Analysis: Coughlin's sequel with Jags is much like original
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — This one might sound familiar to Jaguars fans: An unbending taskmaster arrives in Jacksonville, vowing to do things his way.
At first, it works. A group of underrated, up-and-coming players, it seems, will go along with almost anything so long as the wins are piling up.
Then, it doesn’t. After coming painfully shy of the Super Bowl, the team starts to overreach to find the missing pieces on the roster. All the rules, mandates and minutiae that once sounded like the perfect tools to hold a team accountable become laughable, if not downright illicit. And the one person who created it all has nobody to blame but himself.
Not two years removed from clawing within 10 minutes of the title game, “Tom Coughlin, The Sequel,” has the makings of ending every bit as badly in 2019 as the original did 17 years earlier.
The 73-year-old who built the team from the ground up the first time, then revived it upon his return in 2017, is on the firing line again — his future imperiled by a sagging record, questionable roster moves and, most recently, an arbitrator’s decision to undo millions in fines imposed by Coughlin himself.
The NFL Players Association says more than 25% of player grievances filed in the last two years have been against the Jaguars. The takeaway from the union: “You as players may want to consider this when you have a chance to select your next club."
“People laugh because it doesn't happen anywhere else," cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "They just laugh at us when it happens. It makes no sense.”
Added five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, the team's union representative: “It's a big number. ... We go through work every day and everybody has a smile on their face and we have a great camaraderie in this locker room.
"There's no real issues for the most part. Now, obviously, they don't always tell you when the money gets taken out their pickets. But for the most part guys just go through the process. I didn't know they're having to go through the process that often.”
The grievances are a product of Coughlin’s peccadillos, many of which come from a good place — that of an old-school coach who always believed that football was more than just a business.
But the rules that once seemed trifling — no sunglasses, all meetings start 5 minutes early — have taken a more sinister tone since Coughlin's return. He was still basking in the glow of two Super Bowl titles during his in-between stay as coach of the New York Giants that painted him as a man who had truly changed his ways.
He fined defensive end Dante Fowler more than $700,000 in 2018 for missing “mandatory” appointments at the facility during the offseason. Problem was, the appointments weren't really mandatory — a reality cooked into the rule book after some hard-fought wins by the union in collective bargaining about how much time players were obliged to spend at team headquarters in the offseason.
Coughlin and the Jaguars have been on the wrong end of other high-profile battles against players — involving running back Leonard Fournette, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and now-retired defensive end Jared Odrick. All involved fines or criticism of players who didn’t act the way Coughlin liked, or failed to show up to voluntary sessions that the old coach always believed weren’t really voluntary.
The pushback against Coughlin was as much a sign of the attitudes of players in the late 2010s as it is of their reluctance to blindly follow a leader who hadn’t proven himself to them — regardless of whatever message those Super Bowl rings might have delivered.
As much as creating a mindset, ultimately, Coughlin was brought back to build a championship roster. In his first year back, it was trending that way, much the same as it was in the late 1990s, when he took the expansion franchise to the AFC title game twice in four years.
Led by a smothering defense that Coughlin helped build, Jacksonville fell to New England in the 2017 AFC title game after leading by 10 in the fourth quarter. Since then, however, Coughlin’s moves to try to bridge the gap have looked like massive cases of bad judgement and overreach, the likes of which mired the final three seasons (2000-02) of his first stint with the Jags.
The three most notable mistakes came at quarterback: the Jaguars drafted Fournette over Deshaun Watson, gave clearly flawed Blake Bortles a three-year, $54 million contract and then handed $88 million ($50.125 guaranteed) to Nick Foles.
There’s a chance that the sixth-round flyer Jacksonville took on quarterback Gardner Minshew, who has shown signs of promise in place of the injured and ineffective Foles, could mask some of those mistakes.
But there are other problems raging throughout the roster, the locker room and the entire building.
Coughlin has developed a rift with coach Doug Marrone over Marrone’s insistence on reducing the intensity and pace of practices at training camp, which came in direct conflict with what Coughlin has preached over his five-plus decades in football.
Coughlin declined to respond when asked if he criticized Marrone for the philosophical changes.
"That would be between Doug and I," Coughlin said. “It's not for anyone else.”
Marrone also wasn't pleased that Coughlin dealt Ramsey, a mercurial-but-talented player who was supposed to be a cornerstone of the franchise, to the Los Angeles Rams earlier this year after multiple flareups between the player and the VP.
Meanwhile, assistant coaches are growing tired of receiving second-hand guidance that goes right down to the nuts and bolts of game-planning from a man who hasn’t taken much time to get to know them.
All of this has turned one of the league’s up-and-coming teams into a loser. The Jaguars have dropped 19 of their last 26 games, 11 of which have come by double digits, and six of those by 20 or more.
Add it all up, and the Jaguars are in trouble — led by a man who wants nothing more than to win a championship for the franchise he built, but who is running out of time to repair the havoc he’s created in his single-minded pursuit of the ring.
If that sounds familiar to Jaguars fans, it’s because it is.