'They gotta play us': How Bengals' new team mantra connected fans to the team

The night before every Cincinnati Bengals game, head coach Zac Taylor leads one final team meeting at the hotel where the players and coaches stay – home and away.

It’s a short, five-minute meeting that typically has one overarching theme Taylor wants to make sure his players get in their heads before the game. Sometimes Taylor uses movie references like "Gladiator." Sometimes it's bulletin board material provided by the NFL or their opponent, like the number of tickets bought for the AFC neutral site game and the possibility of a coin toss to decide where a game will be played.

He tries to find one theme to get his point across.

As the Bengals prepared to play the Tennessee Titans at the end of November, Taylor was tired of hearing about how tough Cincinnati’s schedule was going to be because of the opponents they were to face. The Bengals were 6-4 heading into the road matchup and set to play four teams that made the playoffs in 2021.

His team is the reigning AFC Champions, but it felt like more people were focused on who the Bengals had to face as opposed to thinking those teams must deal with the Bengals. It’s almost as if everyone was expecting a regression from Cincinnati. As if the 2021 season was a fluke.

Taylor went through the rest of the season game-by-game and after he rattled off every future opponent, he said with firmness, "They got to play us."

The entire season changed with that win, inspired by Taylor’s pregame speech.

But it was a viral video of Taylor's postgame locker room speech that cemented "They gotta play us" as the team's mantra for the rest of the season.

"What did we say about that schedule last night?” he said while giving out game balls from the 20-16 win.

That’s when senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner screamed, “they gotta play us!”

“He put that out there to them the night before and then in the postgame speech is when I just kind of fired it out to reinforce what he had already presented,” Duffner said of the moment.

This message hit home on a lot of levels. Duffner now screams it whenever the team is celebrating a win. The Bengals are now on a 10-game win streak. T-shirts, hats and signs around the Bengals’ facility were made. It became the identity of this Bengals team.

A mounted sign reads, “They Gotta Play Us” next to the locker room door headed to the field at Paycor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
A mounted sign reads, “They Gotta Play Us” next to the locker room door headed to the field at Paycor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

Taylor is not a rah-rah type of leader. He’s more reserved and picks his spots when he wants to really speak up. He lets his players lead this team knowing he has set the culture for this organization. Joe Burrow is like Taylor in that way – that’s why he relates to Taylor’s style of coaching.

Burrow recalls the team meeting and believes it was one of Taylor’s best this season.

“I think Zac is very calculated about what he decides to tell us and thinks about his messages to us a lot depending on the week and what's going on in the world, throughout the league, with us, and I would say that was one of his better ones,” Burrow said. “He every week seems to have a message for us on Friday, Saturday night that resonates and is different every week, and that's why I love him as a coach.”

Merchandise bearing the team motto, “They Gotta Play Us” is sold in the team shop at Paycor Stadium on Wednesday.
Merchandise bearing the team motto, “They Gotta Play Us” is sold in the team shop at Paycor Stadium on Wednesday.

Not only have the players and coaches on the team adopted this philosophy, the fans and the city of Cincinnati have immersed themselves in the new team identity. From hashtags on social media to signs around the city, the mantra has connected the team and the fans as one.

Cincinnati’s 39-year-old coach is in his fourth season in this role. He’s led hundreds of team meetings at this point and never plans for his message to go viral in the way this one has. It’s authentic to him and his team but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy seeing the way this one has caught on.

“I don't ever really plan for the viral-ness of anything,” Taylor said. “It's just kind of how your message is at that time. I probably had a lot of others that should have been viral-worthy that just weren't, that no one will ever know about. But sometimes things like that just catch on; it's fun to be a part of when that happens.”

From his postgame visits to bars around the city after playoff wins to present game balls to allowing fans and the media inside his postgame locker room speeches, Taylor has energized this fan base and connected the city and the team in ways Cincinnati has never seen.

The Bengals welcome doubters as they do new fans. They don’t care what anyone on the outside has to say. As they enter another AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, they are happy to have the support they do from their fan base.

Cincinnati will once again travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The final stop before Super Bowl 57 lies in Kansas City – a place they know well. The Bengals took down the Chiefs in the AFC Championship in 2021 to advance to Super Bowl 56 in Los Angeles.

For the Bengals to advance to play in Super Bowl 57 in Glendale, Ariz. in two weeks, they will have to play as they did in Buffalo. Cincinnati’s win over the Bills was the most complete game the team played all season long.

The Chiefs were 14-3 in the regular season for a reason. They are a talented team led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is likely to win his second NFL MVP this season. But if there’s one team that has Kansas City’s number, it’s the Bengals. Cincinnati is 3-0 against the Chiefs in the last 13 months.

The Bengals know what they’re walking into on Sunday and have full confidence they can win anywhere at any time, as they’ve shown all season.

"I don't care who we play," defensive tackle BJ Hill said. "Whoever it is, they got to play us."

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Where did the Bengals' mantra 'They gotta play us' come from?