Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2021

Jacksonville’s Agony Continues

Since this space is dedicated to sports, the few references to Jacksonville Florida that have appeared over the years have always been in reports on the city’s NFL franchise.  In fairness to the gateway to Florida for drivers coming down the east coast’s core travel artery I-95, a city that is both the most populous in the southeastern United States and the geographically largest in the lower forty-eight, it should be noted that based on our limited but not insignificant exposure, Jacksonville seems like a pleasant enough metropolis, one that many thousands of residents are doubtless happy to call home.  In addition to all the city has to offer, Atlantic Ocean beaches are nearby, the home of the PGA Tour is just a thirty-minute drive from downtown, and it’s only a bit further to St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the country.  It feels only right to note all those positives as we once again turn our attention to Jacksonville’s train wreck of an NFL franchise, the Jaguars.

With four weeks of regular season play remaining, the attention of most NFL fans is turning to the playoffs, making this an odd time for a team with an abysmal 2-11 record to be atop the sport’s headlines.  But the Jaguars led football news Thursday, eclipsing the annual silliness of debating which collegiate programs “won” Wednesday’s national signing day for high school recruits, thanks to the middle-of-the-night announcement that first-year head coach Urban Meyer had finally exhausted team owner Shahid Khan’s patience.  Shortly after midnight, the Jags let the world know that Meyer had been fired, replaced for the balance of the team’s current dismal campaign by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Meyer’s transgressions in the eleven months and one day between his hiring and firing were so numerous that the common response to the news was along the lines of “what took you so long?”  There was, most obviously, the lack of results on the field.  But woeful win-loss records are hardly unheard of at TIAA Bank Field.  This year’s losing campaign will be the thirteenth in the past fourteen years, a stretch in which the Jaguars have averaged fewer than five wins a season.  And since he had a five-year contract reportedly paying him $10 to $12 million per year, and especially since Khan had assiduously wooed Meyer to take the job, one bad year would likely have been dismissed as a necessary blip, with more time needed for the new coach to remake the team to his liking.  Khan might have even called this season an improvement, since the Jaguars finished last year 1-15. 

Rather than Jacksonville’s lack of success, and the obviously stunted development of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the overall number one pick in last spring’s NFL Draft, it was the litany of failings outside of each week’s game, a list that began to accrue as soon as Meyer’s hiring was announced, that inevitably led to this week’s denouement.

One of Meyer’s first decisions was to hire Chris Doyle, a longtime strength and conditioning coach at the University of Iowa, to fill the same role for the Jaguars.  That announcement, in early February, was greeted with such widespread revulsion amid multiple reports of Doyle’s repeated use of racist slurs and bullying of Black players while at Iowa, that he resigned after one day.  Then even before summer training camp opened, Meyer was fined by the league for improperly having contact practices during informal spring “organized team activities” or OTA’s in NFL-speak.  Once the work of preparing for a new season officially began, Meyer sent quarterback Lawrence the first of multiple mixed messages by having him split first team time with that noted QB legend Gardner Minshew, at least until he traded Minshew to Philadelphia shortly before the start of the regular season.  The coach also gave his team and its fans the unneeded distraction of Tim Tebow in training camp as an erstwhile tight end.

After the Jaguars launched their campaign, Meyer may have felt he needed to offer a distraction from the team’s miserable play.  Why else allow himself to be videotaped at an Ohio bar with a young woman who was, to put it politely, not his wife?  Then, as Jacksonville’s season sank like a stone tossed into the nearby Atlantic, there were repeated indications that Meyer wasn’t aware of what was happening during games or even which players were on the field.  More recently, there were multiple reports of friction between the coach and his assistants, capped by word of a blowup with wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. after Meyer disparaged the Jags’ receiving corps. 

Finally, on Wednesday the Tampa Bay Times made public an incident the team, and thus Khan, had known about since it happened.  In August, as placekicker Josh Lambo was stretching prior to a practice, Meyer walked up, screamed “Hey dipshit, make your fucking kicks,” and kicked Lambo in the leg with what the player, who is now a free agent, described as “not a love tap.”  Lambo told the Times, “I don’t care if it’s football or not, the boss can’t strike an employee.  And for a second, I couldn’t believe it actually happened.  Pardon my vulgarity, I said, ‘Don’t you ever fucking kick me again!’ And his response was, ‘I’m the head ball coach, I’ll kick you whenever the fuck I want.’”  A few hours later, Meyer was no longer the head ball coach.

The easy response to this catastrophic failure is to cast Meyer as the latest addition to a long list of coaches, in many sports, unable to translate enormous collegiate success into similar results at the professional level.  Lou Holtz, Herb Brooks, Rick Pitino, Steve Spurrier, and many others, couldn’t replicate their achievements on a college field or court or rink when given the chance to do so in the pros.  Only three football head coaches – Jimmie Johnson, Barry Switzer, and Pete Carroll – have both a college national championship and a Super Bowl victory on their resumes.

But that ignores the clear red flags that Khan should have seen prior to hiring Meyer.  While he was the head coach at nearby Florida, thirty-one of Meyer’s players were arrested for various offenses, including domestic violence and burglary.  But the Gators won two national championships under Meyer, which made him a prize hire at Ohio State.  There he won a third title, but also protected Zach Smith, an assistant coach who was charged first with DUI, then found trouble with drug and sexual misdeeds before ultimately being charged with domestic violence.  Khan turned a blind eye to all that, as well as the constantly growing number of on and off field issues during the Jaguars’ season, until the wee hours of Wednesday night.

Such willful ignorance makes this failure Khan’s, though it is only the latest of so many in an ownership tenure during which the Jaguars, at 41-116, have compiled the worst record in the NFL.  Surely fans in northeast Florida deserve better.  After all, Jacksonville seems like a pleasant enough place.

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