Even amongst Urban Meyer‘s friends — the allies and supporters who have stuck with him through controversies and suspensions and, of course, lots of championships — there was reason for concern when he took over the Jacksonville Jaguars last spring.
Could a coach who won three national titles and produced two additional unbeaten seasons during stops at Ohio State, Florida and Utah adapt to the NFL?
In taking over lowly Jacksonville, even with the No. 1 pick (quarterback Trevor Lawrence) and nearly $100 million in free-agent cap space, he was assured to lose more games in a season then he was accustomed to in half a decade in college.
A famously poor loser, he would not be able to simply recruit new stars to gain a talent advantage over nearly every future opponent, let alone treat players like disposable assets.
It’s why Saturday’s report from the NFL Network of discontent within the Jaguars organization, with stories of Meyer berating assistant coaches, players nearly going AWOL and Meyer being less than truthful in the media has come as no surprise. The Jags are 2-10. This was never going to be pretty.
The most notable tale from the NFL.com report included this gem:
“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.”
The details of the stories aren’t nearly as important as the fact that the stories are being told at all. The NFL is a zero-sum, ultra-competitive business, so flare-up, shouting matches and hurt feelings are common.
Yet when apparently multiple people within an organization are detailing private meetings and conversations to outside media, then someone wants Meyer either humiliated, fired or both.
There is no indication that Meyer will be relieved of his duties. Owner Shad Khan pursued Meyer last offseason and envisioned him bringing a competitive culture to the franchise. He’s been in lockstep with Meyer on improving the team’s facilities (sort of a college thing more than the NFL, but whatever).
Meyer’s way, which is based on bullying (in ways good and bad) college administrators, disinterested players, reluctant recruits and anyone else he needs, was considered an asset.
And Khan has stuck with Meyer through numerous early controversies, from the hiring of a college strength coach with troubling accusations, to the training camp sideshow of inviting Tim Tebow at tight end, to not traveling home with the team following a Thursday loss in Cincinnati. Rather than using the extra days to work on fixing and preparing a then-winless team, Meyer was videotaped the next night partying at a bar in Ohio with a young woman that was not his wife.
Maybe it builds to a season-ending crescendo, but Khan has previously been very patient with underperforming coaches. Gus Bradley posted seasons with four, three, five victories and still got a fourth year. Doug Marrone got four full seasons to make it work.
Still, the vision of Meyer verbally beating down his staff, coupled with his news conference tendency to blame the players and his assistants for on-field failures, is not a good sign. Even his apologies to the team (such as after the video came out) have been clumsy and elicited eye rolls.
He routinely throws everyone else under the bus — including Lawrence, the franchise’s most valuable asset. After a loss in October he tried to minimize criticism of some terrible play-calling by claiming that the reason Jacksonville didn’t run a QB sneak on fourth-and-goal from the 4-inch line was because Lawrence didn’t know how to run such a play.
“I know that might sound silly, but if you’ve never done it,” Meyer said.
The explanation made no sense. Lawrence is 6-foot-6 and had run quarterback sneaks before. Lawrence disputed it later, saying he was definitely comfortable. He looked dumbfounded that his coach had even claimed such a thing.
It was just another strange day in Urban Meyer’s world.
It’s that kind of small stuff that undermines a professional’s faith in the coach. These aren’t college kids. These aren’t teenagers. These aren’t guys limited in power by the NCAA and desperate for a route to the NFL.
You have to lead them like grown men — sometimes very wealthy grown men with more power than the coach. It’s the same with the staff. When a franchise is viewed as toxic, trying to get quality players and coaches to join up isn’t easy. Meyer is actually knee-capping his greatest strength: recruiting.
The Jags are at Tennessee on Sunday, an 8.5-point underdog per BetMGM, another slog of a game at the end of a slog of a season.
The story isn’t that Urban Meyer is making enemies or behaving differently in his new job. That was expected. That may have even had been encouraged. It’s that people are trying to undermine him by going public. The Jags don’t appear to be buying in.
This was always a gamble, one more likely to fail spectacularly than succeed.
So far, not so good. How much longer it goes, perhaps only Shad Khan knows.