Why Justin Rascati became ‘greatest fit of all time’ for new Bengals coaching role


CINCINNATI — Zac Taylor knew Justin Rascati when the two were high school quarterbacks at the same time. Which is to say, he knew his name. He knew it for the same reason every college recruit in the early 2000s knew names.

“Everybody that played quarterback knew everybody the same age because of Rivals back in the day,” Taylor said. “There was no Hudl. You checked Rivals to see where you were ranked.”

So, as the final scheduled interview in a cycle where Taylor was not only replacing a coordinator for the first time but creating a new position on his staff of passing game coordinator, Rascati arrived with the connection of name recognition — and little else.

He never directly crossed paths with Taylor or new offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher. There were mutual contacts, of course, there always are. Mostly, his name showed up multiple times as lists were compiled.

By the end of the interview process, however, Taylor knew exactly where Rascati ranked.

“He was the greatest fit of all time,” Taylor said.

His resume on paper wouldn’t have suggested as much. Rascati played quarterback and came up through the college coaching ranks at Tennessee Tech, Tennessee-Martin and Tennessee-Chattanooga in a variety of roles from offensive coordinator to working with quarterbacks and receivers.

A jump to the NFL came in 2019 with the Denver Broncos. Only, the leap came with a catch. He needed to move to assisting the offensive line under Mike Munchak and Chris Kuper. He shifted back to quarterbacks in 2021 before Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was fired. He again used an offensive line coach as an NFL lifeline, moving with Kuper to Minnesota.

Not exactly the traditional path of a passing game coordinator.

“The way to get into the NFL was to be in the O-line room,” Rascati said. “At that point in my career, I was excited to get an opportunity to get in the NFL, so, willing to do whatever. After my first year doing that I said, ‘I wish I had done it 10 years ago.’ Us quarterback guys don’t always see it through the eyes of the offensive line and what they are going through and their challenges.”

They especially don’t see it through the eyes of Munchak, one of the league’s preeminent offensive line gurus.

“Munch is a Hall of Fame player, former NFL head coach, one of the best people I’ve ever been around,” Rascati said. “For a young coach to go into that situation, be around good people, learn and grow and really get out of my comfort zone was huge for me …  it was a great experience to work with those guys and understand what they go through and ways to help them whether it is in the run game or protection world is huge for my career.”

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That became apparent the more Taylor, Pitcher and the offensive staff got to know Rascati across a day of Zoom interviews and then hanging out talking ball in Cincinnati on Monday. In addition to being impressed by his “intricate knowledge,” of offensive scheme, his ideas from the outside can offer a refresh on what the Bengals built with mostly the same people over the last five years. The Vikings ran the same offense Taylor left in Los Angeles five years ago under former Sean McVay assistant Kevin O’Connell.

While Taylor shifted into the Joe Burrow Bengals offense, a 180-degree change from the early days, hearing those concepts again and the permutations Rascati saw develop with the Vikings sparked excitement.

“It’s a repeat of all the things I used to do five years ago when I was in L.A. and a great reminder of some things we can do again now,” Taylor said.

This was always the concept Taylor loved and ownership supported about adding a passing game coordinator. It didn’t previously exist and mostly didn’t need to thanks to the continuity and comfort with former offensive coordinator and current Titans head coach Brian Callahan and Pitcher as quarterbacks coach. With Pitcher taking over as coordinator and Brad Kragthorpe earning a promotion from assistant to Pitcher’s old job, there were new dynamics.

Pitcher, in the infant stages of designing his unique approach, sees the additional position that exists on some, but far from all, coaching staffs across the league as an intelligent mind to help him set the table in the passing game every week. But, just as importantly, an open book for finding ways to innovate and, ultimately, win games.

“I would venture to guess the exact responsibilities are probably different in just about every single building,” Pitcher said about the PGC role. “It’s a spot that really allows us to add one more guy with a great skill set and fresh perspective coming from a place where they do a lot of things very similar to us but they do some different stuff, too.”

Taylor expressed a large part of this offseason will be about exploring new perspectives and not becoming stale five years in with continuity on the roster and staff. Don’t be repetitive. Strike a balance between comfort and challenge.

Kragthorpe and Pitcher supply a level of comfort. Specifically, familiar faces working off an established trust level with Burrow. That’s part of why the 32-year-old Kragthorpe won out in what Pitcher dubbed a “no-brainer” after a string of outside candidates were interviewed.

“We got a lot of confidence in Brad as coaches and I know Burrow feels the same way,” Taylor said. “That’s a critical element to all this.”

The same goes for receivers coach Troy Walters and his remarkable relationship with the team’s star wideouts and on down the staff, including run game coordinator/OL coach Frank Pollack and tight ends coach James Casey.

The addition of this position and finding the perfect fit creates the potential for an exciting recalibration in the challenging aftermath of losing Callahan. One that’s started in recent weeks making a deeper evaluation of their offense and how to proceed.

“Even something as simple as a smart person asking what might feel like an innocuous question forces you to frame the answer maybe in a way that jogs for you a little bit of, ‘Hey, maybe we should call this something else,’” Pitcher said. “That whole process, I think, is healthy.”

A similar healthy feeling exists with Rascati, who had other teams interested as the coordinator shuffle hit overdrive the last few weeks. None came close to the allure of Cincinnati.

Rascati started his college career at Louisville where he met his wife, Jennifer, who is from there. They have close friends living on the east side of Cincinnati. Their three boys, Rhett, Rhys and Riley, could be heard in the background of a phone call Friday as Rascati juggled selling a house, starting a new job and pulling off a move his family — and his career path — long hoped would come.

“These slips come in and when I found out Zac put his slip in to interview me, I was very excited and was hoping it would work out,” Rascati said. “Very blessed for this opportunity. It’s a special place with a great coaching staff and great team.”

Few could have seen this connection coming and there’s always an aspect of unknown with any outside hire, particularly on a staff that’s mostly stayed the same. There’s an inherent risk. But for Taylor, Pitcher, Rascati and the staff, there was no denying the upside of the possibilities, no matter how unique the path.

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“He has potential to really be an asset for us,” Pitcher said. “He’s everything we are about.”

Buy into the person.

Nobody knows that better than Taylor, who heard the same overtures during his rapid rise on the way to Cincinnati.

“Told my wife, ‘What if we went 4-12 my first year in L.A.?’” Taylor said. “I might still be the assistant receivers coach in L.A. and never got the opportunity to do what I am doing. It’s just circumstance. It was too perfect of a fit to not hire him.”

(Top photo: Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)





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