When weather threw travel out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport into chaos on Sunday, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had to start weighing options.
Three head coach interviews in three days were on the horizon. This was the kind of week a coach works his entire life for the opportunity to experience. Yet, there he was like any of us have been throughout our lives, trying to adjust on the fly to his flight being canceled.
He was fully prepared to hop in a car and drive the four hours from Cincinnati to Nashville. Why not? Just get there.
Then, the Tennessee Titans sent the plane.
Would Titans’ brass send the plane for any stranded candidate? Maybe. That they sent one for Callahan, one of just three candidates to receive a second interview after their first wave of Zoom sessions, landed a pretty clear message of interest.
Just over 24 hours later there was no gray area left in the message. The Titans didn’t let Callahan leave the building for interviews Tuesday in Carolina and Wednesday in Atlanta. He was the target. Had been for a while. Welcome to Tennessee.
Can confirm Titans finalizing deal with #Bengals OC Brian Callahan. Titans saw him as top target for a while and proved it by assuring he didn’t leave the building today.
A long overdue HC shot for Callahan, who has been with Zac Taylor every step of the way on this rebuild.
— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) January 23, 2024
Callahan quickly emerged as one of the hottest candidates in this cycle, made apparent by his three-day itinerary.
In the age of the Zoom round, many coaches get face time with potential employers, but the real eye test comes from those being flown in. Of Callahan’s four Zooms, only the Chargers, currently big-game hunting Jim Harbaugh, didn’t give Callahan a second step.
It all makes sense. In fact, the only aspect of Callahan’s case that doesn’t make sense is that he had not been closer to a job before this one. He’s served as the right-hand man to Zac Taylor for every step of one of the most improbable franchise turnarounds in the recent NFL history. He’s drawn praise working with high-profile quarterbacks ranging from Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr to Joe Burrow. His offense has proven malleable and evolved through multiple deep playoff runs.
Burrow’s greatness has actually hurt the case of Bengals offensive assistants in recent years, giving an aura that the success was all his responsibility. Yet, understanding how to work and build around a star quarterback is just as much a skill as finding one. Callahan and Taylor have done it as well as any in recent history.
“Not only Joe but our entire offense,” Taylor said late in the season. “He has helped develop every position we have. He’s invaluable. There’s really not enough things I can say about him. If somebody just followed us for a week and saw, it would be, ‘Oh, no wonder everybody is so high on Brian.’ It’s just a matter of opportunity and getting to talk to the right people. I have no doubt he will be successful.”
Titans hiring Brian Callahan as next coach
Tennessee brass turned out to be the right people. They desperately need to figure out the quarterback position. They play in a division where Shane Steichen, an assistant for the Eagles Super Bowl run, excelled in Indianapolis and DeMeco Ryans, a defensive assistant for the 49ers’ Super Bowl run, proved a strong hire.
Both of those candidates called plays, but Taylor, who also didn’t call plays in the NFL before being hired by the Bengals, doesn’t buy that narrative that matters one bit.
“That’s just people that don’t actually know,” Taylor said. “He needs to call plays? Why? Nobody can say that, it’s something people parrot out there. He’s been the coordinator here for five years. He coordinates everything having to do with it. He establishes the whole structure of our offense. On game day, he and I are in constant communication. That is calling plays. That is establishing an offense. He knows everything I go through on a daily basis as a head coach. He and I both. He’s as prepared as anybody can be prepared for it.”
The Bengals play at the Titans this year and it will be interesting to see the direction he takes their franchise. And this is about far more than quarterback play and potentially coaching with his father, great OL coach Bill Callahan.
I’ll explain with one nugget about Callahan I’ll never forget.
During the ugly first year in Cincinnati with the Bengals winless midway through the season, we were engaging in a conversation about culture, what it looks like and how to establish it among many other big-picture topics. He brought up a speech made by former Cubs general manager Theo Epstein at the 2017 Yale College Class Day. One where Epstein talked about the difference between winning and losing always being connected to having the type of people built to respond in adverse moments. Epstein used the story of Jason Heyward gathering the Cubs up during the rain delay of Game 7. How understanding leadership and truly valuing those traits makes the difference.
I immediately went back and watched it and Callahan’s points of the conversation all clicked. It was much easier to understand the vision — one that would be proven right many times over in the Cincinnati building process, including five times in the postseason.
Mostly, it always stuck with me as a prime example that this guy sees football way beyond his specialty of quarterback play. That’s also why it would make perfect sense the Titans had heard enough Monday night.
Fallout in Cincinnati
As for the aftermath of Callahan’s promotion, Taylor has been preparing for this moment for a while. He’d, incredibly, never lost a coordinator since being hired in 2019, despite the team’s success. He faced a potential worst-case scenario last year of losing Callahan, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, as well as quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher. All were close to promotions with Anarumo narrowly missing out in Arizona and Pitcher not taking an OC job in Tampa Bay to stay in Cincinnati.
The idea for Pitcher’s return was the possibility of taking over as offensive coordinator for the Bengals should Callahan move up. This has been the plan for some time.
Pitcher is a shoo-in as the top candidate to take over the job, though, he’s generated interest around the league. Notably, the Saints have spoken to him about their offensive coordinator position. Reports have him talking with the Patriots and Raiders as well.
Cincinnati will need to do what it takes to keep Pitcher. There’s undeniably a feeling they will be able to do so, but it’s not over yet.
Leading Burrow and the Cincinnati offense would be a logical next step for Pitcher to potentially follow in Callahan’s footsteps as a head coach.
Some would claim Pitcher would balk at returning to Cincinnati considering he would not be calling plays. First, he could have done that last year but didn’t for a reason. Second, it didn’t seem to hurt Callahan in earning a top gig. In the way the Bengals operate as a cohesive game-planning and play-calling unit, it’s as close as you can come to calling plays. Taylor’s feelings on that mattering are documented above.
Inevitably, all that will matter are Pitcher’s feelings on it. Continuing to win and potentially capture a Super Bowl with Burrow sure sounds a lot better than taking on whatever quarterback is thrown in his lap by a head coach he’s never worked with before. The shine comes off coordinators in a hurry in the wrong circumstances. Staying in Cincinnati feels like the clearest path for Pitcher to continue to shimmer.
If you told me Pitcher was getting the same buzz as the Lions’ Ben Johnson this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised. His varied background, resume and intelligence will pop in an interview. Buzz already exists around the league about his bright future. Add in a year coordinating one of, potentially, the top offenses in the NFL and teams could be lining up once again.
The Bengals just need to put it across the finish line.
As for the quarterbacks coach opening, if Pitcher moves, Brad Kragthorpe makes the most sense to continue the line of succession. He’s been with the Bengals for the entirety of Taylor’s tenure and shifted over from assistant wide receivers coach last year to coach under Pitcher.
“He’s a guy who’s been here five years, as well,” Taylor said in December. “And I continue to put more on his plate really every week. And he always answers the bell.”
The plate could receive a significant portion depending on how this all shakes out. He would be a logical investment in continuity. Kragthorpe will turn 32 in March and is slated as a coach in the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas next week.
Taylor could look outside the building. A candidate could come from just about anywhere. He’s never felt committed to a certain type of background in coaching hires. Running backs coach Justin Hill came from Tulsa. Wide receivers coach Troy Walters was working at Nebraska.
Whether college ranks or already coaching in the league, history suggests a potential to pull from just about anywhere in search of his style of coach. Callahan’s exit could even open up the possibility of adding a new position on the coaching staff since they’ve not needed to go through the process of replacing a coordinator before.
One thing is for certain, Taylor would like to keep the momentum of what’s been established in the building.
“Fast forward five, 10 years and you say all these guys have skyrocketed to more substantial positions, none of that would surprise me,” he said late in the season. “If you said every guy on our offensive staff is a head coach, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I get that.’”
Now, there’s at least one.
(Top photo of Brian Callahan: Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)