An article ran on APnews.com recently asking whether the Jacksonville Jaguars is the worst franchise in professional sport. Of course, for anyone who has spent time following the organization, the immediate reaction is to baulk at the notion of it. Surely things are worse elsewhere?
Even if we were to only consider NFL franchises; some organizations must operate at a lower level than the Jaguars. Look at the Washington Football Team and the alleged escapades of their scrutinized owner. Or at how the Detroit Lions got things so wrong with Megatron and Barry Sanders. Failing that, can we not once again all turn to the perennial laughing stock of the National Football League and say: “poor Cleveland”?
The answer is no.
The reason? Whilst no club has gotten 100% of their personnel decisions correct; the team’s above have all at least attempted to change. Since Shad Khan bought the Jaguars in 2012, the Washington Football Team have had four head coaches and three general managers. Whilst the Cleveland Browns rotate leadership more often than they do their uniforms. But crucially, they have done so because these teams all stay committed to the ultimate goal of producing a winning product. Unfortunately, we have now reached a point where questions must be asked about Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s commitment to the same ends.
When Khan bought the team in 2012 he decided to give the existing staff an opportunity the following season. In an interview with Forbes; the business mogul explained that he had lengthy conversations with previous owner Wayne Weaver in order to better understand the football side of his new responsibilities: “I don’t think just coming into the league right away you would have figured out what are the attributes for a successful head coach or what are the attributes for a successful general manager.”
Despite not feeling comfortable to make any brash decisions in his first weeks of ownership, it wasn’t long after a disappointing two-win season that Khan overhauled the organization and ousted Weaver’s staff. Bringing a fresh new tone to the future of Jacksonville football.
“Well, you hit bottom. You’re 2-14. You unshackle from the past.
“[We are] rebuilding from the ground up. There’s no illusion about that. This is about as clean and intense a rebuild as you’re going to have… [Cleaning house] is disruptive and expensive. I just felt that it was the right thing to do for the fans, for the Jaguars. I was going to have a hard time looking myself in the mirror because I knew what we had to do. There was just no two ways about it.”
With “unshackling from the past” at the forefront of Khan’s vision, the only logical step was to take steps toward the future. The novice owner attempted to build a new culture within the organisation by infusing the front office with youth. Former Atlanta Falcons executive Dave Caldwell became the Jaguars’ new general manager, hiring fellow first-timer Gus Bradley as his head coach.
The weekend following the 2013 NFL Draft; Khan again sounded acquiescent in his leadership when questioned on the organization’s approach to roster-building. He told NFL.com:
“My goal was to get the couple of key people, Dave Caldwell, Gus, in and really empower them to do the right thing.
“There are over 3,000 now professional football players in the league. Who they decide to pick, they need to come up with the best players who’s gonna put us in a position to win.”
There’s evidence littered throughout professional sports highlighting the negative impacts that can be caused by an over-bearing owner inserting their authority over matters of personnel. So provided that the team is successful, there would be an awful lot of merit in an inexperienced owner such as Khan taking a step back and not letting his position of influence interrupt the progress of the franchise.
Of course, this only works if there is progress.
During each of the three full seasons Gus Bradley served as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars the team registered less than five wins. Making them tied with the Buccaneers for the fewest wins in the entire league during that span. In fact, Bradley’s tenure with the team was so poor, his putrid 14-48 record as a head coach qualifies him as the least-winning coach in the modern era of the NFL to have played over 50 games – the second-worst in the history of professional football. ‘Beaten’ only by former Eagles owner Bert Bell, who undertook coaching responsibilities of his team during WW2.
Regardless, it would be unfair to place all of the blame on the coach’s shoulders. It is a fair assessment that the Jaguars roster needed a complete makeover when Caldwell arrived in Jacksonville, which is why he invested draft capital searching for the cornerstones of the franchise. In his first four years he took:
2nd Overall 2013) Luke Joeckel, LT, Texas A&M – out of the league in five years
3rd Overall 2014) Blake Bortles, QB, UCF – 24-49 as a stater, now a free agent
4th Overall 2015) Dante Fowler, DE, Florida – missed his rookie season -14 career sacks for the Jaguars, now on his third team in 5 years.
5th Overall 2016) Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State – All-Pro, 3x Pro-Bowler, forced a trade in 2019
Not only has the misuse of premium draft capital been an issue, but player retention quickly became a significant problem for Caldwell. By the beginning of the 2017 campaign the Jaguars had zero of their eight 2013 draft picks left on the roster. Whilst throughout 2014-2017 the Jaguars made a total of 31 draft picks, following the recent trade of Ronnie Harrison to the Cleveland Browns – only six remain.
You may think that because the Jaguars were in possession of such valuable draft capital that the team wouldn’t necessarily be spending big money trying to bring in acquisitions elsewhere, but that was simply not the case. According to ESPN, the Jaguars spent a staggering $488,000,000m on new signings between 2014-16 – far and away the most in the NFL, yet the team only signed 28 new players in that time (tied-16th). Whilst Caldwell was sensible in the way he worded these contracts, usually front loaded and lower in guarantees, the Jaguars still gave away an eye-watering $183,500,000 in guaranteed cash in return for only 11 wins. Working out at over $16,500,000m per victory.
Given the lack of success the Jaguars had under Gus Bradley, it’s no surprise that Shad Khan made the decision to go in a different direction before the end of the 2016 season. Also not coming as a shock was the impending remodel of the roster. The Jaguars hired then special-teams coordinator and former Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone, whilst also bringing in former Super Bowl winner and long time Jacksonville hero Tom Coughlin as the executive vice president of football operations.
The one surprise however, given the amount of turnover at the organization, was that Dave Caldwell remained the general manager of the Jaguars. It seemed Khan was more patient with him despite the obvious shortcomings in the three years prior and believed he and Coughlin could work together to produce a winning product.
With Coughlin came an old-school approach to football. In his first draft back in Jacksonville, the Jaguars took running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick and a left tackle in the second round. Having just spent big money on the defensive side of the ball (Calais Campbell had just signed for $60m, A.J Bouye for $67.5m and Barry Church for $26m) the pair seemed committed to establishing the trenches and taking the pressure away from maligned passer Blake Bortles.
In some ways, the duo did just that. During their first season together the new front office took Jacksonville to a 10-6 record and were one dodgy call away from representing the AFC in Super Bowl 52. Of course success always comes at a price, but nobody could have possibly seen the impending costs – both financially and otherwise.
Whilst theirs was a strategy which proved fruitful in the short term, unfortunately for fans the success the team found was fleeting at best. Failing to address the quarterback position despite only having Bortles and Chad Henne on the roster – considering both Deshaun Watson and Super Bowl and league MVP Patrick Mahomes were on the board, meant this new found success was never built to last.
Jaguars fans had finally just gotten used to their team being talked about as the hot new thing on the NFL scene before having it ripped away from them, forced to watch Cody Kessler start games under-center the very next season.
To compound the misery on Jacksonville fans, things weren’t just unravelling on the field. Multiple reports began to leak about the Jaguars players growing tired of Coughlin’s approach. Things like being fined if you weren’t five minutes early to a meeting (all the clocks within the Jaguars facility had been turned back so people were always early) to receiving penalties if you didn’t attend voluntary workouts quickly turned the players at the facility against the regime:
“I just never was a part of something like that” said A.J Bouye to SiriusXM radio following the announcement of his trade to the Denver Broncos earlier this year. “It was just something different and I didn’t know how to handle that. . . . It was so many things. From fighting in the locker room and disagreements to people wanting to be gone, I’ve just never seen that before.”
There should be no surprise that multiple players wanted their ticket out of Jacksonville. In the two years following Coughlin’s appointment as EVP, 25% of the NFLPA’s total grievances from players across the league were filed against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It transpired that prior to trading him the organization had fined Dante Fowler 25 times to the total of $700,000 over the course of a single off-season for missing “mandatory appointments”, as Coughlin attempted to force Fowler into doing all of his rehab with the Jaguars medical staff.
In a tweet Fowler said: “They literally hated me. I got it all back though!”
Fowler wasn’t the only player who Coughlin drove away from Jacksonville. Jalen Ramsey stated on the 17 Weeks podcast that comments made following the Jaguars Week 2 loss to Houston last season were what ultimately made his mind up about forcing a trade.
“There had been an incident on the sideline with me and coach. I didn’t think much of that in particular because that happens from time to time. That’s passion and emotion I feel like that blew up a little bit more than it should have.”
“[After the game] some disrespectful things were said on their end that made me definitely walk out and call my agent as soon as I walked out, and I told him, I said, ‘It’s time; my time is up here in Jacksonville. I want to ask for a trade.”
The former head coach was also responsible for Yannick Ngakoue wanting to leave the team. As his approach (or lack thereof) to contract negotiations with Yannick Ngakoue last off-season ultimately led to talks breaking down between the two sides. It was reported that the Jaguars offered a short-term deal worth around $19m annually. Whilst Ngakoue didn’t shy away from the fact he was hoping for a higher salary, his biggest issue with the proposed deal was the lack of long-term guarantees. Something he rightly felt he had earned being second place on the franchise’s all-time sack leaders list at only 25 years-old.
The VP, taking exception to Ngakoue’s demands said that the team had “offered their final and best offer” to their star pass-rusher, despite being less than a month into negotations. It comes as little surprise that the relationship between Yannick and the team began to break down as a result of Coughlin’s outrageous comments, which has ultimately led to him becoming a Minnesota Viking.
Shockingly, the most disturbing thing about Coughlin’s second tenure with the team wasn’t even his poor relationship with, or lack of ability to manage the players. The levels with which he had violated the collective bargaining agreement brought the franchise into such disrepute that the NFLPA actively advised their players not to sign with the team – something the union hadn’t previously felt compelled to do since it began in 1956. It only took two days after the NFLPA’s statement for the Jaguars to fire Tom Coughlin as Shad Khan scrambled to save face. Shortly followed by a tweet from now LA Ram Jalen Ramsey saying simply: “Tried to tell y’all.”
Fowler and Ramsey aren’t the only former players to sound off against the franchise, former third-round pick Ronnie Harrison took to Twitter following his trade to Cleveland saying: “So Relieved To Be Out Of Jacksonville And Around A New Team Who Wants One Common Goal! Thank You God!”
Despite the owner taking no time at all to remove the toxic presence from the facility question need to be asked about his seeming lack of knowledge about the situation. How can the principal owner of an NFL franchise be ignorant to such obvious misconduct? If Khan truly had no knowledge of the violations that his front office were committing then that serves as concrete proof that his lasseiz-faire approach to ownership simply isn’t working.
Following another disappointing season, Shad Khan has decided to stick with Dave Caldwell and Doug Marrone for 2020 to see if they can right some of the wrongs caused by the decision to bring back Coughlin. Hoping somehow that after a season marred by such controversy that something fresh and more sustainable could grow. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller said on a podcast this week: “It’s similar to the Dolphins that they’re trying to flip the culture here”. As the Dolphins are trying to show, the best way to generate a new culture is with new personnel.
With this approach the Jaguars set about their third exodus in the seven years that Caldwell has been the general manager. Getting a third offensive coordinator in as many years. Trading away starting players for little to no compensation. Whilst also cutting former fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette. There is now only a shell of the team Coughlin was trying to build. With an abundance of draft capital and bountiful cap space it won’t be long until all memory of this failed experiment is long gone.
All memory other than Dave Caldwell of course. Who rather inexplicably seems to be preparing for another draft cycle as general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, having amassed an impressive 11 picks already for 2021. Having 23 selections across 2020 and 2021 should fill Jaguars fans with hope about finding a good core of young players to hopefully remodel their team but it is difficult to put faith in the current regime to make these picks stick.
Ultimately, Shad Khan has fired almost everybody who has failed to bring success to Jacksonville. Gus Bradley has gone. Tom Coughlin has gone. If the Jaguars don’t win this year, Doug Marrone said himself that he is likely to be gone. Why then, does Khan have unreserved confidence in Dave Caldwell despite a harrowing record of 36-76?
Stick to Football’s Connor Rogers posed the same question on Tuesday, asking: “How many guys are in the position Dave Caldwell is in? None. Nobody ever gets to blow it up twice.” And he’s right.
You would be hard pressed to find a general manager in the history of football to have been awarded such patience by ownership despite delivering just one winning season.
So the question remains, is Shad Khan concerned about winning? It’s no secret that he’s made a tidy profit from becoming involved with the NFL. The team was recently valued at $2.33b having been bought for less than a third of just eight years ago. I don’t think it’s that Khan doesn’t necessarily care about his responsibilities as an owner, he just isn’t very good at them. Business is his bread and butter, which is why it is no surprise to see the valuation of the franchise spike so highly. Things like the international series at Wembley, the impending Lot J development have all done wonders for the financial strength of the team but all the while the product on the field is no better than it was when he arrived.
Whether his persistence with what isn’t working is down to genuine faith or sheer belligerence; if the Jaguars fail to win this year – which they will, then there simply must be meaningful change toward strong leadership and a sense of purpose and direction emanating from the front office. Otherwise the Jacksonville Jaguars could be languishing at the bottom of the professional sports totem pole for a generation.