Not Seeing is a Flower
Zac Taylor is not necessarily a household name, but, if you coach a team in the National Football League to a 6-25-1 record through two seasons, you wouldn’t be one either.
Still, a funny thing happens on the way to the Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Taylor somewhat surprisingly secures a contract extension from the Bengals’ management, based to a degree on a promise to play bold, adventurous, fan friendly football. He goes all in on a flashy, young sophomore signal caller named Joe Burrow, he of the gunslinger mentality and freshly repaired knee.
Amazingly, in the 2021-22 regular season, the result is a 10-7 record, an AFC North division title, not to mention the love and admiration of a success starved franchise and city.
Taylor gains a deserved reputation as a risk taker. In a professional sport long known for its ultra-conservatism, he eschews punts and field goals in exchange for extending drives via fourth down gambles.
The policy starts in an opening day win over Minnesota, and continues throughout the campaign. Then, in a signature week 16 victory vs Kansas City, tied 31-31 in the late going the coach takes a chance not once, but twice, to score a clinching touchdown. In so doing, he bleeds the clock down to just seconds, leaving no opportunity for the star-studded opposing offence to take the field for one final sortie. The home supporters are in rapture, shrieking and screaming, willing their heroes home.
Taylor’s aggressive approach, his willingness to make tough and potentially controversial decisions with the game on the line, is obvious in his post-game comments. “The things worth having, you’ve got to go get them” he instructs the assembled media.
Two weeks later, Cincinnati hosts Las Vegas in a conference wild card game. 31 years since their last playoff victory, the Bengals look to exorcise their playoff demons, in this case a downright embarrassing eight consecutive post season defeats.
Backed by a record crowd of 66,277, they take a 23-13 lead into the final quarter.
The visiting Raiders manage a field goal, cutting the lead to just seven points. Still, the Bengals respond in impressive fashion, moving smartly down field themselves. In the shadow of the goalposts, with the clock showing less than seven minutes remaining, they face fourth and one on the Las Vegas ten-yard line. Less than a yard needed to claim a new set of downs, further chew up precious minutes on the clock, go ahead by 14 with a touchdown.
Decision time. Two choices. Go for it, or kick a chip shot field goal.
Taylor prevaricates. Tentacles of uncertainty and doubt grip the decision making process. A turnover on downs could be costly. Clearly, in the eyes of many, the prudent, sensible choice will be to take the kick, move ten points and two scores in front.
Risk averse wins out. Taylor sends rookie place kicker Evan McPherson on to the field. He connects easily from close range as Cincinnati moves out to 26-16.
The Las Vegas response is absolutely predictable. Working against a now careful and conservative Bengals’ “prevent” defence, the Raiders quickly pick up big chunks of yardage. Stalling, but close enough to kick their own three pointer, they secure the first of the two scores required, drawing back to within seven at 26-19.
Back in possession of the ball, Cincinnati continues with its new persona. Now a team playing not to lose, rather than a team trying to win. Three hesitant, cautious, unsuccessful plays later, the Bengals are forced to punt.
A converted touchdown by the Raiders will tie the game.
Once again, effortlessly, inexorably, Las Vegas moves towards the Cincinnati end zone. Out of timeouts, but making big play after big play. The home fans suffer in absolute agony, three decades of seeing games grab them instead of the other way around.
In the end, disaster is averted. Just barely. Facing a last chance from the Bengals' nine-yard line, the Raiders' quarterback throws an interception. Throughout the stadium, a massive sigh of relief gives way to unbridled joy.
Still, there are crucial lessons to be learned, as Taylor and Cincinnati this weekend face a conference semifinal at powerful Tennessee. The Titans welcome back from injury the league’s best running back and feature a superb defence. For the road team, the margins between success and failure will be wafer thin.
And so, without question, playing safe will be disastrous.
In this regard, Taylor might take inspiration from the Japanese saying “not seeing is a flower.” To remind himself and impress upon his team, even in the most tricky and challenging times, to demonstrate bravery and enterprise. To dare and not flinch, even when under maximum pressure. To champion audacity and fearlessness from start to finish.
Indeed, if the above idiom holds that reality cannot compete with imagination, in a sport stubbornly blind to wonder may Cincinnati think and show exactly the opposite.
Food for thought.