Urban Meyer isn’t heading to the NFL to win just a few games as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s going there to construct a culture that will deliver championships. His eyes are on everything.
Success or failure. There is no other reason to accept the challenge of taking over a 1-15 team.
He has plenty of money. He has plenty of fame and respect. He has struggled with too many health and stress issues in the past to risk it for mediocrity.
This is about seeing if he can win and win big, whether his way of doing things can work in the pros. Equipped with about $100 million in salary cap space and 11 selections in the 2021 NFL draft, including four in the top 45, he’ll have the opportunity to immediately put his stamp on things.
The Jaguars of 2021 will not look anything like the Jaguars of 2020, a rare situation where huge swaths of the roster, and thus the attitude of the place, can be flipped almost overnight.
Meyer was a good X’s-and-O’s coach while winning three national titles and 85.4% of his games at the college level (Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State). He was an early pioneer of the spread offense and was never afraid of changing things up. He liked finding excellent coordinators and listening to them, which isn’t always easy for an admitted control freak. He reportedly is seeking a staff with considerable NFL experience, including former head coaches, to ease the learning curve. This is pedal to the metal.
What made him exceptional, though, was building a program. Part of that comes with not just teaching players how to play and how to prepare, but identifying the right players who will excel under a demanding system.
“Playing in his organization developed me into the player to be able to play in the NFL,” said Taylor Decker, who is currently an offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions but played for Meyer at Ohio State from 2012-15. “I think he does a phenomenal job developing talent and I think he does a great job with culture, the culture that permeates throughout the entire building, the entire team that people take ownership of.”
That will be the key for Meyer, who hopes to avoid the fate of past national championship college coaches who didn’t pan out in the NFL — a list that includes Nick Saban (Miami), Steve Spurrier (Washington) and Lou Holtz (New York Jets), who won a combined 733 games at the college level but just 30 over five seasons in the NFL.
Jaguars offer blank slate for Urban Meyer
Generally speaking, having a college coach take over a one-win team of a small-market franchise that has little tradition of success (no Super Bowl appearances in its 26 years of existence) is a recipe for having another head coaching search in about two years.
Jacksonville is different though. Its blend of available assets, including the assurance that it can land Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick, means it can get out of the slog that it currently is stuck in.
Comparatively, this is far more like the 1989 Dallas Cowboys, where a championship college coach, Jimmy Johnson of the University of Miami, was in his first year. The Cowboys would go 1-15, but in October of that year they would trade their best player, running back Herschel Walker, to Minnesota in exchange for four players and eight draft picks. Dallas used all of that to construct a roster that would win three Super Bowls, two of them with Johnson at the helm.
What Johnson took over was as close to a blank slate as you can get in the NFL — he also was fortunate enough to inherit young talents Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, of course.
This is the blueprint for Meyer, who built his college success on not merely finding the best talent available in recruiting, but the best competitors with talent. It was a subtle philosophical difference between many other players. Meyer believed a program full of alpha dogs would lead to a level of internal competition that would eventually overwhelm external competition.
“I don’t believe NFL, college or high school coaches [realize the importance of competitiveness],” Meyer told Yahoo Sports a few years back, a philosophy he likely shared with Jags owner Shad Khan. “And I was guilty of it for a while. You talk about his competitiveness for a while and then you start talking about his footwork. I don’t really care about his footwork. When we coach him, we’ll go over that. We can teach that. You can’t coach competitiveness.”
Can Meyer be more Jimmy Johnson than Steve Spurrier?
In embracing that, he would marvel about watching Tim Tebow, his future Heisman-winning quarterback at Florida, organizing teammates in a high school baseball game. Or Cam Newton, who spent two seasons at Florida, fighting to win individual drills during a recruiting camp. Or Ezekiel Elliott, who was a good but hardly elite high school prospect, battle for yards, causing Meyer to offer him a scholarship at Ohio State over higher rated players.
“Will he choke you to win a checker game?” Meyer asked. “If he does that, I’ll take him.”
Will that work in the NFL? It does for other coaches. The challenge is getting them on your roster. In college, there are 25 new recruits each year and no system preventing a coach from getting any player in the country. If you miss on a guy, you get another one.
Meyer won’t have that flexibility in the pros. This offseason though, he’ll have as close to a college recruiting class as you’ll see — the chance to bring in 15-20 players, some of them very talented. Working with a still-to-be-named general manager, the Jaguars can be selective with picks and money.
If Meyer can build a core of a program, not just a team, from all of that, then this could be more Jimmy Johnson than Steve Spurrier.
“He was phenomenal at it,” Decker said.
There are no guarantees, of course. This is a zero-sum league. You can’t schedule the University of Akron. There is no telling how Meyer handles the inevitable losses — the man lost nine games in seven seasons at Ohio State, and he’ll likely lose more than that in his first year in Jacksonville.
Still, for an obsessive coach who struggles with anything outside of his control, Urban Meyer arrives in Jacksonville with as much control over what his team will consist of than just about any new hire in recent memory.
This is on him now; big stage, big chance.
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