CINCINNATI — Even ping pong is more fun than it once was for these Cincinnati Bengals.
Winning on the football field tends to make for a lighter mood in the locker room, but the Bengals believe it’s what happens together outside of practices and games that have uniquely impacted their performance on the gridiron the past two seasons.
Cincinnati heads to a second straight AFC Championship game Sunday at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, and players and coaches say it’s not just the Xs and Os and a few star athletes that got them there. They share bonds -- cultivated through even a simple game of ping pong — that make playing together through a grueling season easier, and the Bengals are having a blast continuing a 10-game winning streak.
“I think the camaraderie is important for the team to feel connected,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I see guys, I think half our team lives here (at Paycor Stadium). The day off, they’re in here playing ping pong, they’re in here playing cards, hanging out more than any team I’ve ever been around. So I think these guys genuinely just like being around each other. … I think we’ve got a really connected team that way.”
In trying to develop a culture of “physical, hungry, accountable teammates,” Taylor worked to bring back some of the fun to the building when he was hired in 2019. The staff began implementing competitive little games to their meetings, especially during Organized Team Activities and during the monotony of training camp. Ping-pong tables that had been pushed to a side room reappeared in the locker rooms, cornhole sets emerged, and they even added a card table earlier this season.
Players that otherwise would have gone home at the end of the work day, or left the facility during a lunch break, stick around a little longer for a chance to advance in a two-on-two ping-pong tournament or to win a game of cards against teammates they “genuinely enjoy” being around.
Taylor believes those bonds have manifested into a winning culture.
“It’s easier to play for the guy next to you when you genuinely like the guy and respect what they’re about, respect how they play, how they go about their business,” Taylor said. “And it’s just easier to pick up the guy next to you when that’s the case.”
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who was drafted by the Bengals in 2016, remembers the ping-pong tables being rarely used his first few seasons. The Cincinnati teams he was apart of early in his career had talented players like A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap in their prime, but Boyd arrived after a memorable 2015 season and never experienced a postseason until last year.
Boyd couldn’t recall a low point during those times of struggle, just that losing was hard and he never felt connected to teammates outside his circle. Ping-pong games now bring players from different sides of the ball and different position groups together (wide receiver Trent Taylor is the player to beat, but quarterback Joe Burrow is not far behind).
“We had the ping pong tables in the locker room, it’s just guys weren’t playing and if they were, it wasn’t as fun and as entertaining as it is now because we’re really bonding,” Boyd said. “I mean, we’re playing to beat each other, but we’re playing to bond. We’ll stay later just to be around our boys, our friends, just to connect with one another. Just having that togetherness and rallying off it, it just makes it contagious and makes guys not want to leave from the facility.”
Taylor’s arrival and new philosophies didn’t immediately bring change in the standings, but the foundation took time to build.
Boyd said the camaraderie now is a sign of “just having good people, people that are unselfish, guys that are genuine and willing to do whatever it takes for the guy next to them.” It took some roster molding to get those kinds of players.
Linebacker Germaine Pratt, who was in Taylor’s first draft class in 2019, was a witness to that change over his first two seasons.
“When I first got here, Zac was new and he was still getting his guys, so we probably didn’t have the chemistry with the players yet, but they had a different culture around here (previously),” Pratt recalled. “People would talk to you, but you didn’t really get to know your teammates. It was just basically work and go home. Now it’s more like family. You really talk to guys, you hang out, you play ping pong, you play cards, whatever the case may be.”
Center Ted Karras, who spent five of his first six NFL seasons with the Patriots, said the Bengals locker room he joined this year is starkly different from what he experience in New England and even in Miami in 2020. The chemistry was something he noticed right away.
Defensive tackle B.J. Hill, who was traded from the New York Giants last September, said the locker room activities are not unique to the Bengals but “it’s different here” because players have real conversations and “really do care about each other.”
Connecting on a more personal level gives players a different kind of respect for one another, linebacker Logan Wilson said. It’s why he believes the Bengals can be successful in the future, too, regardless of which players come and go.
For now, he’s just hoping it pays off in the form of another AFC title.
“That’s a huge reason we’ve made it as far as we have the past two years is the unselfishness of the guys we have in the locker room, guys that just want to win and everyone has that one single goal,” Wilson said. “Guys aren’t out there playing to selfish plays, make this tackle for themselves. We’re just trying to do our parts as a team, collectively, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.
“I’ve never known any different, but everyone says ‘there’s nothing like this that you have here,’ so I know it’s special, and I’m very thankful to be part of it.”
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