CINCINNATI — Shortly after 5:30 on Monday night, chaos erupts inside Zac Taylor’s office.
To the right of the Cincinnati Bengals coach’s desk, Taylor’s 7-year-old son, Luke, works the clicker of the Patriots-Chiefs game tape that Zac was watching before he pretends to pick up the phone and be his dad. Emma Claire, 3, scribbles squiggly lines beneath her father’s play designs. Brooks, 9, thumbs through the playbook and asks his friends who wants to be the “X” receiver and who wants to be the “Z.” Milly, 1, bounces between the floor and the arms of her mother, Sarah.
Stacks of grease-stained paper plates with pizza crusts and stray pepperoni slices start to pile up on the long, wooden table in Taylor’s office. It all seems like a mess. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Every Monday night, work stops for an hour for family night, when the Bengals coaches’ wives and children descend on the team facility in downtown Cincinnati. It’s a brief respite for the men, especially those with young children, who go multiple days every week without spending quality time with their families.
If winning is paramount in the NFL, finding the time to be a father and husband is a scarce commodity. Taylor, the 36-year-old rookie coach and father of four, wants to have both.
“You just want to make sure that guys feel like they can balance that as best we can,” Taylor told ESPN. “It’s not easy.”
Everything about Taylor’s current task seems difficult. The Bengals have lost 12 of their 13 games this season and are the worst team in the NFL. The franchise is about to hit 29 seasons without a playoff victory, the league’s longest drought.
As Cincinnati’s coaching staff has discovered firsthand, winning in the NFL is tougher than it looks. But being available for their families doesn’t have to be.
The concept of family night isn’t unique to the Bengals. Teams have held some variation of it at every place Taylor has worked, including the Los Angeles Rams.
When Taylor was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M for his father-in-law, Mike Sherman, families arrived on campus on Monday nights for a cafeteria-style dinner. Taylor and Sarah, who worked in the recruiting office and had a desk 20 feet away from Zac, didn’t have any kids. They grabbed a plate and headed up to his office — a converted closet — for those 45 minutes.
Sherman guesses he wasn’t the one in the family who primarily influenced Zac’s decision to establish the same tradition in Cincinnati.
“I’m sure my daughter had a lot of influence on that because she participated in family night and thought it was a good deal,” said Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers coach who most recently led the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan experienced something similar during his days under Gary Kubiak in Denver, where families came up on Saturdays for breakfast, hung out in the indoor facility during walk-throughs and reconnected afterward.
Callahan, 35, is one of several coaches on staff with young kids. Aside from Monday nights, he generally sees them awake only after Sunday games and then after Friday’s practice. His children — Norah, 4, and Ronan, 2 — are usually in bed around 8 p.m., a few hours before Callahan gets home at the beginning of the week.
Callahan has lived the experiences his children will have. His father, Bill Callahan, the former Raiders coach and current interim head coach at Washington, started coaching five years before he was born. When Brian Callahan turned 10, he found his way to the team facilities on a regular basis.
From a football aspect, Callahan said family night is another example of the type of team culture Taylor wants to build in Cincinnati.
“It’s hard to say you’re trying to build a family and trying to treat it like a family when nobody’s families are ever around,” Callahan said.
When Taylor was a quarterback at Nebraska from 2005 to 2006, he remembers hearing coaches talk about how they rarely saw their children.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I would never do that,'” Taylor said. “My dad was around as a kid.”
Giving coaches extra time during the week to be fathers and husbands is one of the reasons the Bengals have family night every Monday. Taylor recalled that during long trips with the Rams, he might go three weeks without seeing his family. Now, the only time he sees the kids Tuesday through Friday is if he gets home around 9 p.m. and Sarah lets them stay up to watch Thursday Night Football.
Coaches and their families at every level know they will be apart a majority of the time for several months a year. During Bengals defensive assistant Gerald Chatman’s time as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, he saw his wife, Lauren, mainly on Thursdays.
Now in Cincinnati, Lauren will pick up their two daughters — Kinley, 3, and Amelia, 9 months — after her shift as a nurse at a local hospital to make it to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday evenings.
“They make just as many sacrifices that we do as coaches, too,” Chatman, 31, said. “My wife, even the girls. Because we’re giving up time being with them.”
Taylor’s philosophy of letting his coaches be fathers isn’t limited to family night. If someone’s child has a pageant at school, a parent-teacher conference or a big game during the week, Taylor has no problem letting that coach duck out to be part of it.
When he was in Los Angeles, Taylor said Rams coach Sean McVay never hesitated to let Taylor free for an hour.
Cincinnati assistant James Casey, 35, appreciates that. The former NFL tight end and assistant at the University of Houston has cherished seeing his family on Monday nights, especially when the Bengals started the year by losing 11 straight games.
When Casey’s wife, Kylie, and two sons, Cannon, 9, and Knox, 6, see him on Mondays, it puts what he’s doing into perspective.
“I know it sounds a little cliché, but it’s really the reason why you’re doing this — to provide for your family,” Casey said. “You want to win football games and make an impact with the players. But nothing’s more important to make an impact than with your own kids and with your own family.”
And the relationships built between coaches’ kids last long after staffs dissolve. Sarah still keeps up with those she has met over the years during her father’s career, including Jen Gase, the wife of New York Jets coach Adam Gase, and Audra Davie, the daughter of former New Mexico and Notre Dame coach Bob Davie.
When Bengals offensive line coach Jim Turner’s name comes up in conversation, Zac and Sarah ask Brooks if he knows who Turner is.
“I know Jimmy,” Brooks says. “He’s Michael’s dad.”
There’s LaRosa’s pizza waiting for everyone on Mondays. Sarah brings chocolate chip cookies, which are always a big hit. Even though it can be difficult to wrangle four kids into the car for the weekly trip to the stadium, they’ve missed only one family night all season.
“We’re going down there to eat a free dinner,” Sarah Taylor said. “It’s pizza. I don’t have to clean my kitchen.”
Abbie Rosfeld, the wife of Bengals director of coaching operations Doug Rosfeld, echoes the sentiment. Doug, Abbie and their six kids ranging in age from 2 to 15 will go into the quarterbacks’ film room, watch a show and eat pizza. Most of the time, they watch the TV show “DC Super Hero Girls.” But in the spirit of the holidays, they’re watching the movie “White Christmas” instead.
A few children run laps around the coaches’ offices, a sneaky ploy by the parents to tire them out so they’re ready for bed when they get home. The assistants who don’t have young children will close their doors or spend the hour working out.
And for the most part, nobody talks about football.
“The season’s a grind,” Callahan said. “It’s a lot of hours and a lot of time away from your family. To get a chance to see them on a Monday night and share a couple laughs and have a piece of pizza, it’s awesome.”
At the end of family night, Brooks Taylor throws the ball to his friends on the turf field in the weight room before they exit through the locker room, briefly stopping to stare at the spaces of their favorite players. Casey throws his arm around his wife while their two kids run in front of them. One of Chatman’s daughters is atop his shoulders as he and his family walk out.
Upstairs, the coaches get back to football as they continue working on the game plan to beat the Patriots. They don’t know how Sunday’s game will turn out.
But they know exactly what Monday night will be like. And there will be pizza.