Nerd Rage: Urban Meyer and the Disaster in Duval

Image Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On the morning of December 16, the city of Jacksonville awoke to a shocking development: Urban Meyer had been fired from his position as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach.

It was news that was met by surprise, questioning and, in some cases, pure jubilation. Even to the average NFL fan, Meyer was spinning a web of controversy that he himself was eventually unable to get out of. Meyer’s run with the Jaguars goes down as tied for the third-shortest head coaching stint in NFL history (depending on if you count Bill Belichick’s one day run with the Jets.)

However, to the uninitiated, one would be fair to ask how this happened. Monumental disasters like this aren’t just the cause of isolated incidents. How could the tenure of a man who was once seen as the great savior of Jacksonville football fall apart this quickly and with such magnitude?

To answer such a question, we must take a trip in the time machine to January. Meyer was being introduced to the Jaguars faithful as their new head coach. Shad Khan, the man who had overseen countless regime changes in his decade of owning the team, was firmly under the impression that he had finally found his great football coach. The decision to hire Meyer wasn’t the most shocking of that year’s coaching cycle, but it came with a great degree of risk.

The stigma of college coaches to the NFL stems from a simple theory: the college and professional environments are almost completely different. Coaches no longer have near-total control of their rosters. They must work to sign and draft the right players, instead of recruiting from a near-endless swath of four or five-star athletes. Players at the professional level have their own families and must also make decisions that are best for them, not just based on their own personal ambitions.

It reflects in the lack of success of college coaches at the NFL level: the only one who can safely be considered a successful hire was Jim Harbaugh. Chip Kelly and Bill O’Brien had winning records, but their terrible personnel-making decisions tarnished their reputations. The list bottoms out with former Louisville Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino’s run with the Atlanta Falcons. He not only lasted only thirteen games before bolting back to the college ranks, but engineered the most spineless exit in not just NFL history, but in all of sports.

If that was the only concern regarding Meyer, that might have been worth little more than a few raised eyebrows. Alas, there were more red flags to Meyer than the college stigma. His last job at Ohio State ended in controversy, mostly revolving around domestic abuse allegations against one of Meyer’s assistants. Ohio State’s investigation confirmed that Meyer had knowledge about the allegations in the last few years, only firing the assistant when a protection order was filed against him. Meyer was only suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season for his role in the incident, but the damage was done. He would resign after that season due to health concerns; it wasn’t entirely false (Meyer was diagnosed with a brain cyst at the time and needed proper medical treatment), but it’s likely that his knowledge of the allegations made this a mutual parting of ways.

It wasn’t even just at Ohio State; the culture he built at Florida was arguably even more alarming. In Florida, Meyer not only allowed a toxic culture that prioritized championships over character to fester, but actively enabled it. How else could you explain the 31 arrests that took place in Meyer’s time as Florida’s head coach? Even worse was Meyer’s “Circle of Trust,” a group of elite players that were reportedly given preferential treatment by their coach. Percy Harvin physically assaulted a wide receivers coach during the 2008 championship season, but received no discipline over it. Players like Harvin and Aaron Hernandez failed drug tests, but Meyer passed their absence off as injuries. Reports were even circulating that Meyer helped Hernandez evade trouble for multiple drug test failures and reported acts of violence. It was the stuff that ESPN’s 30 for 30 specials are made for. Meyer would also resign from Florida for health concerns, but how much of that was the on-field product no longer outshining the seedy underbelly off of it?

When you add those two controversy-ridden stints, you can understand why Meyer was a boom-or-bust proposition at the NFL level. Little did anyone know that the drama would start far sooner than anticipated.

A month later, Meyer would hire former Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle to be the Jaguars’ new Director of Sports Performance. Seemed liked a boy’s club hire at worst…until you realize why Doyle was out from the Iowa program in the first place. In June 2020, several former Iowa players spoke out about racial disparities within the program, with Doyle being namedropped as one of the key perpetrators. Incidents such as calling out former defensive tackle and future Vikings draft pick Jaleel Johnson during a workout and telling a former linebacker if he considered taking up rowing before saying “black people don’t like boats in water” are just a couple of the most concerning things to come out of these allegations. Doyle resigned the next day due to not wanting to be a distraction, but Meyer’s tenure already had a black eye just a month in.

Good news is, until the 2021 Draft, things remained relatively quiet. The Jaguars, with the first pick in the Draft, unsurprisingly took Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. The real questions started with their second pick of the first round, when they drafted another Clemson player in running back Travis Etienne. There were plenty of issues surrounding the pick. Running backs tend to have short shelf lives in the NFL. Rumors came out that the Jaguars were coveting Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney with the pick. First-round picks should be used for premium players at positions of need, not third-down backs like Meyer fashioned Etienne to be. Unfortunately for Meyer, a Lisfranc foot injury would cut his rookie season short. Rotten luck, more than anything.

However, the preseason wouldn’t be dominated with headlines about either of the former Clemson stars. Shortly after the draft, Meyer decided to phone a friend to bring him aboard. He would bring in a true legend: Tim Tebow…at tight end. It wasn’t a terrible idea, in all honesty; had Tebow swallowed his pride and converted to the positions after his run as the Denver Broncos’ starting quarterback was over, it would’ve been intriguing. The problem is that Tebow was 33 at the time of signing with Jacksonville, and was converting positions with no formal training. How shocking was it that Tebow struggled to block when thrust into action during the preseason? Tebow’s tenure would last three months before he was part of the Jaguars’ first roster cuts.

Preseason activities had more concerning reports attached to them. Meyer and the Jaguars were fined for breaking the non-contact rule for OTAs prior to training camp. Jaguars players were reportedly not thrilled about Meyer trying to implement college-style techniques into professional practices. Meyer stating that a player’s vaccination status was “certainly in consideration” for roster cuts, despite the NFLPA not requiring vaccinations at the time. A lot of controversy was starting to swirl, but there was good news; the Jaguars were facing the Houston Texans in the season opener. Meyer’s regular season debut was against a team that many pundits were already labeling as the worst team in the NFL. What could possibly go wrong?

The correct answer was everything. The game was more dominating for the Texans than the final score would suggest. Lawrence’s debut was a misfire, with much of his production coming when the game was already well out of reach. The team shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with ten penalties called against them. The lack of preparation against a supposed doormat was on full display. The sad part is that the game wouldn’t be the most damning statement of Meyer’s performance that day. A report by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora came out before the game, mentioning that Meyer was not taking his losses in the preseason well and lashing out at his coaching staff after games. A loss off the field to compound the one on it.

It wouldn’t get much better. After the Jaguars dropped their Week 2 game to the Denver Broncos, Meyer told Broncos coach Vic Fangio that the NFL was “like playing Alabama every week.” Even with that remark, the worst of Meyer’s early days was yet to come. On Thursday Night Football in Week 4, the Jaguars would blow a first-half lead to the Cincinnati Bengals and drop to 0-4 on the season. Normally, coaches would want to be with the team after a tough loss, evaluate what needs to be fixed, and use the long week to plan for the next opponent. Meyer took a different approach: he didn’t travel with the team to Jacksonville and instead went back to his old stomping grounds of Columbus to visit family. A bit strange, but at least the intentions were noble…on the surface.

Instead, much more came out of the return home than expected. A couple of days after the game, a viral video appeared on Twitter showing Meyer at an Ohio bar with a young woman dancing up against him. The cracks that had been forming between Meyer and the Jaguars grew wider as a result. Players were (rightfully) incensed by the actions of their coach, resulting in a total loss of respect of Meyer throughout the locker room. Jaguars executives held closed-door meetings in regard to Meyer’s conduct, possibly arguing about whether the coach had violated a “morals clause” in his contract that could be grounds for dismissal. Even Shad Khan released a statement calling Meyer’s conduct “inexcusable” and that the coach “must regain our trust and respect.” When the team is discussing the feasibility of the coach’s future with the team just a month into the season, that is the sign of a massive problem.

Fortunately, the tension died down over the next month or so. Little drama seeped out of the organization at the time since the bar video. Meyer even managed to pick up his first two NFL wins against Miami and Buffalo. Cue the craziest college football coaching carousel in recent memory. There were plenty of high-profile openings at the time, and questions began to swirl regarding Meyer’s availability. One of the jobs that opened up was Notre Dame, a position that Meyer once stated was his dream job. USC and Oklahoma were also linked in some capacity to Meyer, but the coach would commit to rebuilding the Jaguars and not return to the college ranks, unlike Petrino. It would just be a matter of if he got the chance.

By this time, it was clear that Meyer was having a difficult time adjusting to the rigors of NFL coaching, even as the season was reaching the late stages. He didn’t trust Lawrence with a fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak to tie a game against the Tennessee Titans late, despite the quarterback saying he was confident in his ability to execute the play. He benched one of the team’s best offensive players in James Robinson after an early fumble against the Los Angeles Rams in favor of former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, only to bring Robinson back for a few carries in garbage time. In the team’s second game against the Titans, he talked about third-round rookie Andre Cisco playing more, despite Cisco playing zero defensive snaps in that game.

The reports of the off-field dysfunction surrounding the team were also raging like wildfire at this point, with all aspects of the organization seemingly against Meyer. A report from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero depicted that locker room leaders such as Marvin Jones Jr. had grown adversarial towards Meyer, as well as some of Meyer’s assistants jumping off the burning ship at the first opportunity. The assistants who remained were tired of their constant humiliation at the hands of Meyer and being forced to defend their resumes for their coach, despite the 2-11 record. Meyer did himself no favors when he denied the Pelissero report, saying that anyone in the Jaguars organization under him who wanted to play whistleblower would find themselves unemployed. Everything was going wrong. A toxic culture was growing under Meyer’s watch once again. The situation had become a powder keg, practically begging for a spark to ignite it.

Then came the kicker…quite literally. Before a practice session in August, then-kicker Josh Lambo was stretching. The preseason wasn’t going as planned, with Lambo missing a field goal in each of the Jaguars’ first two preseason games. Meyer was apparently incensed with this, going over to Lambo during his stretches and telling him to make his kicks…before kicking Lambo in the leg. When Lambo confronted Meyer about his actions, Meyer responded by telling Lambo “I’m the head ball coach, I’ll kick you whenever the f**k I want.” The next morning, Meyer and Lambo had a conversation where the coach said that if the kicker confronted him again, he would be gone.

Forget the fact that Meyer’s remarks towards Lambo lacked any sort of professionalism; he outright struck one of his own players. Whatever chance there was of Meyer regaining any semblance of respect in the Jaguars locker room was gone with the release of Lambo’s story. Despite Shad Khan wanting to stay the course with Meyer until at least the end of the season, such a scenario had now become impossible. For the sake of the immediate and long-term future of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Meyer had to go.

It leads us to the present day. Meyer’s reputation as a coach is now in flames, with little hope of ever recovering. Whatever on-field success he’s had is forever tarnished by his failures of building a sustainable culture. He had been tasked to lead a great era of Jacksonville football only to leave the team arguably worse off, and he hadn’t even been in the organization for a full year. Even with four years left on his contract, there’s a chance that he doesn’t even see any of the money left on the deal. A catastrophic failure on all fronts.

It makes me feel somewhat bad for college coaches who actually do have legitimate chances at making it at the NFL level. I feel bad for Matt Campbell, who has turned Iowa State into a legitimate Big 12 contender and received offers from NFL teams as recently as the last coaching cycle. I feel bad for Lincoln Riley, who has been a popular name to bring up for NFL coaching jobs in the past and could see interest skyrocket if he can return USC to its former glory. I feel bad for Ryan Day, Meyer’s successor at Ohio State who has developed two great quarterbacks and looks to be a name to mark down for the future. I feel bad for Luke Fickell, who took a mid-major program in Cincinnati and led them to become the first-ever Group of 5 school to make the College Football Playoff. These four men all have legitimate futures in the NFL at some point but, with Meyer’s tenure playing out as a nuclear winter scenario, who knows if their candidacies have been hurt?

While Khan and the Jaguars do deserve some blame for ignoring the obvious red flags on Meyer’s resume, they do deserve credit for their handling of the situation. They realized their mistake, took accountability, and acted quickly enough to keep the situation from growing any worse. As a result, they have been rewarded with something truly rare in the sports world: a second chance. There are plenty of candidates who should appeal to the Jaguars and, most importantly, help Lawrence shake off a disastrous rookie season that might not be entirely his fault. With some of the options they’ll have available, including former Jaguars quarterback and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to land the right man for the job this time.

The Jaguars need to take their next coaching search seriously in order to avoid another debacle like the Urban Meyer era. They owe their players, their fans, and themselves at least that much.

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