To say that things aren’t exactly going to plan for Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer is the NFL equivalent of suggesting Jeff Bezos has a bit of cash sloshing around or Tyson Fury can take a punch. In other words, a little bit of an understatement.
The bold new start promised by the appointment of Meyer, and the selection of rookie phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence hasn’t materialised for the struggling franchise. Instead, the losing streak has extended to 20 straight games, leaving the Jags bottom in the AFC South with the joint-worst record in football.
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Five games in, Meyer is already under pressure, with suggestions that he’s lost the locker room, a situation not readily improved when he was filmed letting his hair down at a party the same night his team had lost to the Bengals, instead of travelling back home with his players as is the convention.
Meyer isn’t your average everyday NFL rookie coach, though. A storied career in college football, including successful spells in charge of both Florida and Ohio State, has ensured he’s maintained a high profile in US Sports for the last decade.
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For a long time, he was linked to opportunities in the NFL, as zeitgeist college coaches tend to be. That’s particularly true for those who have success developing quarterbacks as Meyer certainly did, most notably helping Tim Tebow become one of the most dynamic players the college game has ever seen.
Having spent a few years as a broadcaster, following his departure from Ohio State at the end of a disrupted 2018 season, this offseason Meyer was announced as the Head Coach of Jacksonville. The Jags have never been to the Super Bowl, have made the playoffs just once in the last 13 seasons, and were coming off the back of a 1-15 season, ensuring the first overall pick in the 2021 Draft. In principle, it’s a landing spot that’s as sweet as can be for Meyer.
A state (Florida) where he enjoyed so much success, a low bar of expectation and accordant patience to rebuild, personnel control and the gift of a once-in-a-generation quarterback handed to him on a New-York-Jets-branded plate. Indeed, Gang Green improbably won two of their last three games in the 2020 season, to enable the Jags to pass them in the draft pecking order, and snag Trevor Lawrence.
There are no sure things when drafting a quarterback, but occasionally one can get pretty close. Peyton Manning was widely expected to deliver the Hall of Fame career that he did, a decade later Andrew Luck was on a similar path until he chose to retire, relatively early in his career, after just seven seasons. Lawrence is certainly in that category when assessing potential at an early stage. A commanding presence, he led Clemson to a national championship and was heralded the most complete and rounded quarterback of his generation, possessing a big arm, composure under pressure, clinical accuracy, and impressive mobility.
Attempts at undermining his commitment, through ludicrous hot takes based around an interview he gave to Sports Illustrated which suggested he may have other interests beyond football (how dare he!) withered away, and at no point was there ever a question that he wouldn’t be taken number one overall by Meyer and the Jags.
Turning around a 1-15 roster wasn’t going to happen overnight. But a major player like Meyer, with a blank canvas, and time to build around a bona fide franchise quarterback? No surprise that much of the pre-season buzz was around Jacksonville. No one was talking playoffs, sure, but everyone was intrigued, and more importantly excited to see it play out.
Yet five games in, it’s all unravelling. Alongside Meyer’s ill-judged late-night throwdown, after which Jaguars owner Shad Khan suggested his coach “must regain our trust and respect”, there is a similar disconnect on the field. If the Jags were 4-1 right now, the outrage and consternation would be muted. But they’re not, so it’s deafening.
“Part of the reason that it’s been such a disaster (so far) is that he (Meyer) can’t seem to get his head around the NFL,” college football expert Ben Isaacs, who’s covered Meyer for years, told me on my podcast this week. Isaacs contends that Meyer hasn’t got to grips with this format of the game, and there are tell-tale signs.
The (first round) drafting of Travis Etienne was a red flag for starters, with critics suggesting Meyer reached up for a player who wasn’t projected to go so high, just so he could pair him up with his college team-mate (Lawrence) rather than fill other, more pressing positions of need.
“He says he’s got a goal, his game plan is 250/250 two hundred and fifty yards passing, and two hundred and fifty yards rushing (every game). Are you kidding me? Your goal is 250 yards rushing? You cannot tell me this guy understands how the NFL works,” contends Isaacs. (For context, the number one rushing team in the NFL right now is the Brows, who average 187.6 yards per game).
The head coach/QB tandem isn’t exactly fluent either. When both men were challenged with questions from reporters about why Lawrence didn’t attempt a quarterback sneak during a red-zone possession in the 37-19 defeat to the Titans last weekend, Meyer suggested his player “wasn’t comfortable” with the play. Lawrence disagreed. “No I feel comfortable,” he responded. “A QB sneak is something I feel comfortable with”. Presumably, as this scene was playing out, the Jags press officers were smashing their heads on a desk in dismay, Toby Ziegler/West Wing style.
One of Meyer’s opening gambits as head honcho was another misstep, the hiring, and subsequent resignation of Chris Doyle as the Jaguars Director of Sports Performance within a 48-hour spell. Doyle’s appointment had raised eyebrows having left Iowa months before under a cloud.
Controversy — and an apparent lack of judgement – appears to have followed Meyer around. He was placed on administrative leave at Ohio State when it was suggested he knew about the transgressions of one of his assistants, Zach Smith, jailed for domestic abuse, despite suggesting otherwise.
NFL games in London have proved to have been a catalyst for a new dawn for many teams, including the 2007 Giants. They arrived at the very first International Series game in the UK as also-rans, and emerged at the end of the season as champions, with a number of their players citing the victory over Miami at Wembley, and the bonding experience of the trip, as a critical turning point. Meyer will be hoping for a similar trajectory this Sunday, although no-one in their right mind expects a Super Bowl run anytime soon. Frankly, a win will do just fine and may buy him enough time, with a bye week straight after, to change the narrative, and reboot the reboot.