“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky
“God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros.” —Lou Holtz
Happy football teams are all alike; every unhappy football team is unhappy in its own way. This brings us to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team the likes of which I have never seen.
The first thing you need to know about the 2021 Jaguars is Urban Meyer is a good coach. I promise. I guess you had to be there. But Meyer is one of the best college coaches of his era, and that is what makes it so confounding and peculiar that he appears to be the worst coach in the NFL right now. He built some of the most well-coached college teams of the past two decades, consistently developed NFL-caliber talent, and oversaw some of the most innovative offenses in the sport at any level. There are many, many things you can ding Urban Meyer for, but incompetence is not one of them.
In his first season in the NFL, however, he looks lost, dejected, and totally out of answers. He stressed that he would be a culture coach when he took the Jaguars job, and appears to have built exactly none of it—it’s as if he traded schemes for culture and ended up with neither. His team is sloppy. The statistics—which we’ll get to later—are mind-bogglingly bad. All of this would be fine, even normal, for any first-year coach. But when you throw in a massive embarrassment every few weeks, you begin to have the makings of an untenable situation.
There have certainly been coaches who’ve struggled in their first seasons. Jimmy Johnson went 1-15 in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys. Bill Walsh went 2-14. But neither of those men plunged their franchises into the pits of misery like Meyer has. Meyer might save his job for next season but he will not seriously win in Jacksonville. The team’s most important employee—rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the first overall pick—is in danger of being wasted if the franchise does not build a better infrastructure around him. If there’s a coach who turned their NFL career around after such an awful start I’d love to hear about it, but I’m afraid that Meyer has reached the point of no return in record time—14 weeks. In short, Meyer has a 2-11 record and inspired zero hope, and if there are any signs he’ll turn it around, the NFL world has missed them. Urban Meyer is not an NFL head coach. I know this because he tells us as loudly and clearly as possible on a near-weekly basis.
There are, generally speaking, three types of NFL franchises: teams that want to win and know how to do it (the Patriots and Steelers are good examples); teams that have no interest in doing anything more than the bare minimum to win (you can figure those out); and a unique, third category—teams that want to win, are willing to commit resources and time to winning, but just can’t quite get there. That, so far, has been the story of the modern Jaguars (and the David Tepper Panthers, by the way). It’s good to have patience, commitment, and plentiful resources and to try to build a culture—you just have to not pick the absolute wrong person to lead that effort.
Meyer’s latest flare-up is two-pronged: There’s Tom Pelissero’s devastating NFL Network report that detailed the levels of dysfunction in Jacksonville, and then there is the other bit of evidence, which comes when you watch the Jaguars play at any point this season. Pelissero’s report painted the Jaguars as a joke. He reported that Jaguars players “vented their frustration” to Rams players after their Week 13 game, saying that Meyer didn’t treat them like adults. He reported that Meyer has had a pattern of tense interactions with assistants and told them he was sick of being embarrassed after back-to-back losses in the preseason. “During a staff meeting, Meyer delivered a biting message that he’s a winner and his assistant coaches are losers, according to several people informed of the contents of the meeting, challenging each coach individually to explain when they’ve ever won and forcing them to defend their résumés,” Pelissero wrote. Meyer called the report “inaccurate” after Sunday’s game. Then, the next day, there was this:
#Jaguars HC Urban Meyer was asked about Andre Cisco playing more (again). He said “Cisco is playing a little bit more, I believe, I don’t have his numbers in front of me”— Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) December 13, 2021
Cisco played 0 defensive snaps yesterday.
At best, Meyer is guilty of not paying attention to the details, a sin in the coaching world. At worst, he has no interest in ever paying attention to them. There’s a word for a coach who loses, and who hires other coaches who he thinks are losers and, Urb, brother, it’s loser. The mere existence of the Pelissero report makes clear how many people Meyer has already rubbed the wrong way and how short a grace period he has.
That Meyer reportedly berates his staff is a symptom of a larger problem. First of all, Meyer has been touting this staff for months. After all, he hired them. Last January, while talking about upgrading facilities, Meyer said, “The Jacksonville players are going to get pushed. In return, we give them the very best. That includes the coaching staff. No. 1, the coaching staff.” He is known for being hard on coaches, but that approach appears to be failing quickly. The more I talk to people in the NFL, in general, the feeling I get is that the hard-on-everyone approach apparently employed by Meyer is an increasingly risky gambit: Bill Belichick, for instance, can do it because he has credibility. But if you try to act like Belichick or Bill Parcells and stumble even a little bit as a new coach, you will have a lot of people rolling their eyes at you. If you’re going to act like a jerk you’ve got to be a very, very good jerk immediately upon arrival. Otherwise you end up like Matt Patricia in Detroit or Meyer currently: with people talking about replacing you before you’ve even gotten a chance to build anything. You can buy time in the NFL, but not like this.
Winning at the college level does not matter to NFL players. It barely rises above the level of a “fun fact” you share as an icebreaker question when you are going around the room introducing yourself on your first day of work. NFL players care about being in position to make plays, win games, and get a contract, in different orders depending on the player. Meyer almost certainly knows this, but he can’t do anything about it. This is why, after a Week 13 game, according to Pelissero, Jaguars players were complaining to Rams players, a group that most certainly gets the benefit of being put in position to win and make money by their coaching staff. There is no path to quick NFL success, and therein lies the rub: Meyer cannot get any credibility in the pros until he wins, and he can’t win until he builds his program, which takes credibility—and time.
Until one of those things magically appears, he will continue to lose. One of Meyer’s defining characteristics during his career is how much he hates losing. Just this weekend he said losing “eats away at your soul.” He should know: He’s now lost more games in Jacksonville than he did in a seven-year run at Ohio State. Meyer’s devastating responses to losses as a college coach are well-known—he often stayed up into the early-morning hours on Sundays after losses trying to figure out what went wrong. Perhaps it was a misstep to give this man one of the worst rosters in football. He was reportedly taking preseason losses hard. That was a bad sign. Now he’s losing all sorts of games and does not yet seem desensitized to it.
Meyer enters the most important stretch of his short NFL coaching career this week. On Sunday, the Jaguars play the Houston Texans, a similarly terrible team with a similarly broken culture. The week after, the Jaguars play the Jets, a matchup of the no. 1 and no. 2 picks in last spring’s NFL draft, both of whom have struggled this season. A duel between Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson is not going to be a marquee game; it will be a nice check-in to see if either of them are on the right track. The football world might not like the answer.
If you are an owner who wants to keep an employee around, you can talk yourself into most anything, but if the Jaguars look absolutely hopeless against two of the worst teams in the NFL besides themselves, continuing Meyer’s tenure will become a tough sell. This is where it might end: Meyer, who has coached in some of the biggest college games of the 21st century, and who has scored huge wins over Nick Saban, has to beat David Culley and Robert Saleh to try to spark any momentum that could save his job. Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson wrote this week that “Meyer’s grand entrance into the NFL is protecting him right now. [Shad] Khan wanted a program-builder and he announced Meyer’s hiring with great fanfare and a salary that one informed NFL agent pegged in the $9 million per-season range. If Meyer also landed the new standard of a six-year contract, that leaves Khan staring at a lot of years and a lot of unpaid salary.”
“I want to do the right thing for the team. I want to do the right thing for the city,” Khan said this week. “That, to me, is way more important than just acting helter-skelter on emotion. I think we have a history of really looking at the facts and then really doing the right thing. Gus Bradley was here four years. Doug Marrone was here four years. It was wins and losses and this is a little bit different but, you know, I’m going to reflect on all of that and do what’s the right thing for the team and the right thing for the city.”
The great tragedy in young quarterbacks is that so many of them do not fail; they are failed. And Lawrence, despite all of his great strengths, may not be good enough to overcome a coach who does not know how to build a winning program around him. Lawrence is in a far worse spot than Mac Jones in New England: Jones might have a years-long head start at becoming a great NFL quarterback because he’s working with the best coach of all time, not Meyer.
Reporters detailed this week how Lawrence takes them through every interception, explaining the decision-making process and what needed to be fixed. This means that Lawrence is taking far more responsibility for failures than Meyer. Lawrence is too good to waste on continuing the Meyer experiment. He deserves better than a circus, a place where press conferences are now dipping into surrealism:
The NFL community, in general, wanted Meyer to fail, and Meyer has given them all the ammunition they needed to send texts to one another confirming their worst suspicions. Meyer is not an NFL head coach because he doesn’t want to be one. His Jaguars tenure this season is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meyer’s time in Jacksonville has seemed doomed for weeks, after an incident in October when he was seen with a woman who was not his wife in a Columbus, Ohio, bar after the Jaguars played in Cincinnati. Michael Silver reported that Meyer’s apology to his team was met with laughter as soon as he left the room, and that Meyer knew it.
As for the team’s performance, the Jaguars offense turns the ball over on 17.4 percent of their drives, more than any other team in the NFL, and scores on 21.7 percent of their drives, the worst mark in the NFL. This second number is remarkable. It is not particularly close to the second worst, the Houston Texans (23.1 percent), and you’d need a miracle to catch up to the third- and fourth-worst teams, the Jets and Lions, at 29 percent each. The Jaguars, in short, would kill to have the same level of offensive efficiency as the Jets and Lions right now. On the flip side, Jacksonville takes the ball away from its opponents on only 4.4 percent of drives, an astoundingly low number. Second worst is the Jets at 6.2 percent, and they aren’t particularly close to the 30th-ranked team. If this were a disaster movie, a scientist would read this data before taking off his glasses and screaming at people to evacuate the building.
Don’t draw any broad conclusions about Meyer’s failure. His time in Jacksonville is not a referendum on college coaches at the NFL level; it makes no great statement about how players respond to coaches. There is no fatal flaw in college coaches, there’s not a fatal flaw in the Jaguars franchise, there’s just a fatal flaw in hiring a guy who doesn’t want to be there. The only lesson is to not hire Urban Meyer when he’s not feeling it. I believe the Jaguars want to win—they just picked the wrong guy. It’s time to rectify that.