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Marrone & Caldwell

At Least A Year Away

A few years ago I was sitting in the Jaguars locker room during training camp next to a veteran player just after a very tough practice. He took his shoulder pads off and let out a long breath.

“We could be in trouble,” he said quietly.

“Why’s that? I said.

As he looked around the room he said, “It’s a team thing. Some of the rookies just don’t get it.”

Knowing just what he meant I still asked “What’s up?”

“Ramsey’s out on his own. He says he’s not doing rookie stuff,” he explained. “Yan is a hothead and we can’t get through to him. Yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“So just tape Ramsey to a goal post for a while.,” I said, referring to a time honored tradition dealing with rookies. “He’ll come around.”

“Nooo,” he said. “’Cause as soon as he got loose he’d go directly to Caldwell and then he’d file a complaint with the Players Association.”

“Really?” I quired.

“Oh yeah, he won’t even carry shoulder pads and stuff,” he said.”

“And what about Yannick?” I asked.

“Oh, he’ll come around. We’ll beat the hell out of him every day. He’ll be OK.”

Anybody around the team at the time knew something was rotten in Denmark.

Talking to Jalen Ramsey in the locker room always left reporters shaking their heads. He was clearly more interested in his “brand” than anything else. Playing football, something he’s very good at, was a means to an end. His recent contract extension puts him in the perfect place for him over the next few years. He’s a phony who happens to be a great athlete. I was amazed he could find his way to his car after practice.

Ramsey, from that 2016 draft, along with Ngakoue and prized free agent Calais Campbell were important parts of the 2017 team that was within eight minutes of going to the Super Bowl.

While most teams would build on that success, for some reason, that team had been dismantled. Four players from that year’s starting twenty-two remain. And three of them are offensive lineman. Only Abry Jones remains from the second best defense in the league just two years ago. That team had five Pro Bowlers and two All-Pros on it.

And it’s not as if most of those guys couldn’t play any longer. Paul Posluszny retired, Barry Church’s career was over and Telvin Smith went off the deep end. Everybody else on defense is still in the league. Ramsey from the first round and Ngakoue from the third were unhappy and are gone. Calais Campbell has been traded to Baltimore.

How did this happen? It happened on purpose.

Like or don’t like what General Manager Dave Caldwell has done to this team, but know that he’s a true believer in what he’s doing.

“Shad gave us a directive to put the best team out there and we feel like we did that with the players that we have,” Caldwell said when the roster was cut to fifty three players. “I love this team. I love the energy this team brings. I love some of the veteran leadership we brought in with Joe Schobert and Tyler Eifert.”

I understand the salary cap. But I don’t understand the philosophy. They had great veteran leadership and they let it slip away.

Campbell, Posluszny and Marcedes Lewis were the unquestioned leaders on that 2017 team. They set the tone, they were the veterans who helped create the culture for the success that year.

Under Caldwell, and even before, the Jaguars have a penchant for moving players off the roster who end up elsewhere, when they can still play. Fred Taylor, Mark Brunell and Tony Boselli, all members of the Pride of the Jaguars, ended their careers elsewhere.

Yes, they all were on the downside of their career, Boselli’s was cut short by injury, but name the players who have ended their career with the Jaguars as a simple retirement? Jimmy Smith’s retirement was anything but simple.

Paul Posluszny is one. And he was, and is, sorely missed.

After that run in 2017, Poz retired and Marcedes Lewis was allowed to become a free agent. Lewis is still playing, starting his third year with the Packers.

When Poz and Marcedes left, the culture changed overnight. You could feel it. Campbell tried to hold it together alone. The same thing happened when Jack Del Rio became the Jaguars head coach. From a lot of guys working together as a team, individual stats and performance, and most importantly their “brand” became the focus. There’s a reason Leonard Fournette’s locker was next to Campbell’s.

Keeping Lewis should have been a priority. Was he still the player he was when he came out of UCLA as the Jaguars first round pick? Of course not. Did he still have tremendous value? Absolutely. And the Packers, a perennial contender, are reaping the benefits.

And when it came to Poz, keeping him in the organization should have been job one. If he was done as a player, keeping him as the assistant to the assistant whatever, at whatever salary, could have helped save the culture.

Somewhere in the Jaguars organizational psyche, even back to players like Rashean Mathis, Daryl Smith and Montel Owens, the thought seems to be only about a player’s cost and on-field production. Not much credit is given to what they bring to the locker room, teaching, creating the culture and leading.

These are the kinds of discussions you would hope are happening inside the Jaguars offices. But it seems too often, they are not.

Go back to the beginning of the franchise and look at the pieces added in different years trying to be competitive. Clyde Simmons and John Jurkovic were a presence on the defensive line and in the locker room when they were added right before the 1996 season. That team was very young as well with only four players and two starters, Simmons and center Dave Widell over thirty.

It sure doesn’t seem like the Jaguars have been in the market for those one or two pieces that would keep that “sustainable success” model they keep talking about for the last twenty years.

Were the Jaguars in the hunt for Jadveon Clowney before he signed with Tennessee? When Oakland had their fire sale on Amari Cooper and Khalid Mack, were the Jaguars suitors?

With that as background, here we are on the opening weekend of 2020. The Jaguars are the youngest team in the league. They don’t have a player over thirty. They have sixteen rookies among the 53 man roster. There’s not a Simmons or Jurko in sight.

Their quarterback produced some magic in his first go ‘round in the league. Now that defensive coordinators have seen what he’s good at, they’ll take that away. And he’ll have to figure something else out. The really good ones always do. They’re universally considered the least talented team in the NFL. Nobody’s picked them to win more than four games.

As the architect of the team, you’d expect Caldwell to strike an optimistic tone. And he does have a point when he says nobody actually knows whether the Jaguars are any good or not. They’ll find out quickly today against Indianapolis and next Sunday at Tennessee. Both teams are considered contenders this year.

“We feel like these guys, the guys in this locker room, nobody has seen them play together.” Caldwell said when asked about the team trying to “tank” this year to acquire the 2021 top pick in the draft.

“Don’t count this team out yet and I think they’ll tell you the same thing,” he added. “We can’t afford a rebuilding year and that’s not our mindset. Our mindset is to put the best team out there to play, to compete, and to win. Nobody has seen them play a game so, like I said, we’re going to know where we measure up.”

I don’t dislike Caldwell at all and in fact, I like Doug Marrone, both as a person and as a coach. I’d really like to see him succeed.

“I really think that this team can be special, I really do,” Marrone said this week. “And that’s what I feel, that’s what we put together. I don’t have the opportunity to go through a rebuild, right. I mean, we all know that, so that’s being realistic. We’ve got to go out there and win games and I’m confident that this football team will be able to do that.”

When it comes to pure, raw talent, the Jaguars have that.

And it could pay off in the future.

It just doesn’t seem they’re ready to do that this year. Players who were on the roster just two years ago who allowed the team to occasionally play “above the x’s and o’s” aren’t there any longer. The leaders they do have are still proving themselves.

I hope they prove me wrong.

What Are They Up To

Like most everybody else, I’ve been staying home, following the guidelines, working on some projects, talking on the phone with friends and tracking the progress against the coronavirus.

And just like most everybody else, I’ve had a chance to let my mind wander about a lot of subjects.

Looking back over the last month or so here in North Florida there hasn’t been a lot of good news. Good journalism revealed an underhanded scheme to sell the JEA. The PGA Tour had to cancel The Players
The Jaguars announced they’re sending a second home game to London.

And they traded Calais Campbell to Baltimore.

The feds will get to the bottom of the JEA fiasco. There’s nothing good for fans the in Jacksonville as the Jaguars move another home game away. At least they say it’s temporary. And The Players will be back next year and I’ll look forward to that.

But I don’t think I’ll ever get over trading Calais Campbell. For now, at least, I don’t understand it.

There’s no way to replace Calais. His production on the field is easily quantified. It resulted in three Pro Bowl seasons while he was here. But his locker room presence and his off-field impact on the community can’t be measured.
Yes, he donated his time and money to local groups, but the goodwill he spread and the positive feelings people had about him, and consequently the Jaguars. are things that can’t be duplicated.

His efforts saw him named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year for how he represented the league, the Jaguars and himself in the community. No matter whom else they send out there, Calais can’t be replaced.

Who asked about that at the stadium? Did anybody from the business side ask what else they could do besides getting rid of Calais?

From a football perspective, I hope Doug Marrone was banging on the table saying “Absolutely not” when the idea of trading Campbell was floated.

We haven’t been able to ask any of those questions of Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell or Marrone, yet, because of league rules relating to the coronavirus. Those rules, rightly in place, have kept the Jaguars brass isolated from the media. When a transaction is completed, the team sends it out on their website and their social platforms. The Jaguars PR staff has been in touch with the media via text and email.

It’s a good process under the circumstances but we haven’t been able to ask how some of these decisions came about. They tells us there might be some conference calls this week so we might get a chance to ask some questions.

Campbell was due $15M from the Jaguars this year. He signed an extension with the Ravens for $27M over two years. So it’s not as if he had some outrageous contract demands. But the Jaguars clearly thought the money they could save on Calais could fund what they wanted to do in free agency. They got a fifth round draft pick in return.

“With more draft capital, we’ll be prepared to acquire new players via trade or in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft in April,” Caldwell said in a press release. “The acquisitions that we add to our team via free agency and the draft will complement the weapons that we already have on our roster, which allows our coaches and scouts to look at all opportunities to put the best possible team on the field in 2020 and beyond.”

That’s a pretty stock answer, and with the money they’ve created under the cap, the Jaguars have made some free-agent acquisitions.

Their biggest move is signing Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Shobert. Shobert is 6-1, 245lbs, so he’s Paul Posluszny. That moves Myles Jack back outside where he belongs. It’s a big improvement not just in talent but also in the personnel they have to run the kind of defense they like. It also atones for some of the strategic errors they’ve made since Poz retired.

Doug Marrone admitted as much.

“He brings an ability to tackle and diagnose plays. He’s a true middle linebacker.” Marrone said of Shobert in a prepared statement. “This gives us the ability to move Myles Jack to outside linebacker, which I feel is a more natural position for him.”

Otherwise, they’ve signed and resigned some players to fill some of the roster spots they think will be an upgrade to the 2019 roster.

But none of them are Calais Campbell. Nice players, good players, but not Calais Campbell.

So where will the leadership come from? Campbell was the undisputed leader in the locker room and showed it on the field. Gardner Minshew and Leonard Fournette will have to step up on offense. On defense, Shobert will have to quickly adapt and Josh Allen and Jack will have to be out front immediately.

“I hope all of this works,” one Jaguars insider told me.

It’s not the first time the Jaguars have made moves too early, looking at the salary cap and not paying enough attention to what’s going on in the locker room. You might think, “they’re professionals, none of that matters,” but it does. Teams that win have a culture and a social structure that’s set from the inside. Leaders are important. None has been more important than Calais.

Early on, the Jaguars let linebackers Tom McManus, Jeff Kopp and Brant Boyer go a year too early in each case. None were full-time starters but they were good stopgap players and excellent on special teams. But it was their presence in the locker room, the weight room and on the practice field that couldn’t be replaced. Younger players were cheaper but the Jaguars suffered each time when those three departed.

Same with guys like Montel Owens and even Daryl Smith. They were rebuilding the team for Gus Bradley but the locker room was set adrift when those veteran players were sent off. And wins were scarce.

There’s a leadership vacuum that happens immediately. Young players need other players to show them the way and lead by example.

When my friend Jim called the Jaguars offices this week to cancel his season tickets, the salesperson on the other end of the line said, “Can I ask why?”

“You got twenty minutes?” Jim responded.

At least the salesperson had the smarts to say, “Yeah, I get it,” as the conversation ended.

“What the heck are they doing down there,” my friend Harry said as I answered his call on Monday.

“Maybe that’ll be the headline of my column this week,” I said with a laugh.

Perhaps a better headline would be, “I hope they know what they’re doing down there.”

For their sake, and for ours.

Marrone, Caldwell Last Chance

There’s a lot we don’t know about Shad Khan. His ownership of the Jaguars is different than Wayne Weaver’s. It’s different than a lot of other NFL owners as well. He doesn’t live in town so he’s not part of the day-to-day operations. As one of the businesses in his portfolio the Jaguars have their own operating management, and when he needs to get involved, he does.

There is one thing we do know about Shad Khan: He’s not stupid.

If you spend any time around Shad you see that he’s a good listener. He believes in people’s expertise. He gives the people around him the tools to be successful. And he has high expectations for that success.

“We would go into meetings at the end of the year with ten ideas of things we’d need to make things successful going forward,” one Jaguars manager told me. “We’d expect to get three or four. Shad would sit there during the meeting and listen, and if you made your case, he’d give you all ten.”

But there was a catch.

“When he’d get to the door,” the manager recalled, “He’d look back and ask ‘Got what you need?’ Then he’d say, ‘Good, I expect some results.’ He didn’t want to hear any excuses.”

Khan’s thing is business. He likes the whole process of finding a business that’s undervalued, figuring out how to get it going and making it work. And he likes to win.

There are a lot of people angry or at best perplexed about his decision to keep Doug Marrone and Dave Caldwell running his football team. They’re track record isn’t great save for one year, 2017. The Jaguars winning percentage in the last decade, with the team mostly owned by Khan, is second-to-last in the league.

Which is why national pundits called Khan’s move to keep Marrone and Caldwell a “head-scratcher.” Or worse. One said Khan was too close to the situation to see what the problems are. That he was looking for the “comfortable” decision to make.

“He did what he always does. Status quo. All good. Nothing to see here. Just another occasionally sternly-worded press release,” is how he described Khan’s decision-making process.

We all know it’s become its own sport on a national level to bash Jacksonville and the Jaguars. We’re an outpost to those writers who never go anywhere other than from the airport to the Hyatt to the stadium and back. If that’s all you did in most NFL cities you wouldn’t think much of them either. But that’s a whole different story.

I’ve had friends and fans agree that they have to “blow the whole thing up” but when I ask “in favor of what?” I usually get a blank stare. And that’s what I think Khan was facing.

The trend of young 30-something coaches taking over franchises has cooled a bit with fewer “hot” candidates out there. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a perennial name on the coaching carousel but after his short stint in Denver and jilting the Colts, other owners are a bit wary. And the question whether its McDaniels or the Brady/Belichick combination still remains.

So short of luring Belichick away for a challenge and proof that it’s not all about the quarterback, Khan could have looked at Baltimore’s offensive coordinator Greg Roman (Caldwell’s roommate at John Carroll. Also McDaniels alma mater) or Robert Saleh, the ‘Niners defensive coordinator and former linebacker coach here in Jacksonville. Neither has head coaching experience.

You could say he opted for the “status quo” but I’m looking at the other side of the equation.

These days in the NFL it’s the coaches who bring along their own general managers, not the other way around. So Shad had to make a decision on his coach first. In his meetings with Marrone, Khan was convinced that Doug was encumbered by Tom Coughlin despite their close relationship. Shad had already made the decision to move on from Coughlin as the football czar weeks before he fired him.
It was Coughlin who set a tense tone on the team, attending practices but without the daily contact with players he didn’t have any positive impact on their performance. It seems the only contact Coughlin had with players was when they found a letter in their locker telling them how much they’d been fined. Or whatever he said to Jalen Ramsey after week two this year.

Marrone convinced Khan he can change the culture overnight, and there was some evidence of that in how the team reacted after Coughlin’s firing. Especially last Sunday coming from eleven points down to bet the Colts.

“I have a clear vision of the type of communication that I want with our players from different heads of the organization,” Marrone said on Tuesday when I asked him what specifically he told Khan that would make him a better coach for this team. “I think that we can do a better job there creating a better environment.”

Without throwing Coughlin directly under the bus, Marrone let it be known that things would be different with him calling the shots.

And Khan believed him.

Doug would be easy to play for. Do your job, no problem. Step out of line or don’t perform and he’ll let you know right away. No mystery there.

Retaining Caldwell on the surface seems odd but it had to do with Marrone’s new role having some input in personnel decisions. Caldwell’s record acquiring players, even when he was making the calls on his own, is spotty. But not that different than most organizations. It’s the high profile, Blake Bortles pick that most critics can’t get past.

Marrone was quick to point out in the last two years that he didn’t have anything to do with picking players while Coughlin was there. “You’d have to talk with them,” was his answer when asked about personnel decisions. Now, with he and Caldwell on equal footing in the organization, he believes he can help make it work.

Marrone has a more global view of the whole organization than people outside the buillding would realize. He’s interested in getting everyone involved.

“It comes from everywhere,” he said when asked about change. “It comes from all the support staff in the building, to the way we’re handling the players, to the way we’re acquiring them, to the way we’re coaching them, to everything.”

And then he was very specific about how things will work going forward. He’ll decide as the head coach what kind of football team they’ll be and have input about the players who fit into that mold.

“We are talking about taking our coaching staff with our scouting staff and really putting it in a true, true partnership where we are meeting and talking and doing that and coming to decisions,” he explained. “My experience with that has been that probably 97 percent of the time, you are going to come up with a decision that is best for your organization.”

Those decisions for 2020 will be critical. Marrone’s decisions about his coaching staff, beginning next Monday will be critical. Everybody knows they have a quarterback issue looming. The offensive line needs to play better, probably with some new personnel. They need Marcel Dareus back on the defensive line and better linebacker play. And their wide receivers need to be better and more consistently open.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But it’s not that unusual for a team in the NFL to turn it around.

This is the one chance these guys are going to get.