Look, aside from an awesome run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, the Jaguars haven’t had a whole lot of success under the ownership of Shad Khan. They’ve had several missteps as an organization, mostly surrounding the QB position — they haven’t had a consistently solid player there since David Garrard.
Well, thanks to a 15-game losing streak to end 2020, the Jags are in an excellent position to solve that issue with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive #1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. But Khan also cleaned house in the organization, as one might expect following a 1-15 season. GM Dave Caldwell is out, as is head coach Doug Marrone.
One thing that Khan has always been willing to do, and I respect him for it despite his overall lack of success, is take swings. Well, he made the most intriguing hire of the coaching cycle by plucking college football coaching legend Urban Meyer out of the broadcast booth to head the staff in Jacksonville. Meyer and new permanent GM Trent Baalke — who had success with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco in the mid 2010s and was the interim GM following Caldwell’s firing — will work together to attempt to bring this moribund franchise out of the gutter.
Meyer, 56, enters the NFL coaching ranks with 33 years of coaching experience, dating back to 1985 (he’s taken the last two years off). Meyer has jumped from big-time program to big-time program, with head-coaching jobs at Utah, Florida, and Ohio State (also Bowling Green), and he has three national championships to his name. While Meyer has never stayed in one place long — his seven-season stint at OSU was his longest continuous coaching job — he’s won everywhere he’s gone. That’s why his name always popped up, legitimately or otherwise, for any big-time college job on the radar (Texas and USC in recent years).
But that’s the thing: “everywhere he’s gone” does not include the NFL. In Meyer’s 33 years of coaching, he hasn’t spent a down at the pro ranks. Even Steve Spurrier, when hired by Washington in 2002, had spent time as a player in the NFL and as a coach in the USFL. When hired by Philadelphia in 2013, Chip Kelly had spent 22 years coaching in college with no NFL experience. That’s the closest modern analog to Meyer, and Kelly’s college-exclusive experience pales in comparison to that of Meyer’s in terms of time spent in the game.
Obviously, the Jaguars are hoping this is more Jimmy Johnson (23 years as a college coach before the Cowboys hired him in 1989) than Kelly. Barry Switzer won a Super Bowl in Dallas after being exclusively a college coach as well, but he was much more a caretaker than someone expected to rebuild a franchise.
Meyer has a lot of work ahead of him. But he’s been preparing for this new frontier after taking the last couple years off from the sidelines. He’s spent these two years studying everything about the NFL, including the salary cap. This is not something, Meyer says, he’s doing on a whim.
And what Meyer has seen between the lines the last few years is an NFL game, with its obsession with spacing and QB mobility, that is starting to look a lot more like the games he coached with Utah, Florida, and Ohio State.
Meyer’s greatest successes in college came with QBs who could run: Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Braxton Miller, JT Barrett, and to a lesser extent Cardale Jones. In many ways, you can liken Meyer’s college offense to that of Kelly’s, in that he was almost exclusively calling plays from the shotgun and his focus was on running the football above all, despite gaudy passing numbers as well. Meyer has called it a “shotgun-to-run” offense, and like Kelly, he liked to brag about how his fancy spread offense was nothing more than gussied-up power football.
From my perspective, it wasn’t necessarily that Kelly’s offense didn’t work in the NFL — it’s that Kelly’s stubbornness with his scheme, unwillingness to adjust, and his grating managerial style combined to make an unwatchable slog of a team by the time his four-year NFL stint ended. In fact, you can see a lot of Kelly’s influence in today’s football. Guys like Kyler Murray simply wouldn’t have been a #1 overall pick 10 years ago. There is a lot of college influence in the NFL game, something Meyer noted. There’s not “a lot of difference between the white lines,” he said in his opening press conference.
Meyer, though, also knows he can’t be as ruthless on himself as he was at his college stops. He’s had much-publicized health issues, which ultimately led to his resignation from both Florida and Ohio State. So he envisions being much more of a CEO in the Pete Carroll mold, relying on his coaching staff and personnel department to bring a full vision together. Of course, he’s already seen where he just can’t do whatever the hell he wants like he might have been able to do in Columbus, and we’ll get to that.
For Jaguar fans, the hope is that Meyer’s offensive influence and the expected insertion of Trevor Lawrence as franchise QB — a perfect fit for Meyer’s offense given his mobility and high-level throwing and processing traits — immediately puts the Jags on the pathway to contention.
Let’s get right into it: Meyer got off on a really bad foot by hiring Chris Doyle as director of sports performance. Doyle left his previous job at the University of Iowa following multiple allegations of bullying and racism. His hiring with the Jags was criticized widely, including from the Fritz Pollard Alliance and director Rod Graves. Meyer basically said he’s known Doyle for 20 years, and that’s why he hired him. It was a true “good ol’ boys network” moment.
Again, that can fly in Columbus, but it just won’t fly in pro football. Doyle has already resigned, and Meyer has learned his first lesson in the NFL. It was an ugly one.
Elsewhere, Meyer has a ton of NFL experience on his staff. The most notable for our purposes is OC Darrell Bevell, whom Meyer has already confirmed will call the plays. Bevell’s called the plays at his last three stops — Minnesota, Seattle, and Detroit — and he’s coached in two Super Bowls (where I think he made a famous playcall). Despite his most famous decision, Bevell is someone who ultimately likes to run the football, utilizing zone schemes and, occasionally, using the QB in that action as well (see: Russell Wilson). That’s something Meyer definitely likes.
Meyer mentioned that he loves Bevell’s flexibility, and Meyer insisted he will have say on what the offense will look like. But without getting too far into the weeds, I can see why this marriage makes sense given Bevell’s history coaching elite run games (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch). Anecdotally, it makes sense that Bevell will be focusing a bit on the run game, because Meyer hired a passing-game coordinator…
… and it’s the guy who replaced Bevell as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer. For the first half of the 2020 season, it looked like Schottenheimer was going to help Wilson get his first-ever MVP votes as Russ was seriously cooking. However, Wilson started turning the ball over more than we’re used to seeing, and he was taking sacks to an extreme level. Schottenheimer’s lack of commitment to the run game ended up getting him canned, but as passing-game coordinator it’s entirely possible he meshes well with Bevell. Given Schottenheimer’s background as a disciple of the Air Coryell attack — the base system of the modern NFL passing game — he’s a nice resource for Meyer (and, presumably, Lawrence).
Meyer’s defensive staff will work under Joe Cullen, a long-time NFL defensive line coach getting his first crack at the defensive play-calling duties. Cullen has worked the last five years as the Ravens’ defensive line boss, coaching up one of the NFL’s best fronts. Cullen is hiring assistant DL coach Sterling Lucas and OLBs coach Zachary Orr from the Ravens’ staff, so it certainly appears that Cullen will want to employ a lot of the multiplicity the Ravens have used the last few seasons under Wink Martindale. That will include sets of more than five DBs, something the Jaguars have rarely done in recent years.
Meye is also bringing along another big-name coach with no NFL experience in a high-ranking position to his staff — former Texas head coach Charlie Strong was Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Florida, and Strong will serve as assistant head coach and inside linebackers coach.
There’s obviously no guarantee that Meyer having zero NFL experience means he won’t succeed in the NFL. But he’s bringing plenty of experienced names on both sides of the ball to help his transition. I expect to see the Jaguars very much attempt to mesh college and NFL concepts along a line that becomes blurrier every season.
One of the biggest problems with assessing fantasy impact for Jacksonville is that the Jaguars simply don’t have a ton of offensive talent. In selecting Lawrence (it would be a monumental upset if he were not the #1 overall pick), the Jags hope they shore up the most important position in sports. But to help Lawrence, they need more at receiver and tight end than just DJ Chark (though 2020 rookie Collin Johnson has great size and flashed late). I will be bullish on Chark at what I expect to be a discounted price, and with what is almost certainly an upgrade at QB in 2021.
First of all, let’s start with the obvious. RB James Robinson is coming off a fantastic season as an undrafted rookie, setting all kinds of records for undrafted players by running for 1070 yards, adding 344 receiving, and scoring 10 total TD. I’m of the mind that running back is not a need for the Jags, and I think Robinson would fit Bevell’s scheme well. But there is the chance that the current staff looks to complement Robinson with a passing-down option — Chris Thompson is a free agent. If the Jags sign or draft a strong receiving back, that could cap Robinson’s upside, and there’s always the chance this new staff isn’t terribly impressed with his tape (I’d be surprised, but stranger things have happened).
One player I’m particularly intrigued by with the new Jacksonville coaching staff is WR Laviska Shenault. I mean, sure, he’s one of the few skill players on this team actually under contract, so that helps matters for him, but look at the history of Meyer and Bevell with players like him. Shenault has been used in both his college and pro career as a Swiss-Army-Knife weapon, including on running plays, jet sweeps, and Wildcat formations.
Consider how Percy Harvin, whom Meyer coached at Florida and Bevell coached in both Minnesota and Seattle, was used. Harvin had 353 receptions and 146 rush attempts in his NFL career, while he had 194 rush attempts and 133 receptions in his college career. Under Meyer at Ohio State, Curtis Samuel had 172 rush attempts and 107 receptions.
As a rookie, Shenault had 58 receptions and 18 rushing attempts. I expect his rushing involvement to increase.
Otherwise, Jacksonville needs to build around Lawrence. That will likely mean a lot of new skill players this off-season, as Meyer doesn’t seem terribly down on Jacksonville’s offensive line.