You’re not mad at Zac Taylor’s playcalling. At least, you probably shouldn’t be. What a preposterous thing to say, right? An offense of Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon, among others, is averaging just 21.6 points per game. They rank 22nd in the league in yards per game. They have 12 drives that were three-and-outs through their first five games. The offense has not been good in 2022, at least not consistently. And as the fanbase reacts to another close loss to a divisional opponent in Week 5, the cries for Coach to relinquish his playcalling duties grow even louder. But you’re wrong.
While the offense has fallen short of expectations so far, that does not mean there have not been meaningful changes and progress from last year. For a team that converted just 26.0% of their short yardage situations last year (0-3 yards to go), they have seen a substantial improvement in that area, now converting at a 34.5% clip which is good for 2nd in the league.
Additionally, we have seen Ja’Marr taking more snaps from the slot this year. Chase saw 26 targets from the slot across 17 regular season games in 2021. That number is already up to 17 slot targets through five games this year, according to SIS. We have also seen Ja’Marr motion into the backfield and receive both targets and carries from that alignment. These efforts to get Chase moved around the formation and get space are not always successful plays, but the process is there.
Even in-season, we have seen Zac Taylor’s playcalling evolve. In Week 2, 72% of the snaps from under center were run plays, including an astounding 15/17 in the second half. In Week 5, Joe Burrow only took 7 snaps from under center, with four runs (including a sneak) and three pass attempts. The predictability of going under center on every first down and running wide zone has dissipated and given way to more shotgun handoffs.
Beyond just the shift to more shotgun snaps, even for running plays, we have seen Zac Taylor attempt more gadget plays to ignite the offense. In Week 4, Tyler Boyd’s 23-yard completion to Ja’Marr Chase converted a key third down on a drive that ultimately ended in three points and gave Cincinnati the lead. In Week 5, the ‘Philly Special’ had an unspectacular result, but it DID display some outside the box thinking from Taylor.
Week 5 also showed a change in playcalling to quick passes to get the ball into the hands of your playmakers and let them run after the catch. After totaling eight screen passes in Weeks 1-4, Coach Taylor dialed up six screens in Week 5 alone. And again, while the results were not explosive, they showed a willingness to try new ways to get the ball out and stay ahead of the chains.
The Player Execution
While Zac Taylor hasn’t been perfect by any means, the player execution has left a lot to be desired as well. Let’s start with the running game. To kick off the season, Joe Mixon was one of seven running backs in NFL history to have at least 80 carries and average fewer than 2.7 YPC in his team’s first 4 games. While the volume was there, the efficiency clearly was not. Mixon has struggled getting consistent yardage, ranking fourth-worst in the league in Rushing Yards Over Expectation. Not only has he not gained the yardage blocked for him, he rarely makes defenders miss to get the extra yards. Mixon ranks dead last in PFF’s Elusive Rating among running backs with at least 50 carries, meaning he rarely forces any missed tackles. While playcalling can certainly impact a running back, Mixon hasn’t done much to help himself.
Joe Burrow also has started a bit slow out of the gates. In addition to the five turnovers in Week 1, Joe has at times held the ball far too long, resulting in sacks. At other times he has rushed to his checkdown and missed open receivers. And in Week 5, he had three passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Burrow should only become more comfortable as the season progresses and the offensive line continues to gel, but thus far we have seen some uncharacteristic mistakes from Joe that have contributed to the offensive woes.
Here’s Your Problem
A Head Coach bears the brunt of the responsibility when the team underachieves, and usually doesn’t receive enough praise when the team overachieves. That comes with the territory. But the outcry over Taylor’s playcalling after Week 5 are simply overblown. You are upset with the results, but blaming the process. If you separate the two, you can see how the process is improving. Improving season over season, week to week. The results are inconsistent and until the offense clicks more often than not, it will remain a pain point for fans. Does Zac Taylor lack situational awareness at times? Certainly. But situational awareness is also separate from playcalling. If we trust the process is moving in the right direction and believe in the players to clean up their execution, we should expect the results to follow shortly thereafter.