One week to go in the Jaguars’ regular season and we’re looking at a dismal record (again) and the number one draft pick (again) in the 2022 NFL draft. Despite being the one to hire Urban Meyer, give Jaguars Owner Shad Khan credit for firing him when necessary. A captain knows when to make an immediate course correction and right the ship. Khan has had numerous mis-steps in the ten years he’s owned the team but he has also shown a willingness to move on from things that aren’t working.
Whether they keep the number one pick or trade down, the Jaguars need help out of the ‘22 draft and through free agency. Will Khan keep Trent Baalke in place as General Manager? He does tend to keep people he likes around. As a GM and personnel evaluator, Baalke’s track record is spotty and his presence as a team builder could limit the number and the quality of the candidates for the open head coaching position. Khan has said Baalke will be a part of that search but hasn’t said if the current GM will be around making decisions that shape the team in the near future. There’s a bit of a groundswell in the Twittersphere to fire Baalke, but Khan will make that decision based on advice he’s getting from around the league and what he hears from coaching candidates, not from fan pressure.
It must have been one heck of a sales job Meyer did on Khan to convince him that hiring a college coach with a successful, but flawed resume was the right thing to do. From a year or so before his hiring, Meyer was slyly campaigning for the Jaguars job. He can be impressive at first glance. Even his opening press conference with the local media gave a glimmer of hope that he’d adapt to the pro game.
His ability as a CEO-type is what the NFL demands, but his inability to adapt to other adults who have experience, smarts and a willingness to learn led to his ultimate downfall. Meyer was either going to win three Super Bowls or flame out quickly and obviously, the latter was the ultimate outcome. An NFL coach might be the team’s leader and the face of the franchise, but, unlike in college, he has to answer to a variety of voices.
In college, oftentimes the football coach is more powerful than the school President. Meyer found out quickly that organizations like the Fritz Pollard Alliance, advocates for minority hiring in the league, have a big voice. The NFL is a part of society at-large, not some isolated campus that serves as a kingdom to lord over, so long as he’s winning. Based on his actions during his short tenue in the NFL, we can only imagine how many shenanigans Meyer got away with during his college career with nobody having enough “juice” to do anything about it.
So where to now?
As was famously once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” when it comes to winning organizations. It’s especially true in sports where a team with a winning culture, meaning they have habits that make wins happen, beats a more talented group. The Jaguars have had that culture a couple of times. In 2017 during their run to the AFC Championship game, Calais Campbell, Marcedes Lewis, and Paul Posluszny set that culture and it paid off. Players aren’t playing for coaches. They’re playing for each other. Nobody on that team wanted to disappoint the other guys in the locker room. Once those guys were gone, the culture collapsed with no one left capable of picking up the mantle of leadership.
And that’s where the Jaguars have failed under Khan. A willingness to let players move on when they’ve taken a step back in their production on the field, not recognizing their value to the entire organization everywhere else. Khan has to take responsibility for that. As a successful businessman, he knows the value of leadership through the ranks, not just management. Soldiers have to take orders from officers, but it’s the enlisted leaders, sergeants if you will, who keep things in line.
In the late ‘90’s the Jaguars had a winning culture. Their two appearances in the AFC Championship game and their perennial appearances in the playoffs bear that out. Head Coach and GM Tom Coughlin might have set the tone for that, but it was the players who carried it out.
Without a doubt, Tony Boselli was the main cog in that culture. It went through the team with Mark Brunell, Kyle Brady, Keenan McCardell and Fred Taylor setting examples on offense and Clyde Simmons, Jeff Lageman and Dave Thomas doing the same on defense. Go back and look at the starting lineups for the Jaguars’ late ‘90’s teams: Tough guys who had a bit of an edge to them. Talented players who weren’t taking any guff from anybody, including their teammates. Winning NFL cultures, like the Steelers and the Patriots have that year after year. There’s not that much difference between Greg Lloyd and James Harrison when it comes to the kind of players they were on the field. They were “Steelers” type players and there was no mistaking that. They carried the Steelers culture from one generation of players to the next.
That’s why Khan needs to find a role for Tony Boselli in the organization. Boselli is the best player ever to don a Jaguars uniform and his pedigree as a Hall of Fame contender gives him instant credibility among the current generation of NFL players. Whether it’s a title like President of Football Operations or just as a special consultant, Boselli could help a restart for the culture that’s needed inside the Jaguars building.
Follow that hire with a Head Coach who has NFL experience and is more about building a culture than some great offensive or defensive guru. Gus Bradley was that kind of guy but his teams were never mature enough to latch onto what he was trying to teach. Former GM Dave Caldwell takes much of the blame for that, not paying enough attention to what kind of people he was bringing into the organization versus the stats they might provide. Doug Marrone was able to do that, but Caldwell left the cupboard bare after 2017 and without much talent, the team collapsed. Couple that with Coughlin’s inability to adapt to dealing with prima donna’s (see Jalen Ramsey) and you get back to back number one picks.
Through the interview process, Khan should focus on who the candidate is versus what his resume looks like. Clearly Doug Pederson and Jim Caldwell have built winning cultures in the NFL. Can Josh McDaniel bring Bill Bellichick’s culture with him if he ever takes a head coaching job? As a player, Byron Leftwich was aloof and lacked charisma, but that was twenty years ago. Has he developed as a person beyond his player’s mentality? More than his success as a coordinator, can he bring a culture that breeds winning before the first play is ever called? Can Eric Bieniemy bring Andy Reid’s organizational culture along with him?
There are a handful of other candidates where the same question should be asked: Who are they? Winning organizations are built on smart, tough guys. Khan has done that with his other businesses. He needs to apply that thinking to his NFL team.