as neophytes. They’re intelligent and passionate leaders that know how to get the most out of their players and staff. And they aren’t exactly strangers to one another either, of course.
THE TIES THAT BIND TAYLOR AND MCVAY
Indeed, Sunday’s matchup is yet another playoff tale of pupil (Taylor) vs former mentor (McVay) as the Cincinnati coach worked under McVay for two seasons, first as assistant wide receivers coach (2017) and then leading the quarterbacks (2018). McVay obviously thought enough of Taylor to promote him quickly and, after that short time in LA, Taylor made another big leap when he was tapped to lead the Bengals in 2019.
The men share similarities dating to their playing days as both coaches were quarterbacks in high school. Famously, McVay was good enough to beat out future Pro Football Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson for Georgia Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year in 2003, which is kind of like TOMMY BIRD beating me in a pie-eating contest. McVay then headed to storied Miami (Ohio) University where he played wide receiver for the Redhawks, catching 39 career passes.
Meanwhile, Taylor was a star QB in Norman, Okla., and eventually landed at the University of Nebraska, where he set bushels of records for the Cornhuskers – get it? – under head coach Bill Callahan, who once led the Raiders to a Super Bowl appearance. He then had a cup of coffee in the NFL and the Canadian Football League before moving into coaching.
Both men also have interesting familial connections to football.
McVay’s dad played college ball at Indiana University and his paternal grandfather is John McVay, the former NFL coach and executive. New Yorkers remember him as the Giants head coach when “The Fumble” aka “The Miracle at the Meadowlands” occurred but he is probably best known by pro football folks as Bill Walsh’s right hand man when the Niners laid the ground work for their great run of the 1980s and 1990s. He was even NFL Executive of the Year in 1989.
Football certainly runs through Taylor’s blood as well, like country gravy over a chicken fried steak.
His brother, Press, was named Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator this week, joining new Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, his boss from 2016-20 in Philadelphia. Press appears to be on the fast track to a head coaching role and it wouldn’t be the first time he followed in his brother’s footsteps. He was the quarterback at Butler Community College in 2007-08, winning two national championships, besting older brother Zac, who led the Grizzlies to second place in the 2004 National Junior College Athletic Association playoffs.
Their father, Sherwood, played safety for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma and was a captain of the third-ranked 1979 team that went 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl before he did some coaching himself, at OU and Kansas State. Interestingly, one of Sherwood’s teammates with the Sooners was running back Stanley Wilson, who landed with the Bengals and infamously went AWOL the night before Super Bowl XXIII.
Zac is also married to the sport, almost literally, as his father-in-law is Mike Sherman, former head coach of the Packers (2000-05) as well as an assistant with the Seahawks (1999), Texans (2006-07) and Dolphins (2012-13). Taylor met Sherman’s daughter, Sarah, when the QB was still at Nebraska, and she was working as a graduate student in the school’s sports information department. And where did Taylor ask Coach Sherman for his daughter’s hand? In the Texans cafeteria, of course.
Zac and Sarah were married in 2008, the same year Taylor started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M. The Aggies head coach? Yup, Mike Sherman, who kept Taylor on his staff throughout his four-year tenure (2008-11) in College Station. The duo joined the Miami Dolphins the next season and were instrumental in the team’s decision to draft their former A&M quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, in the first round in 2012.
Sherman was fired by the Fins after the 2013 season but Taylor stayed with the team through 2015, ascending to offensive coordinator under interim head coach Dan Campbell, now of Dee-troit. From there it was on to Cincinnati, as in the university, for a season (2016) before joining McVay and the Rams. Somewhere, Bill Belichick is smiling.
How important was Sherman to Taylor’s coaching career? Well, in a 2019 ESPN story, he named Sherman and his own father as his biggest influences.
Speaking of his time under Sherman, Taylor told ESPN he worked hard to avoid the nepotism tag.
"I think when you work for family, it can go both ways. People can look at it one way, but for me it was, I had to do a little extra because people could say, 'Oh, he got this job because his father-in-law hired him.' Well, I've got to work extra hard to make sure I can earn his trust, so I don't make him look bad. Consequently, I think he puts a little more faith in you because he wanted to help me, so I was exposed to a lot more at an earlier age than probably most [graduate assistants] get exposed to. It really helped escalate my growth as a coach."
Taylor met the challenge but that’s no surprise given his history. You see, he’d traveled quite a path as a young man, playing at two different schools (Wake Forest and Butler CC) before he landed at Nebraska. But he’d face an even bigger task in resurrecting the Bengals, who hadn’t won a playoff game since 1990 when Taylor showed up.
Fortunately, Taylor was equipped with a strong partner, director of player personnel Duke Tobin, who joined Cincinnati in 1999. Despite being part of the smallest scouting staff in the NFL, Tobin had played a lead role in building the Marvin Lewis teams that made seven playoff appearances between 2005-15 and he was in the process of rebuilding the Bengals roster again. I’d say he’s done a pretty good job, eh?
Interestingly, despite this year’s success, its personnel department still has just eight people. That includes Tobin and his 81-year-old father, Bill, the longtime NFL exec who drafted Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis and famously took draft analyst Mel Kiper to task. Hopefully, the staff gets separate hotel rooms on the road.
When it comes to personnel, McVay and the Rams aren’t that focused on using first-round draft picks to build a team. The team hasn’t had a first-round draft choice since 2016, a year prior to McVay’s arrival, and their next two first rounders are property of Dee-troit as part of the Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade. The team’s next first round selection is slated for 2024.
Draft philosophy aside, McVay joins a select group of coaches Sunday with his second Super Bowl appearance in his first five years as an NFL head coach. The list is short but distinguished, comprised of three Pro Football Hall of Famers – Tom Flores, Joe Gibbs, and Jimmy Johnson – and one active coach, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
McVay would be even happier to join another small fraternity: coaches who lost their first Super Bowl game but won in their second try. This group includes Hall of Famers Bill Cowher, Tom Landry, and Hank Stram, as well as 2022 HOF inductee Dick Vermeil and current Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
TWO YEARS WAS A LONG TIME AGO
McVay and Taylor met once before as head coaches, a 24-10 Rams win in London in 2019. The victory improved Los Angeles to 5-3 heading into its bye week but the squad stumbled down the stretch and finished 9-7, missing the playoffs for the only time in McVay’s tenure.
In that game, receiver Cooper Kupp recorded 220 receiving yards on seven catches, still the best one-game yardage total in his five-year career. Kupp, you likely heard, was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year this week.
The 2019 defeat to the Rams dropped the Bengals to 0-8 in Taylor’s first season and Cincinnati would lose three more games before beating the Jets for their first victory in front of a crowd of 39,804 at Paul Brown Stadium, nearly 40% shy of capacity. It was so quiet that you could hear SIR STRIPES in the upper deck, regaling nearby fans with his top-10 list of favorite Meg Ryan movies. Spoiler alert: he views “You’ve Got Mail” as a cinematic classic.
In that win over the Jets, Tyler Boyd caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to give the Bengals a first-quarter lead they would not relinquish and stud defensive end Carlos Dunlap recorded the second three-sack game of his career. Alas, the Bengals wouldn’t win again until the season finale against Miami, finishing at 2-14.
The Cincinnati defense that Kupp and QB Jared Goff torched in London bears little resemblance to the group that the Rams face Sunday. In fact, only two Bengals defenders that started that 2019 game will be in the starting lineup for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo in Super Bowl LVI, defensive end Sam Hubbard and safety Jessie Bates III.
Anarumo worked with Taylor in Miami and has done a terrific job in his three seasons running Cincinnati’s defense with the Bengals yielding 22.1 points per game this season vs. 28.4 ppg in 2018, the year prior to his arrival. And they’ve improved as the season has progressed, giving up just 17.8 ppg over the last eight games, including the second-half masterpiece against the Chiefs. Put that one in the Louvre.
Anarumo’s crew could be a linchpin Sunday and, just as importantly, the Staten Island native knows his pizza. If you like a good pie, it’s hard to beat a trip to SI. We traveled there during the pandemic and hit three different spots in one afternoon, downing slices like we were headed to the electric chair. Delish.
DON’T COMPARE CINCY’S O-LINE TO THE KC UNIT FROM SUPER BOWL LV
The big uglies have been a heavy topic of discussion across most media outlets but, as strange it sounds coming from a former offensive lineman, I think the battle of the Bengals o-line vs. the Rams defensive line is a bit overblown. Important, yes, but there’s a chance it won’t be as much of an indicator of this game’s result as one might think.
In looking at this year’s game, some pundits point to last year’s Super Bowl when Tampa Bay’s defensive line dominated the Kansas City o-line to the tune of 30 quarterback pressures in the Bucs’ convincing 31-9 victory. But I’d say we are talking apples and oranges here or, more appropriately for my audience, fried chicken, and burgers.
Here's why. The struggles of the Chiefs’ front in that game were due to a poor tactical decision by the Kansas City coaching staff, which elected to shuffle three offensive line positions before Super Bowl LV to account for left tackle Eric Fisher’s Achilles tendon injury, suffered in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship win over Buffalo.
I believe KC would’ve been better served to replace Fisher with a single lineman instead of juggling several spots to fill his void, especially since its line had been outstanding all season. Instead, the Chiefs’ moves created issues at three different positions, dooming their chances.
Such shuffling won’t occur with the Bengals, who have dealt with their issues – particularly at right guard – since Week One. And, somehow, Zac Taylor & Co. have figured out how to live with it, and even thrive. I’d say that Taylor and offensive line coach Frank Pollack have done a masterful job of keeping the o-line afloat.
In fact, Cincinnati is about to play its 21st game of the season on Sunday and they’re still not sure what – or who – the answer is at right guard, even as Aaron Donald, one of the most prolific defensive linemen in league history, prepares to line up against the Bengals front.
Cincinnati started the year with former Texans lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo manning the position, but after a Week Two loss at Chicago, he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury after playing just 124 snaps. He is currently on the practice squad.
In Week Three, rookie Jackson Carman stepped in and held the spot for three games but, in Week Six, he didn’t come off the Covid-19 list until two days before playing Dee-troit so another rookie, Trey Hill, started instead. As luck would have it, Hill struggled early and was replaced by Carman but Carman only lasted 23 plays before falling ill. Hill then re-entered the lineup before he was replaced by a third player, Fred Johnson, for the final 13 snaps.
Carman’s departure from the game occurred after he vomited on the Ford Field turf, reminding me of a summer practice at Morton High after a pre-workout snack at Shakey’s Pizza Buffet in East Peoria, Ill. The sad truth: like the casino in Vegas, the buffet always wins, folks.
Thankfully, Carman was healthy the next week and started the next two contests before the Bengals made a surprise switch, replacing the rookie with second-year pro Hakeem Adeniji, who hadn’t played in 2021 or seen action at right guard in 233 career snaps. Remember what we’ve written in the past about the seismic difference between playing right guard and another position on the o-line?
To put it plainly, it’s been a rough road for the former Kansas Jayhawk, who has started every game at right guard since entering the lineup in Week Nine. In that time, he has surrendered 32 quarterback pressures and is graded as the 133rd-best offensive lineman in the NFL of the 136 that have played at least 50% of their team’s snaps. Given how tough it is to play offensive line, especially for a young player at a new position, which shouldn’t come at a shock.
With struggles magnified in the playoffs, Adeniji split time with Carman in the AFC title game last week with the latter coming off the bench in the second quarter and the pair alternating for much of the game. It remains to be seen who will start on Sunday.
But, no matter who gets the nod, it’s tough to bet against the Bengals offense, which does an excellent job of keeping defenses off balance under offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, son of Bill, who was Taylor’s coach at Nebraska.
Occasionally, Cincinnati will roll Joe Burrow out of the pocket. Or maybe they’ll leave a running back in to block. They also like to run screen passes, one of which resulted in a 41-yard second-quarter TD for running back Samaje Perine in the AFC Championship game, following a nice seal block by #79 Carman. And the Bengals could’ve had another big play on a screen in the second half, but it appears Perine ran to the wrong side.
Callahan also isn’t afraid to leave the backfield empty and put five receivers into the pass pattern, throwing quick timing routes. Check out how they undressed the Ravens in Week Seven as Burrow threw for 416 yards on the way to a 41-17 victory.
WILL ODELL BECKHAM, JR., BE A FACTOR?
While Kupp was lighting up the Bengals on October 27, 2019, Beckham’s Browns were losing to New England, 27-13, in Tom Brady’s last season in Foxboro. OBJ caught five balls for 52 yards in the loss, beginning a streak of 33 games in which the former Giants star registered fewer than 100 yards receiving in a game. The long string ended, oddly enough, when the Rams beat San Francisco for the NFC Championship two weeks ago.
Over his last four outings against the Bengals, encompassing the 2019-20 seasons, Beckham has nine catches on 18 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns. But that was with when he was with Cleveland, and it was also against a different Cincinnati defense.
In his time with the Rams, Beckham is starting to show signs of his old self, particularly during this three-game playoff stretch where he’s caught 23 passes for 264 yards and a TD. I’m not saying he’s a #1 receiver again just yet but he’s certainly benefitting from working with Messrs. McVay and Stafford.
With Kupp drawing lots of attention, don’t be surprised if Beckham continues his strong playoff run on Sunday night. And with 34 targets in three playoff games, it’s safe to say Stafford will be looking for him.
HOW ABOUT TURNOVERS?
That’s what FATBACK HOBBS says every morning when he wakes up and his thoughts turn to breakfast.
Possession is said to be nine-tenths of the law but, in the NFL, it is everything. The Bengals have lived by that maxim in the postseason with a +5 turnover margin, forcing seven miscues while only giving it away twice. Meanwhile, the Rams have a flat margin, even surviving four turnovers in the win over Tampa Bay.
Super Bowl LVI features two quarterbacks that have turned the ball over frequently this season.
Stafford led the league in interceptions during the regular season (18) and added two lost fumbles. Further, he posted five games with at least two picks and threw eight INTs in the final four games. Fortunately, he’s rebounded in the playoffs by completing 72% of his passes – five percentage points better than in the regular season – and turned the ball over just once while throwing for six TDs.
Burrow wasn’t far behind Stafford, tying for fourth with 16 interceptions while also losing two fumbles. In the postseason, he’s turned it over just twice, but his numbers are down in some key categories including passing yards per game (280 vs. 307) and yards per pass attempt (7.72 vs 8.87). Both declines are to be expected as tackling is usually better in the playoffs, limiting those all-important yards after the catch.
Two more notes on turnovers:
1. I prefer either apple or cherry, preferable with some frosting on top, in lattice fashion. I’ll bang those back like popcorn.
2. LA running back Cam Akers fumbled twice against Tampa in the playoffs so it’s safe to say that Cincinnati’s defense will make every effort to dislodge the ball from the second-year pro from Florida State.
ODDS & ENDS
There is an understandable focus on the quarterbacks, receivers, and LA superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald this week but there are plenty of other interesting tidbits around this game as well. To wit:
· Rams left tackle and newly-crowned NFL Man of the Year Andrew Whitworth, in his 16th NFL season, faces his former employer for the second time and he’s playing great ball, ranked the league’s best pass blocker – at any position – by Pro Football Focus.
Whitworth’s first meeting against his previous employer was the 2019 London game where Kupp went nuts. On that day, Whitworth didn’t allow any quarterback pressures and I’m guessing he’ll be even more locked in vs. his previous team this weekend.
· Each squad brings a little Patriot League flavor to Sunday’s table. Rams senior coaching assistant John Bonamego, a longtime special teams guru, was on Lehigh’s staff in 1992 and Cincinnati’s Mark Duffner, a senior defensive assistant, was the head coach at Holy Cross from 1985-90, posting a 60-5-1 record. His .917 winning percentage remains tops in PL history.
· The Rams coaching staff is loaded with familiar names:
o Raheem Morris, the former Bucs head coach, is defensive coordinator;
· There are well-known football faces on Cincinnati’s staff as well:
o James Casey, the ex-NFL tight end with Houston (2009-12), Philadelphia (2013-14) and Denver (2015), coaches the same position;
o Al Golden, the former Temple (2011-15) and University of Miami, Fla. (2016-19) head coach, is in charge of linebackers;
o Steve Jackson, the former Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans defensive back (1991-99), coaches the secondary with a focus on corners.
So, there you have it, about 3,600 words to get you ready for the big game and I haven’t even made a prediction yet. Just thank your lucky stars you won’t be sitting next to me as I rewind play after play, sending my son into hysterics.
The Championship Weekend record was 1-1, moving the playoff mark to 8-4 (.667) and the season tally to 151-112 (.574). On to the prediction…
SUNDAY, 6:30 PM, NBC
Cincinnati (13-7) vs Los Angeles Rams (15-5)
The Rams are the clear favorite but I’ve been thinking about how the Bengals can win the title so Burrow can go to Disney and get one of those giant pretzels shaped like Mickey’s head. With a little yellow mustard, they’re not bad.
You’ve heard it all week from different corners. Cincinnati needs to force the Rams to commit turnovers, slow down the LA defensive line by running the ball well, get the ball out of Burrow’s right hand quickly, make a big play or two on special teams, etc.
But the more I think about the game, I keep coming back to one number: 1,016.
That figure may not jump off the page, but it is significant: when things kick off at SoFi Stadium on Sunday night, it will have been 1,016 days since the roughest experience of Sean McVay’s professional life. The date was February 3, 2019, and that’s when the New England Patriots beat McVay’s Rams, 13-3, in Super Bowl LIII.
After the game and many times since, the LA coach has said he was outdone that evening by Bill Belichick.
“There’s no other way to say it but I got out-coached tonight,” he said in the postgame press conference, adding “I know there are a handful of decisions that I’m going to want back.”
The way I see it, the detail-oriented McVay has spent the past three years doing all he can to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. He is determined that he will call a better game, that he will put his players and staff in a better position to succeed, and that he will walk off the Rams home field tomorrow night as a Super Bowl champion.
All that work is about to pay off. RAMS 26-20