Jaguars Draft Talent, Culture

Jaguars Draft Talent, Culture

Jaguars Draft Talent, CultureIt has been a while since the Jaguars went into the roster building phase of the year without a question mark at quarterback. Last year doesn’t count, since 2021 was such a detour from potential success with Urban Meyer in charge. Yes, we knew Trevor Lawrence was going to be the quarterback, but we didn’t know he’d be able to blossom in his second year once Doug Pederson was named the head coach. Meyer almost ruined Lawrence. Only Trevor’s talent and willingness to learn got him through that year. There were plenty of head scratching discussions about his future before Pederson took over.

Whether it’s a Gatorade commercial with a bunch of kids or sitting next to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chloe Kim in a Breitling Watch magazine add, Lawrence is the first Jaguars quarterback in a while who has the talent and the marketability to truly be the face of the franchise on a national scale. The last Jaguars QB I saw in a magazine was Mark Brunell. And that was the cover of TV Guide in 1995. Yep, TV Guide.

So, when you’re set at the quarterback position, it sure makes building a roster around him a different kind of exercise for the personnel and coaching staffs. Free agency and the draft have the same urgency, except you’re looking to build, not reinvent your team. A franchise quarterback lets them find the other pieces to the puzzle that will help the QB be a winner. Look at what they did in Denver for John Elway, in Kansas City for Patrick Mahomes, in Indianapolis for Peyton Manning and in Dallas for Troy Aikman. In each case, they knew who their quarterback was going to be for the next ten years. So, they went about building their team, in the short and long term, to be a sustainable winner around their star in the backfield.

“I think you’re always looking,” Jaguars General Manager Trent Baalke said last week at a pre-draft luncheon and press conference. “You look at today and tomorrow. I’m pretty fortunate to work with a guy that sees the vision of not only today, but as the future unfolds. We take that all into consideration.”

Baalke and Pederson are a solid match to build the franchise, both seeing what they need with the same vision. And it helps to have Lawrence as a constant.

When it comes to the draft, there’s a lot of communication between the coaching staff, the scouts, and the personnel department. You’d be surprised how many teams don’t have that kind of give and take when it comes to taking a player.

“If there’s a discrepancy, we’re going to talk about that,” Pederson chimed in. “We might even go to the tape and watch more film on a player or bring in the position coach, or bring in the scout that looked at this guy and just exhaust everything we can and make sure we’re in agreement that when we pick a player, we’re on the same page.”

Baalke revealed there are about 127 players on the Jaguars draft board and the Jaguars will lean on how they have those players ranked and the value they put on them to make decisions.

“There’s going to be enough depth in the draft that there’s going to be a player at a need position we have valued in that area that will be there when we pick,” he explained.

And that includes the first round. With a quarterback heavy top of the draft, that’ pushes other position players down the board. Quarterbacks are always valued, so picking at 24th in the first round, they’re confident a player they really like will be there.

“It’s too hard to play all of the scenarios in your mind. You go through it all then the draft happens and three picks into it all of your work is shot. I think you’re better off seeing the board, trusting the board, the value is set then letting it unfold,” Baalke said.

In fact, the Jaguars GM admitted that picking at 24, there might be two or three players they like who have been “pushed down” to their spot and they’ll take one of them. Trading down is always an option, but the Jaguars don’t think they’ll have to this year. Somebody they really like will be there.

I asked Baalke if there was a “best player” in this draft. It’s a question I ask every year, knowing they’re not going to give me an answer. Baalke said, “That’s a loaded question.”

“That’s what they pay me for,” I responded, kind of snarky I admit.

“Well, they don’t pay me to answer those,” Baalke continued. And then said, “But I think there is a best talent in this draft, yes I do.”

I’ll try and ask that question again after the draft is over. I’ve gotten great “off the record” answers in the past. “Orlando Pace,” was the quick answer one year. “Not even close.” And he was right. Pace went onto a Hall of Fame career.

“The guy we got,” was the answer the year the Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert with the 10th pick overall. That didn’t pan out so either the respondent was lying, which wouldn’t be unusual, or he actually thought that after seeing Gabbert on tape and working out. It’s certainly possible they thought Gabbert was the best player in the draft that year. When you watched him practice you wondered, “How do we ever lose?” But he couldn’t transfer that performance to the stadium under the lights.

One thing the Jaguars have restored under Pederson is a culture that can breed winning. You can tell walking in the locker room that these guys like each other, work hard for each other and want to win. Pederson recognizes that and is always looking for not only talent, but a player that will be a good “fit.”

“I take that responsibility back to the players,” Pederson explained. “I don’t want to micromanage the locker room whatsoever. If we sign a guy who’s not a good culture fit, our locker room can handle that. We did that a couple of times (in Philadelphia), and the locker room just handled it.”

“Our scouts do an outstanding job of spending time with player and family members and coaches, anybody we can talk to, to get answers on players,” he continued. “So, we feel like the ones that are on the board are all great fits for us. Our locker room can absorb that, and they either buy in, or they won’t be here.”

Sam Kouvaris Receives Masters Major Achievement Award

The Masters Never Disappoints

For golf fans and sports fans alike, the 2023 Masters finish wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was memorable. John Rahm played nearly flawless golf as Brooks Koepka faltered to win his second Major and his first Green Jacket as Masters Champion. In doing so, Rahm becomes the first European player to ever win the US Open and the Masters during his career and the third international player to accomplish that feat. (Gary Player and Angel Cabrerra are the first two.)

Starting Sunday with thirty holes to play, Rahm was four shots behind Koepka as they returned to the seventh green to continue their third round. A made birdie putt by Rahm and a missed par putt by Koepka instantly cut that lead in half. From there, steady play by the Spaniard and a series of weird occurrences surrounding Brooks led to a cruise around the back nine and victory on Sunday afternoon, April 9th, what would have been Seve Ballesteros’ 66th birthday.

When Koepka said, “I didn’t get any breaks” it didn’t sound like a complaint, just a statement of fact. A weird, air-mailed seven iron on the sixth hole led to a bogey. The ball staying on the hill at the ninth green seemed almost impossible, as did how his second shot hung up behind the thirteenth right next to the bunker. While there is trouble lurking on every hole at Augusta National, Rahm navigated the back nine with the lead with a cautious confidence that led to victory.

Plenty of “We play seventy-two holes here,” jokes were going around in reference to Koepka’s exit to the LIV tour last year, but that was just low hanging fruit. LIV players Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, and Koepka were competitive and sharp, despite many in the media’s claim that they’d have enough rust in their games to falter up against The National’s tough conditions. In fact, two-thirds of the LIV players invited to the Masters made the cut.

It was great having the best players in the world compete against each other, but it was a bit strange how CBS downplayed the LIV players accomplishments as almost an afterthought. Mickelson’s 65 on Sunday is one of the all-time great accomplishments in golf and certainly Masters history. But it seemed underplayed by the network who has a business deal with the PGA Tour. Even Jim Nantz’s reference to “Koepka is on the CW,” which he immediately explained meant “crosswalk” seemed out of place. (LIV golf has a TV agreement with the CW network.)

I agree with Fred Couples assessment of the schism in professional golf. He said he doesn’t mind players going wherever they want to play but “When they start to criticize and run down the Tour where I’ve played and made a living for the past forty-three years, I’m going to push back.” He’s right. Go play wherever you want, but you don’t have to degrade your former employer in the process. The Athletic’s profile of Harold Varner III was solid and instructive, with Varner explaining that he went to the LIV tour because they offered “generational wealth.” That might have been the case for some others as well. And they are professional golfers. For some, it’s about the money.

While I thought PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan’s immediate adversarial stance towards LIV was the wrong tact to take, some see it the other way, saying as a businessman, he had to protect his product right away. Nonetheless, the 2023 Masters showed us that seeing the best golfers in the world playing against each other is great theater and can be riveting sports television.

The PGA Tour has responded with “designated” and “elevated” events, a move, if done five years earlier, might have negated the seed for a LIV Tour altogether. There’s always been money in professional golf, now there’s big money in professional golf at the highest level. John Rahm won $3.2M for his Masters victory out of an $18M purse. Scottie Scheffler took home $4.5M for winning the players out of the $25M the PGA Tour put up for its championship.

In my four-decades plus career as a reporter, I’ve had a chance to cover just about everything. From the Olympics to the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, NCAA Championships, you name it. The Masters is the best run sporting event in the world. Hands down. When former Chairman Billy Payne once told me, “It’s The Masters, we need to be the best,” he wasn’t bragging, just giving an assessment of their philosophy on how to approach their club and their tournament. When presented with three options to solve a problem, Augusta National and The Masters always choose the best. Look at their web site at Incomparable. The press facility at the end of the practice range at The National? Nobody’s a close second.

It would be easy to say that they have the money to do those things. But it’s their philosophy and pride in getting it right that drives the decisions. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then look no further than the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event, The Players. While Augusta has green everywhere, including the sandwich wrappers, the Tour has adopted a dark Navy blue as their color, covering everything from TV stands to on-course bathrooms. The Players is expertly and efficiently run, beautifully executed. A different competition for sure, but a noble runner-up.

If you’ve ever attended The Masters, you know there’s a politeness and a calm that is pervasive throughout the club and the tournament. Everybody, from security guards to staff to patrons, is unfailingly polite. No running is allowed, and no cell phones on the golf course. Everybody has time, time to do whatever: Watch golf, people watch, have a cocktail overlooking the first tee, it doesn’t matter. There’s a chorus of “Good Morning’s,” Good Afternoon’s” and “Have a nice evening’s” that you look forward to each day.

As a yearly event, The Masters is also a reunion of sorts. I see people there, once a year, and we greet each other as old friends. The Super Bowl is a de facto convention for the sports media world as well, but with a much more peripatetic pace.

No matter the weather, or the competition, Augusta National, and The Masters, never disappoint.

Was I There? - The Masters

Was I There?

I’d told the story so many times I thought I might have made it up.

Was I There? - The MastersIn the first year of The Players at The Stadium Course, Jerry Pate promised to throw course designer Pete Dye in the lake next to the 18th green if he won. Walking down the 18th fairway, Pate doubled-down on his promise and after the final putt was made (with an orange ball), he grabbed Dye by the arm and threw him in the water. At the time, the PGA Tour allowed the local affiliates to gather near the green to get immediate reaction from the winner. When Pate was done with his round, we walked out on the green, only to witness his antics, first-hand.

I hate to use the phrase “it was a simpler time,” but it was, and in 1982, before cable and satellite and streaming services and cell phones and social media, local affiliates were a real source of information and our access was second only to the network paying to broadcast the event. (In that year, it was CBS, so we were the affiliate on site.) Consequently, we were standing right there when all of this was going on.

Pate grabbing the Commissioner, Deane Beman, was a spontaneous gesture. He happened to see Deane standing there and figured he’d throw him in the water as well. And then with the grace of an experienced diver, the US Open and now Players Champion executed a beautiful swan dive off the bulkhead and into the lake.

There are famous pictures of the event with Pate in full-flight and Deane and Pete in the water. CBS Golf Producer Frank Chirkinian cut between an alligator swimming in the lake (actually back on 17) and the three guys in the water for dramatic effect. It was funny, playful, and certainly newsworthy.

Pre-Tiger Woods, the PGA Tour was looking for all of the exposure it could get, so this was a scene played over and over by news organizations and affiliates all over the world. The nearly perfect cap to the opening of the controversial Stadium Course, the Players own championship and the PGA Tour’s foray into golf course design and building.

All of that seems routine now, but Beman had gotten a lot of push back about the Tour’s intention to build a network of courses from players like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Raymond Floyd, who’s intention to continue to build their own course design businesses would be in direct competition with the Tour.

I was standing maybe fifteen feet from Pate when he jumped in the water. Microphone in hand, attached to photographer Ramon Hernandez, we had a front row seat to a little slice of golf history.

The best picture of the event was taken from across the lake, on the hill that separated nine and eighteen at the time. (There’s a hospitality club there now). It’s a great shot with Jerry in the air and the other two already in the water. Standing on the green are a few people, a Red Coat (Volunteer Tournament Chairman) a radio reporter, a TV photographer and a couple of others. And I was right there, but the picture and subsequent mural in the TPC at Sawgrass clubhouse lobby CROPPED ME OUT!

I had told that story so many times I thought I might have created my own reality. But a few years ago Golf Magazine printed a picture taken from the CBS tower behind the 18th green looking down the fairway. And sure enough, I was standing right there.

“How do you know that’s you,” my wife Linda asked when I showed her the picture.

“Because I know exactly what I was wearing. A blue and yellow horizontal striped Wild Dunes shirt,” I answered.

“Are you wearing jeans,” she continued, looking close at the picture.

“Actually, what did everybody in Charleston wear to golf tournaments when we lived there?” I asked.

“Of course, seersucker,” she said with a laugh.

“And penny loafers,” I said as we shared a funny memory.

I’m at my 43rd Masters this week, so a few more golf memories to come as the week progresses.