Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Before The Fall of Sacksonville

Matthew Sherry


Before The Fall of Sacksonville

Matthew Sherry NFL

When the day comes that two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Tom Coughlin dons his gold jacket in Canton, he will do so as the first Hall-of-Famer to boast his own time zone.

‘Coughlin Time’ is the symbol of an outstanding coaching career that spanned nearly 50 years, and was highlighted by fine spells at the helm of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants. His time in the Big Apple cemented Coughlin’s place in the pantheon of greatness, with Big Blue twice dethroning the mighty New England Patriots to win Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

While Coughlin’s coaching tenure can now be spoken about in the past tense, the same cannot be said of his NFL career. For the then-70-year-old entered a new phase in 2017 when appointed as the Jaguars’ executive vice-president of football operations. The role varies from his previous one, but the absence of a whistle around his neck doesn’t mean he didn’t bring his calling card back to Florida. Coughlin Time, which sees clocks set five minutes early because being on time means being early, is alive and well in Jaguars HQ.

And more fundamental to the metaphorical representation is the attitude shift that comes with a serial winner, who was unbelievably successful as the head coach when Jacksonville first became an expansion franchise, coming back through the door. “What we were trying to do, and the only reason I wanted to come back, was the help build a winner,” Coughlin tells the Gridiron Annual Bookazine.

“The whole foundation of this was started back in 1994, and I was a big part of it. I didn’t want all this to go away. This club had won 17 games in five years. We knew the undertaking but knew, if we could get back to basics and fundamentals, we could win. The players were tired of being the butt of everybody’s jokes and they’ve been willing to stay with us through some difficult times while we got these things established. Handling adversity makes you better. If you’re going through hell, keep going. We’ve dealt with that and the guys hung in there; now it’s a different story.”

The players certainly concur. “Everything has been different here in terms of how everyone handles everything at a fast pace, you have to be early to meetings and you have to be locked in all the time,” superstar cornerback A.J. Bouye admits. “If we’re on time, we’re late. So we definitely try to get to meetings not five minutes early, but 10 minutes early. It is definitely an old-school feel but there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a grind but it’s going to make you better as a player.”

Such is the players and coaches’ devotion that they’re taking Coughlin Time to new levels, the young Jaguars having confounded expectations by coming within a whisker of the Super Bowl last season. For most analysts, it was an ahead-of-schedule venture to the NFL’s top table.

Jacksonville’s success was the by-product of an ultra-confident team with a siege mentality, desperate to shove it in the face of the doubters. Which hits upon the crux of their challenge this campaign: recreating that drive amid a wave of new believers who begrudgingly have to respect a franchise that racked up 10 regular-season wins, triumphed at Heinz Field twice (including during the playoffs) and took the Patriots to the brink in their own backyard.

The task of ensuring that happens falls upon a head coach whose journey matched that of his team last year. Doug Marrone entered the 2017 season with his own point to prove, having stunningly begun in the NFL by deciding to leave the Buffalo Bills after one reasonably successful, 9-7 campaign at the helm. “When I made the decision [in Buffalo], I didn’t have head-coaching options for two years,” Marrone admits. “You need to learn from things that happen, and I have. There are things during my time in Buffalo I am sure I could have done a better job of.”

Marrone began the process of rebuilding a reputation honed over four highly successful years in charge of Syracuse University as the assistant head coach to Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, before taking over on an interim basis at the end of the 2016 campaign when his partner was fired. That two-game audition, and a relationship with Coughlin that predates his spell in Jacksonville, ultimately led to Marrone landing the role full time – and he hasn’t looked back. “Me and Coach Coughlin both went to Syracuse University,” Marrone admits. “He is a little bit older, but we have a good connection. When I was at Syracuse, I relied on him. We would meet quite a bit. We built a bond and he was a mentor to me before I even arrived in Jacksonville.”

The combination of a young, emerging coach and his grizzled mentor has proven a winning one. “That connection has been built over eight years,” adds Marrone. “I think it’s the best situation. He’s a great asset. I can walk down the hall and talk to somebody who can make me a better coach. I don’t think anyone in the league has a better situation. I get a chance to work with someone who has won two Super Bowls and is a future Hall-of-Famer.”

The players certainly see the fruits. “It’s a good bond,” reveals defensive leader Calais Campbell. “They both share the same philosophy; they both agree with each other and, you know, have the same kind of grit and passion for the game. They really want us to win, and that’s what it comes down to, is just, you know, putting the pieces, and it just falls in place for them so they are setting a good example for us, with the work ethic. If we follow suit I feel like we gonna win.”

The dynamic of that pair would make little difference, though, were it not for the extremely talented roster at Marrone’s disposal. He has his general manager to thank for that, Dave Caldwell having assembled a group that is the envy of the NFL. “There was talent here,” adds Coughlin. “The talent hadn’t figured out how to win, but we knew they wanted to win.”

Headlining that ‘talent’ is a defense that shook up the league last season. They boast a trio of stud pass-rushers in Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler; outstanding interior anchors Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson; young, athletic linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith; and a back end featuring the NFL’s best cornerback duo, Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, as well as underrated safety Barry Church.

Thrown into one melting pot, those players combined to finish second in the NFL’s total defense standings, allowing just 16.8 points per game, and sacks, with 56. And if we don’t tell you that, the assured mix of characters on the unit will.

Campbell, one of the group’s more understated members, immediately sets his stall out: “I believe this is the best defense in the NFL. It’s tough because there are lots of good defenses and you don’t want to disrespect people, but we don’t have a weak spot. We are very smart and talented at every level. If we’re disciplined, there is not a team that can beat us.

“With the talent we have, I think we can be one of the best defenses to ever play the game. You go back to the ’85 Bears, the recent Seahawks or Broncos, they were really great. We want to be compared to those teams.”

Jackson, a member of the historically great, Super Bowl-winning unit in Denver that Campbell mentions, agrees. “Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. And we can do it with defense; we want to make a run at being the No. 1 defense of all-time. We’re unstoppable, and we showed it last season. We demand respect on the field.”

For all swagger has become a hallmark for these Jaguars, there is a line between confidence and arrogance – something Marrone is acutely aware of. “We don’t want the players caught in the trap of thinking they’ll start where we left off,” he adds. “That doesn’t happen in football. We’ve been, I don’t want to say, cautious – but we all understand last year’s team is put to bed and we’re building for this upcoming year. It’s a fine line [between confidence and discipline]. I want to let the players express themselves, but watch for them crossing the line. If it becomes more about the individual than the team, I step in.”

Dominating defense is the central point of the old-school formula deployed by Marrone that emphasises a strong running game on the other side of the ball. The charge is led by second-year back Leonard Fournette, who’ll take handoffs from oft-derided quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Bortles conundrum is maybe the one lingering question mark as the season approaches, with the Jaguars having once again doubled down on the passer they selected third overall in the 2014 draft. He was handed a three-year, $54million contract, with Jacksonville’s ongoing commitment emphasised by their not taking a signal-caller during this year’s selection weekend – even with the electrifying Lamar Jackson still on the board when they selected in the opening round.

“It was huge [the contract extension],” Bortles says. “It’s always been a goal to get a second contract with the team that drafted me, and I was very proud. To know that, for the next couple of years, I have the security to stay and play here in Jacksonville is great. This is where I want to be.”

Perhaps the top brass’ decision owed much to how abundantly clear Bortles’ teammates made their support of him during the final stanzas of last season. Chief among those was Jackson’s unforgettable, WWE-style rant at Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who had stolen headlines by saying: “As long as Bortles is back there, if the ballgame is in his hands, he’s going to choke.” Jackson illustrated he had his passer’s back with a memorable riposte after Bortles impressed in a remarkable 45-42 win over Pittsburgh. “He’s a dog,” screamed the lively defensive tackle. “I want to know what Jurrell Casey has to say about him choking in big moments, while you sit at home and watch us next week.”

What Casey witnessed the following week was a fine opening half from Bortles, undermined by his inability to make plays when it mattered down the stretch as Jacksonville’s memorable campaign was brought to a shuddering halt. Yet a postseason in which he was solid represented a shift from Marrone’s preseason claim that an ideal game would see Jacksonville throw the ball ‘zero times’. The truth is Bortles showed progress in 2017, and the Jaguars are banking on him displaying more this time around. “He kept getting better as the year went along,” adds Marrone. “I thought he played his best games in the playoffs, which I think is important. We’ve proven we can win with him. He was rewarded with the contract – but it comes with expectations.”

Even so, it’s clear the Jaguars, at least as currently constructed, view their quarterback as a complementary, rather than cornerstone, piece. Any success they have will once again be built around Fournette, a fact emphasised by their big-ticket signing of star Carolina guard Andrew Norwell during free agency. “We have the swag,” says Fournette. “We’re a run-first team – that’s our strength. I love the offensive line; running behind them in the offseason has been amazing. This is a Super Bowl team.”

The Jaguars hope all these ingredients will create their ideal recipe for success. Yet it is not done with blind faith. For a deeper look at the blueprint reveals some striking similarities with that executed so perfectly by the Giants’ two most recent Super Bowl teams. There is one key difference, in the quality of the quarterback, but you could argue that is offset by a more talented defense.

“Not backing down is the most fundamental thing in our game,” adds Coughlin. “It’s about winning the physical battle. People recognise our defense was ranked high, but so was our offense. Our kicker did an outstanding job. We’ve got work to do in the punting game. We didn’t have a turnover in the playoffs, which is really rare. I like the competitive spirit of our guys. I like it all; but I’d like to win a little more!”

That Jacksonville so closely resemble those Giants should, of course, come as no surprise. These Jaguars are living on Coughlin Time, and following the Coughlin doctrine. The only question is whether the Lombardi Trophies will come as well.

This article originally appeared in the second edition of the Gridiron Annual Bookazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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