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Urban Meyer and the Jaguars Take a Giant Leap Into the Unknown

Meyer’s hire in Jacksonville has the ultimate boom-bust potential. Can he succeed in the NFL, a league in which so many other college coaches have failed?

Ringer illustration

Nick Saban said he missed college football on his first day as an NFL head coach, during his first press conference, when he realized how much the league—and the media—had changed since he worked for the Browns in the early 1990s. One season later, Drew Brees failed a physical with Saban’s Dolphins, leading the team to trade for Daunte Culpepper. Saban not only missed the college game then, he realized he disliked the premise of pro football. “When that happened, I said ‘I can’t control my destiny here,’” Saban said in 2019, reflecting on his departure after the 2006 season. “There’s too many things that, no matter how hard I work or no matter what I do, I can control my destiny better in college by working hard and making good choices and decisions and creating a good program for players.” A few years earlier, a source told ESPN that Steve Spurrier, two years into his tenure coaching Washington’s pro team, simply realized he had no chance. Whoops. “The bottom line is that, after thinking about it, Steve decided his offense wouldn’t work [in the NFL]. It was like he had some epiphany or something.” Lou Holtz, coaching Joe Namath’s last season with the Jets in 1976, went 3-10 and said, ‘’God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros” while quitting. Two decades later, Holtz told friends, according to The New York Times, that he wanted back in the pros after realizing how differently he needed to approach the job by delegating more and treating his players better. No team cared much for Holtz’s newfound awareness and he never got another shot.

The through line in all of these cases is that one day, these former college coaches looked at their new job in the pros, said, “Wow, this sucks,” and left. This first part happens to just about everyone—Jimmy Johnson, who built a dynasty at the University of Miami, collapsed at his locker and broke into tears after his 1-15 debut season with the Cowboys. He did not bail and eventually won two Super Bowls in Dallas. The lesson, I suppose, is that some coaches get to the pros and realize they are simply better suited as college coaches. Or, in some cases, the NFL beats you up so bad you have no choice but to admit it, as was the case with Greg Schiano and Bobby Petrino.

All of this brings us to Urban Meyer, who will, presumably, find all the same drawbacks as those who came before him in his new role with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Whether he is a Nick Saban or a Jimmy Johnson will rely on how quickly and thoroughly he adapts. The Jaguars franchise is riding on it. Meyer can also lean on a very different era of football than the ones that came before. The theme of the past decade of football is how every level of the sport—college, pro, and otherwise—more closely resembles one another. When Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley watched the Super Bowl three years ago, he told me he simply saw a Big 12 game. The sport has changed since Spurrier’s offense failed. And it’s become a bit more like Spurrier’s offense.

How will Meyer do? It is impossible to guess because no one—not even Meyer himself—knows how he’ll react in real time to his schemes facing defenses he’s never seen before. Or how he’ll manage a talent deficit between his players and the opposition, the likes of which he hasn’t seen since before he arrived at the University of Florida in 2004. Or how he’ll handle the frustration of having a limit on first-round picks. At Ohio State, he had more first-round picks than losses—14 to nine. The college and pro games are becoming more similar, but some of the biggest obstacles for any college coach making the transition to the NFL remain. Hell, Chip Kelly cleared the first bar by succeeding in his first two seasons, but then he failed to improve on his schemes, became the most predictable play-caller in the league, and ingloriously fell out of the pro ranks. Jacksonville is making a massive gamble by hiring Meyer—more on this later—but it can work if Meyer knows what he’s getting into.

Last year, Meyer talked to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer about his research into pro football. He said he picked the brain of a lot of his former players. He said some of them, like those playing for the New Orleans Saints, raved about the competitiveness in practice. He said he learned that other teams have little culture to speak of because they never meet as a team, only in position groups. “It’s not whether they run the zone or the stretch play, or the three-level passing vs. the crossing routes. I know people think that’s it. Yeah, that’s fun. That’s intriguing. But that’s not why certain teams win,” Meyer said. “You walk in the locker room and you know why they win. And you talk to your players who are in those organizations and you know exactly why they win. Because the head coach and GM, and everyone, are aligned with culture and talent acquisition.”

That Meyer is focusing on that part of the job is, on its face, a positive development. He cannot solve problems simply by outscheming the Chiefs, or out-recruiting them. This may seem obvious, but so many college coaches before him have failed to grasp it.

There’s never been a hire quite like Meyer to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Plenty of successful college coaches with no prior NFL experience have made the leap before Meyer, and former pro coaches have been plucked from retirement to lead another NFL franchise (Dick Vermeil and Jon Gruden, among many others). But there’s never been a lifetime college coach plucked from his job as a television analyst to lead an NFL franchise. Meyer is two years removed from saying he did not think he’d ever coach again; now he has the opportunity to draft the top quarterback prospect in football, Trevor Lawrence, who, incidentally, Meyer has praised on television.

This is a high-risk move. The Jaguars discarded an impressive roster one player after another in the past three years, clearing the decks so they can start from scratch. The man they’ve entrusted to do that has never made a decision at the NFL level. He has retired twice, or three times, depending on how you count it, citing health problems, burnout, and a desire to spend more time with his family as reasons. His exit from Columbus was ugly. Ohio State suspended him for the first three games of the 2018 season for how he handled multiple accounts of domestic violence involving assistant coach Zach Smith. Meyer retired from Ohio State after the season.

If nothing else, Meyer’s Jacksonville tenure will be one of the most fascinating experiments in recent league history—it will not be boring. Whether it will be worth it depends on how Meyer approaches the job. One of the theories I’ve carried around about sports in Florida, my home state, is that they tend to mirror the state itself: Both are built on a system of booms and busts, a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Florida sports teams tend to have unpredictable, impressive peaks, and then dip into years of irrelevance. Think of the peaks and valleys of the major college teams. Hell, think of the Jaguars, a team that has made three AFC title games in their short history, but lost all of them and somehow have had one winning season in the past 13 years. That one winning season appeared out of nowhere and got them to Foxboro and on the doorstep of the Super Bowl with Blake Bortles as their starting quarterback; the team returned from whence it came quickly afterward. The peaks are high; the lows are really low. Maybe it’s a coincidence that teams like the Marlins, Magic, and Bucs can all operate in the same state, emerging from long periods of irrelevance to surprise everyone by competing for championships every decade or so. But if there’s one thing the state can appreciate, it’s taking a massive risk that has obvious blowup potential and, even if it succeeds in the short term, will likely cause some problems down the road. It’s what our state does. Florida’s state motto is that one day the bills on our decisions will come due and we’ll ignore those bills.

Now, as far as football is concerned, it’s not a coincidence that Meyer chose Jacksonville, a place where he can have power, draft picks and salary cap room, and space to remake the franchise in his image. Taking the job with access to Lawrence is another example of Meyer knowing how to stack the deck for himself. He took the Florida job over Notre Dame, despite growing up a Notre Dame obsessive, because Florida was ready to win and Notre Dame was not. He dominated at Florida and Ohio State, programs with two of the best recruiting bases in the country and a handful of blue-chippers every year desperate to wear the helmet. I’ve heard for months that the Jaguars are the most appealing NFL coaching vacancy, edging out coaching Justin Herbert and the Chargers, because Jacksonville will offer ownership support, a near-blank-slate roster, and the capital to get better, with two first-round picks in this year’s draft.

From a scheme standpoint, I don’t think Meyer will try to fit a square peg in a round hole. He’ll probably try to use his quarterback’s athleticism, but won’t try to turn Trevor Lawrence into Tim Tebow. He’ll probably use James Robinson a lot:

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Scott Linehan, a coach with extensive NFL and college experience, is a candidate to be Meyer’s offensive coordinator. Linehan once detailed to me how, 20 years ago, when he was an assistant at Louisville, Meyer visited him to learn about his spread scheme, the one Meyer has deployed and constantly tweaked at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, Ohio State, and now, the NFL. How Meyer adapts his offense for the NFL and keeps adapting it—the things Spurrier and Kelly failed to do—will be the most pressing on-field question of his tenure.

On Thursday, I thought about a conversation I had with Dan Mullen, Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida and now the team’s head coach. Mullen told me he used to joke that Peyton Manning, not the, err, most mobile quarterback in history, could run Meyer’s Florida offense. Lawrence is a hell of a lot more mobile than Manning, so that bar is cleared. Mullen met with Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels in 2006 and the two worked together on behalf of their bosses, Bill Belichick and Meyer, to talk schemes. The Florida staff taught the Patriots about Meyer’s spread.

Obviously, Meyer will have to change. Paul Finebaum wondered how Meyer, who famously couldn’t stand losing, will handle a league in which even playoff teams can lose six or so games. An NFL executive pondered to The Athletic’s Mike Sando how Meyer might adjust to treating NFL players: “He is very demanding of both the staff and the players. There would be a learning curve that you can’t handle everyone as demanding in the NFL. That is his challenge. Jimmy Johnson did it successfully 30 years ago. The other challenge Urban might have is going from being coach and GM at the college level to potentially having a lot less control in the NFL.” Sando’s colleague Bruce Feldman simply thinks the job is more appealing because an obsessive like Meyer may not want to recruit anymore, and can have a more relaxing offseason.

The Jaguars have had success drawing coaches from the college ranks before—Tom Coughlin, an NFL assistant in the ’80s, left Boston College and took over the Jaguars a year before they became an NFL franchise, and then made the playoffs in his second season while establishing the Jaguars as one of the most fun teams of the late 1990s. After a stop with the Giants, Coughlin returned to Jacksonville as an executive this decade with far less success. Thursday’s news had a distinct college feel: Meyer asked for facilities upgrades (a classic college coach request) and his private jet was tracked to Jacksonville. His hire helps with fan buzz, and he might hire Charlie Strong, another respected coach who has never coached in the pros. We will soon find out if he can, unlike Saban, control his destiny. He certainly controls the Jaguars’ destiny.