NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan are buddies, long-time buddies, and that comes through as Taylor gushes on this phone call about Callahan’s role in the Cincinnati Bengals’ five-year journey from the depths of the NFL to the heights.
“One of the smartest people around, and from a schematic standpoint, he’s just been exposed to so much football over the course of his life,” Taylor says, and that sounds exactly like what the Tennessee Titans signed up for when they hired Callahan as their head coach this week.
“Really, there’s no one I can think of that has more experience to draw on in terms of connecting with championship-level quarterbacks — I’m not sure there’s anybody close,” Taylor says, and that falls right in line with a resume that stretches from Peyton Manning to Joe Burrow with plenty of substance in between — Dan Pompei’s 2022 Callahan profile in The Athletic lays out how each of them informed his path.
And then Taylor starts talking about Saturday mornings in the fall, sitting in the back of a meeting room as Callahan would address the Bengals offense with a presentation on how they would dominate the opponent the following day. About how Callahan devours books and podcasts and would always have the perfect video clip from a movie or Kobe Bryant moment or F1 doc or something to get his point across. Inspiring speeches, tying real-life themes to football and so on. Plus a knack for coaxing contributions from voices around the room.
Which sounds like head coach stuff, but more in the “building culture” and “leader of men” vein. You know, Tennessee Titans of old stuff.
“What works, what doesn’t, what makes people tick, what doesn’t,” Taylor says. “How to affect a whole bunch of different people at once. I think Brian’s as good at that aspect of coaching as anybody at this level.”
One, yes, this is the time to build Callahan into a mythical football figure, before we ever watch his teams play a snap — or jump before the snap. Callahan, 39, and his young family were introduced at a news conference Wednesday at St. Thomas Sports Park, and he impressed. For the sake of context, so did Jeremy Pruitt at his University of Tennessee intro in 2017. Most coaches do. Still, Callahan came off as smart and sincere, like a guy who knows exactly what he wants in a football team and will work well with general manager Ran Carthon to rebuild this one.
Two, um, isn’t this supposed to be all about quarterback whispering and next-level schematics from eggheads who see the game in a fourth dimension, and no more about square-jawed ball coaches who give out rah-rah speeches like candy but water only when you finish the last half-gasser? Isn’t that why Bill Belichick and Callahan’s predecessor, Mike Vrabel, still don’t have jobs while young coaches are popping up everywhere?
Let’s bust that narrative, with the help of Taylor and Callahan. Yes, Callahan got this opportunity, and Taylor his five years ago, on the strength of quarterback development and offensive schematics. That’s the NFL’s commodity du jour. But the other stuff still matters. Of course it does. Refer to culture as work environment. Think of motivation more like open communication. The ideas are modernized but basically the same.
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Has anyone noticed Dan Campbell and John Harbaugh in conference title games this weekend? Taylor and Callahan turned opportunities into jobs in part by demonstrating ball-coach DNA.
“There’s always going to be enough scheme,” Callahan said Wednesday, and though he was talking at the time about the importance of fitting game plans around the preferences of quarterbacks, that’s an effective slogan for a presser that revealed more than a football tactician.
“Cally,” as many call him and Carthon did Wednesday, obviously impressed in his interviews, which involved discussion of coaching but also roster building. We know now how clunky that process was between Carthon and Vrabel. We also know, because controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk made it clear in a Tuesday statement, that Carthon has final say on personnel matters.
Titans give GM Ran Carthon final say after hire of Brian Callahan
But collaboration is still the point, even if it’s no longer the buzzword at Titans headquarters. Carthon might have taken a shot at Vrabel when he said this, and he might not have, but actual personnel partnership moving forward was the bigger takeaway when he said: “One thing that we keep talking about here, as our group, is hunting at the same time isn’t the same as hunting together. Under Brian Callahan, we will be going out and hunting together.”
Also, Callahan loves analytics. He’s about passing precision. He still values a physical run game and team in general. He likes receivers who block. He likes offensive balance but will do whatever it takes on a particular Sunday to win. As far as “culture,” or whatever you want to call it, Callahan’s boiled-down answer for building it is simple: two-way communication and clearly defined expectations.
His answers hit. So did this on inherited quarterback Will Levis: “He’s got a lot of really special physical talents that I’m excited to go see if we can make better. Everything about him so far has been fantastic.”
Callahan doesn’t just have extensive quarterback experience, he has absorbed football and the dynamics of coaching it as the son of one of the best offensive line coaches of the modern era — Bill Callahan, who established Wisconsin football’s still-valid reputation as a big uglies factory under Barry Alvarez in the early 1990s. Bill Callahan is coaching offensive line for the Cleveland Browns now. Brian Callahan could not answer a question Wednesday on trying to hire him because he’s under contract.
But he did talk about what all those years around his father did for him.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I was learning a lot about leadership at 14 years old. I was sitting in Jon Gruden’s quarterback meetings, and I was just more in awe of the players there and listening to Jon talk,” he said of the late ’90s when Gruden was Raiders head coach and his father coordinated the offense. “But I reflect back on those moments a lot, and there’s things that you learn about how people handle it, how they speak, that you hopefully take bits and pieces of. It’s just been a lifelong journey of doing that.”
The journey included getting to know Taylor nearly 20 years ago, when Callahan was a walk-on quarterback at UCLA and Taylor was playing quarterback for Bill Callahan at Nebraska. Taylor hired his longtime buddy away from the Raiders when he got the Cincinnati job, and it turned out great for both of them. Callahan was emotional as he thanked many people who helped get him to this point, in particular when he got to Taylor.
Which goes to one of the more bust-worthy narratives about the Vrabel era: He hired too many of his buddies.
That’s what you should do, if the friends in question are trusted and competent coaches of football. By all accounts and appearances, Callahan is ready for this shot. He’ll need a lot more good players. He’ll need an excellent staff. That’s where his long-term relationships around this league, along with Carthon, must pay off. Dad would be a great place to start.
(Photo of Brian Callahan, center, posing with Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and general manager Ran Carthon: George Walker IV / Associated Press)