Zac Taylor's plan for Bengals: Keep things fun and players fresh

CINCINNATI -- Before the Cincinnati Bengals stepped into the midsummer heat for practice last Thursday, Jeff Driskel and Ryan Finley had to settle a quarterback competition.

In the middle of Cincinnati’s locker room, they tossed small bags at a three-tier bucket pyramid, a crossover of beer pong and corn hole. They stood next to a net on the floor for a game called spikeball (a hybrid of foursquare and volleyball). The pingpong table, which is usually commanded by the linebackers during lunch, was a few feet away.

Yes, it’s technically training camp. But what Cincinnati is doing under first-year coach Zac Taylor looks a lot different -- and a lot more fun -- than what other teams have done in the past, including the Bengals.

It’s all part of the new approach under the 36-year-old, first-time head coach Taylor. Whether it’s having games in the locker room or a revamped camp routine, Taylor hopes the changes pay dividends during his rookie campaign.

"We want guys to be excited to walk into the building," Taylor said. "That’s our No. 1 thing, that they don’t dread what’s going to happen when they walk in the building. That makes for a long season."

When Cincinnati hired Taylor this offseason and the Cardinals landed Kliff Kingsbury, 40, many made parallels between the young offensive minds and Rams coach Sean McVay, the 32-year-old prodigy who led the Rams to the Super Bowl last year.

With youth comes unique twists on training camp that might draw the ire of some of their elder colleagues. Kingsbury drew criticism this offseason when he said players will get breaks to check social media during meetings.

But in the modern era of football, some of the tweaks makes sense. And in McVay’s case, they’re proven.

For the past two years, Taylor was an offensive assistant in Los Angeles, where McVay made a significant tweak to training camp. The staff noticed that the greatest likelihood of soft-tissue muscle injuries occurred on the third day of consecutive practices.

They installed a unique schedule -- two days of full practices followed by a rest day or day of walkthroughs. Taylor recalled that during one of those years, 21 of the 22 starters for the Rams’ season opener played in the playoffs.

Bengals strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese had never seen the strategy before he arrived in Cincinnati. But once camp started, he noticed a higher quality of speed and efficiency during the two practice days.

"I think you get that when [the players] know that in two days, they’re going to get a day to get their bodies back under them," Boese said.

A few players couldn’t remember exactly what the old camp routine was aside from the multiple consecutive days of padded practice. Defensive end Sam Hubbard called it the "old-school way," one that felt like the team ran "a million plays" during camp. The toll from the high number of reps was felt a couple of weeks into the regular season.

But that has changed under Taylor.

"They’re really more conscious of taking care of guys so that we can be fresh and fast, not really grinding us to the dirt," Hubbard said.

Cincinnati’s shift comes amid recent changes to limit high-impact drills during practices. In May, the NFL asked teams to stop those activities, including the legendary Oklahoma drill.

Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil said he hadn’t done it since college and is interested to see how the limited hitting affects execution during the season. But so far, he and the rest of his teammates are enjoying the changes and hope they translate to more wins.

The way Cincinnati is doing things under Taylor is vastly different than what Mark Dufner has seen throughout a coaching career that started under Ohio State legend Woody Hayes. So far, that has translated to strong camaraderie and a consistent on-field approach for a franchise yearning for success.

"There’s good energy here right now," said Dufner, who is a senior defensive assistant. "There’s a good culture. And people have to make that decision. They can’t just give it lip service. They have to truly buy in."