Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mike Mularkey’s Challenge

“It’s why I love coaching. It’s why I do this. It’s a personal challenge to take on adversity and overcome it. It’s why I’m in this.”

With those words, Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey very succinctly put on display his personality, his philosophy, his coaching style and even his ability to deflect media scrutiny after a tough loss.

Just like in anything, it’s pretty easy to handle a job when things go as planned. Smooth sailing, no ripples, it’s easy to be magnanimous, cool, calm and collected. But in one of the most dissected jobs in America, NFL Head Coach, Mularkey has displayed what Hemmingway described as “guts” : Grace under pressure.

We haven’t seen much of that around here recently. When Tom Coughlin was the Jaguars head coach and personnel director he was combative, sometimes arrogant and often dismissive when things weren’t going well. He once used the “because none of you in this room have ever known or will ever know what it’s like to play in the NFL,” card when he particularly didn’t like the line of questioning about his team’s lack of success. (Which was only amusing because Coughlin, successful as a coach and a good college player, never played in the NFL either.)

Coughlin’s success in New York with the Giants has also allowed his media relationship to mildly mellow. Jack Del Rio was hired almost as the “anti-Coughlin.” He was supposed to relate to the players and bring fans back by being that young, friendly, likeable head coach.

Instead he turned out to be a “non-Coughlin.”

Not only did Del Rio lack the leadership stature and head coaching acumen of Tom Coughlin, but also his disdain for the media, born of his inability to believe anybody could question his decision-making, was so thick that nobody got close to any information.

As one scribe told me, “Jack still lives in the physical world of a player. He thinks if he can kick your butt that you shouldn’t be allowed to question what he does.” Del Rio became the first coach in NFL history to hold two press conferences during the week: one for the cameras and the other for the writers. One writer generally so incensed Del Rio that he couldn’t contain his dislike, something he didn’t want seen on camera.

Mularkey was hired as a football coach. He wasn’t hired to sell tickets, to fill some kind of void needed in the NFL’s smallest market. He was hired to win football games. And that’s what he’s all about. He’s straightforward with the players, the same with his staff and there’s no baloney in his dealings with the media. Sometimes it’s obvious he doesn’t like the line of questioning but he seems to try and answer every question honestly and with some thought, even the most banal or confrontational inquiry.

The quote at the top of this article was his response to some consistent hammering about the team’s lack of wins, lack of ability and perhaps lack of talent. It would have been easy for Mularkey to either give the reporter the cold shoulder or challenge his knowledge of what the Jaguars were trying to do. Instead, he revealed a part of who he is that has helped gain the respect of his players and just about everybody in the NFL.

Win or lose, Mularkey isn’t going to change. And he shouldn’t.

“I promise you, everybody around here is trying their hardest,” Mularkey said earnestly in response to a question about effort.

One thing for sure, he’ll give his best.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Need Their Best

What was strange about this game from the beginning was the lack of expectation from the fans. New owner, new coach, home opener and a division rival in town but it wasn’t like the fans were ferocious or were hungry for a win. They seemed happy to be there. It was a great atmosphere, with a little bit of resignation. Nobody seemed to expect a victory.

While that’s fairly realistic at this point, it’s not who you want to be as fans, and certainly not as a team. In fact, I asked Head Coach Mike Mularkey during the week about that “winnable game” attitude and how it can infiltrate the locker room.

“Talk to the guys in there,” Mularkey said referring to the locker room. “They see how things happen in this league. Guys will tell you anybody can win any week.”

He’s right, calling on the “Any given Sunday,” mantra, because there are upsets that seem inexplicable each week. Then there are games that go according to plan, and this seemed to be one of them.

Houston has Super Bowl and championship expectations. Their defense is among the best in the league. Their offense can light it up and even their special teams are solid. If you go off last week the Jaguars are still a team in transition, trying to find some answers. Against Minnesota they looked like a team that could move the ball on offense, using Blaine Gabbert, MJD and a revamped receiving corps. Injuries have them using a make-shift offensive line but the backups are professionals and should be able to perform as such. To their credit, the Jaguars, nor the coaching staff, use injury as any kind of excuse.

“We all took turns making mistakes,” Maurice Jones Drew said in his post-game comments. “Me, linemen, Blaine, everybody. We all have to do a better job together then we’ll see what happens. We didn’t really give ourselves a chance.”

A chance. That’s what you’re looking for in the NFL, a chance to win at the end of the game.

During this off-season and through training camp, this team looked like it had a chance. Last year, there were games where you knew they didn’t have a chance. This year they’re supposed to have a chance. But with the mistakes they were making, they kept themselves out of it from the start.

“You can’t make those kind of mistakes,” Mularkey said afterwards. “The first 15 plays are scripted to we shouldn’t be lining up wrong, running wrong routes, calling the wrong protection. We have to do a better job with that and I have to do a better job getting that across.”

Mularkey seems like the ideal head coach. Organized, reliable, consistent. A guy the players like and respect. His staff is formidable and watching them teach in practice, they know the game. On the day he was hired, Mularkey said he was going to put the players in “positions to succeed.” “They need to know we want them to be the best they can be,” he added. And I believe they’re a pretty good staff.

So that brings us back to the players. They’re good enough to win, but maybe not good enough to dominate. When they play at their best, they can beat anybody. But when they have a sub-standard performance, when they make mistakes, they can’t beat anybody.

All that’s the bad news.

The good news is they know it.

They know when they get their act together, they’re pretty competitive. So that’s what they’ll try this week working against a 1-1 Indianapolis team.

Let’s hope so.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Painful Plan

It’s not that the Jaguars are a bad team. I think it would be more accurate to say they’re an incomplete team.

“We have a plan in this organization,” Head Coach Mike Mularkey said Sunday after the 27-10 loss to Cincinnati at home, “And we’ll stick to that plan. We’ll have to take our lumps, and we have, but we have to chip our way back. We have a lot of football to go.”

All of that is accurate, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take. There are no moral victories in professional sports and a loss is just that, a loss.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Jaguars have enough talent to win. When I asked Mularkey that question two weeks ago, he said, “It’s on tape, we’ve seen our guys have success. We can sustain drives. We can get off the field on defense. It’s not about changing things or changing players, it’s about playing better.”

I believe that in a lot of areas and the Jaguars have shown flashes of being able to compete. But inconsistency is what beats you in the NFL and the Jaguars are about as inconsistent as they come. Long drives are followed by several 3 and outs. That won’t work long term.

So how do you get more consistent?

“We have great practices,” Quarterback Blaine Gabbert said in his post-game comments Sunday, “But we’re not executing in the games. It’s as simple as that.”

The team believes they can win and I’d agree, they’re a pretty good practice team. But when they get in games, one thing here and one thing there that don’t go right add up to a bunch of things not going right and getting beat.

There are two areas where the team needs improvement right away if they want to win some games: Quarterback and pass rush. Gabbert is right when it comes to executing. He has to execute better, quicker and with more authority. Two weeks in a row we’ve seen young quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton and both seem more comfortable running an offense than Gabbert. He has some flashes, and Gabbert has as good of an arm as anybody in the league. But his decision-making in the pocket is just a split second slow, leading to sacks and in completions.

Mularkey says he’s a young player still learning and progressing, but it’s hard to be patient with a quarterback who’s not getting it done when you look around at comparable QB’s who are. I think Gabbert can and will be better, but it’s taking longer than anybody would like. Just a little dump off here or a quick throw there will go a long way to keeping drives alive and getting a rhythm on offense.

Pass rush is a different story. Teams that win Super Bowls have a front four that can pressure the opposing quarterback without any blitz help. The NY Giants are the best example of this. The Jaguars don’t have that. While Jeremy Mincey is about the hardest working guy you’ve ever seen on the field, he’s not a sack specialist from his DE position. Tyson Alualu was drafted to rush the QB up the middle to neutralize Peyton Manning. Alualu isn’t getting to the quarterback and his specialty isn’t stopping the run at the point of attack. I don’t know that he’s big enough in today’s NFL to do that. So move him to DE and work on some other guys at DT.

Mularkey knew this was a building job when he took it and that it would take some time. But his players aren’t helping by playing below their own standard. If they can execute, get the same kind of results during games that they do on the practice field, then they have a chance. Otherwise, they’ll have to blow it up and start over again.