Life must be moving pretty fast for Zac Taylor these days, not that he’s any stranger to the whirlwind.
The former Nebraska quarterback and current Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach assuredly hopes his team plays through Feb. 3, Super Bowl Sunday.
Even if Los Angeles, where Taylor has spent the past two seasons, falls short of winning it all, though, the 35-year-old’s career is on track to continue careening upward in 2019.
That’s because Taylor, the 2006 Big 12 offensive player of the year as a senior for the Huskers, is the reported choice for the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coaching job.
Taylor’s familiar with the city. He spent the 2016 season as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Cincinnati. That came after finishing 2015 with the same title for the Miami Dolphins and one year before joining the Rams as Sean McVay’s wide receivers coach.
That’s a good microcosm of how Taylor’s career has gone. He spent one year as a player in the Canadian Football League in 2007, then to Texas A&M as a graduate assistant until 2011 before leaving for the Dolphins. He left Miami in 2016, and it’s been a rocket ship ride since.
Really, the only way to temporarily slow the ride is to keep winning this month.
If Taylor does indeed end up wearing the orange and black in Cincinnati, though, he will become the first former Husker hired as an NFL head coach in the Super Bowl era, and he will have done it just a shade more than a decade since starting his first gig as a GA in College Station in 2008.
As much as the recent spree of hiring young, offensive-minded coaches in the NFL has benefited Taylor and others, former teammates of his insist he’s no coattail rider. NFL owners and general managers can lack creativity, but there are only so many openings and there are so many candidates.
So why Taylor and why now?
‘I despised him’
Taylor, a Norman, Oklahoma, native, spent only two years in Lincoln but still worked his way into the pantheon of the universally respected.
Ask around, and you’ll find nothing but lavish praise for everything from his play to his dealings with teammates and reporters. One athletic department official put it simply enough this week: “One of the best people I know.”
Joe Ganz feels that way about Taylor, too. The 33-year-old Youngstown State quarterbacks coach, however, didn’t have such high regard for Taylor in the spring of 2005.
“Well, when he first got there, I despised him. I hated him,” Ganz, a redshirt freshman quarterback at NU when Taylor arrived following stints at Georgia Tech and Butler (Kan.) Community College, recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t know much about him and I’m the type of guy, I don’t really care, I’ll compete against anybody. So when they brought him in I was like, ‘Whatever, he’s just another guy I’m going to have to hate and compete against.”
Instead, Taylor quickly established himself as the best of the bunch — Ganz readily admits now that he wasn’t ready physically or mentally — and the two built a friendship despite the shaky beginning.
“I learned a lot from him from just building that relationship with him,” Ganz said. “He lived right next door to me, so we were pretty close for those two years where he was the starter and I was his backup.”
This is a common theme. No matter your first impression, Taylor’s one of those guys that people just naturally end up following.
“People kind of gravitate toward him; he didn’t have to be vocal,” said Todd Peterson, a Husker wide receiver then and a chiropractor in Chicago now. “You just knew the guy was a hard worker and was a competitor and wanted to be successful.”
West Coast (offense) roots
Just being well-respected doesn’t land you an NFL head coaching gig.
Taylor has trained and learned the past two years under Rams head coach Sean McVay, considered by most to be at the forefront of offensive creativity at the professional level. This year, Taylor has helped quarterback Jared Goff continue his transformation from struggling rookie in 2016 to blossoming into one of the league’s best in his third year.
Before Taylor’s star rose on the West Coast, though, he learned the West Coast offense from Bill Callahan in the heartland.
“Bill Callahan obviously had his issues at Nebraska, didn’t win enough, but I’d still say he’s one of the smartest X's and O's coaches that I’ve ever been around,” said Zach Potter, a former teammate of Taylor’s at NU who spent time with the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans between 2009-14.
But with the system comes piles and piles of verbiage.
“It was like learning three different languages at the same time,” joked Peterson.
McVay and the Rams — and teams all over the country — dream up ways to simplify things. The young head coach operated in 2018 almost exclusively out of the same personnel grouping. Goff took social media by storm when he used, “Halle Berry,” as a check at the line of scrimmage this fall.
“Learning that West Coast, it makes you a better teacher or coach because you’re always looking for ways to streamline things,” Ganz said. “Because when plays start to get long and wordy, it brings you back to the nightmares you had of studying as a player and you’re like, ‘God, I don’t want these guys to have to go through that.’”
‘Holy (expletive), dude’
Ganz, a Chicago native, has always been a diehard Bears fan. He spent the week leading up to a Sunday night showdown between his friend and his childhood team sending Taylor clips of Khalil Mack highlights.
Peterson doesn’t have such regular contact with Taylor, but he was in the crowd that night to see Mack and the Bears befuddle LA’s high-flying offense.
Naturally, that night didn’t change the opinion of either that Taylor has every chance to succeed as a head coach at the highest level.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time in NFL locker rooms, but the thing that was incredibly noticeable in my time there is that it’s a different environment than a college locker room,” Peterson said. “To be a head coach, you have to be able to be able to, not necessarily command respect, but you need to be a guy that grown men who are professionals and are earning a lot of money will naturally respect and want to follow. …
“Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed in that league. I just think he’ll be able to relate to guys. I think that’s the biggest thing is being around different guys and different coaches, I’ve always respected the ones — and I think this is one of the great things with what’s going on at Nebraska now — who will just be real with you and let you know what’s going on, and I think that’s even more important when guys are getting paid for it.”
Only weeks after that Bears game, Taylor’s name started popping up in the head coaching conversation. He ended up being asked to interview with three of the eight teams hiring coaches this offseason: Denver, Arizona and Cincinnati.
That spawned another text from Ganz. Once a hater, then neighbors, now a longtime friend, Ganz, like many others, can only marvel.
The exact message? “I said, ‘Holy (expletive), dude. You could be an NFL head coach.’”
Sooner rather than later, it seems. That’s how things tend to happen for Zac Taylor.