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Look out, here come the 2016 Jaguars! (Annotated)

This story was supposed to appear in the Sept. 19, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. It didn’t. We regret that.

Editor's note: In August, SI’s football editors bought into the Jaguars hype, hard. (What, you didn’t?)  A Jacksonville-rising feature was assigned, a writer dispatched, a story filed. But then came that Week 1 squeaker, a four-point loss to Green Bay, and the piece held. When the Jags got obliterated by the Titans on national TV on Oct. 27, it became clear the story wouldn’t run this season; when they imploded last Sunday and fired coach Gus Bradley, it became clear the story wouldn’t run, period.

But that would be the cowardly move. The less honest one. What follows is Greg Bishop’s original story, filed in August, without the benefit of precognition, marked up and commented on by an editor (click the highlighted text to see) with the advantage of, you know, history. Consider this just as much mea culpa as it is insight into the journalistic process: Study the game, do your best to read the tea leaves. . . then own it. To set the tone, close your eyes, imagine a time when Jacksonville looked like a playoff contender. . . and try not to laugh.

Shahid Khan drives himself to dinner, steering his Audi SUV to the swanky Capital Grille in Jacksonville, where he settles into a corner booth. The 205th-richest person in America, his net worth is estimated at $6.5 billion—enough to afford yachts that win design awards, two private planes. . . the best of everything.

O.K., not everything. He also owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that has won just 19 of 80 games in five seasons of his stewardship, worst in the league. If not for the Browns, that wouldn’t even be close.

Khan has lip-synced Mötley Crüe for a TV commercial, he sports a waxed-tip mustache, he was responsible for adding a swimming pool to his team’s stadium. He’s the rare owner outside of Dallas who doubles as the public face of his franchise, and that speaks to both his organization’s anguish and to his outsized personality.

Tonight Khan orders a dozen oysters, prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella and a gin martini. He’s just returned from a business trip that traversed Germany, Spain, England, Italy and Canada; soon, he’ll depart for Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Between passport stamps he’s back in northern Florida with the Jags, this year a trendy playoff pick in the city’s most hopeful season in a decade.

Sipping on his martini, Khan pilots the conversation from olive oil (biggest producer: Spain) to books he loves (The Prince, by Machiavelli; The Art of War, but only certain translations) or doesn’t love (the longtime best-seller Looking out for #1). The oysters arrive and he moves on to Barcelona (“like Chicago without guns”), his favorite TV shows (Silicon Valley, Sherlock and, obviously, Billions), the dominance of British track cycling and the trouble with invading Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” he says. “The British were skinned alive as they withdrew. It’s that saying: Smart men learn from experience; wise men learn from the other guy’s experience.”

Khan, 66, emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan 50 years ago with $500 in his wallet. He worked at first as a dishwasher while studying mechanical engineering at Illinois. His classes, he noticed, focused mainly on principles, and yet he found himself drawn toward processes, which he studied in the engineering library on his own.

Processes—finding better ways to build things—became Khan’s obsession, his gateway into staggering wealth. With little more than a cheap briefcase and a sales pitch, he convinced General Motors that he could engineer a lighter, one-piece truck bumper in the 1970s. That bumper boosted the fuel economy on GM’s trucks, which increased their sales price. Khan then refined his bumpers, making them even lighter (and resistant to rust), and by ’90 almost every Japanese truck in America was outfitted with one from the corporation he purchased, Flex-N-Gate. Now, two out of three cars sold in America are outfitted with Flex-N-Gate parts. Khan used to keep a list of his 18 competitors, but they all went bankrupt. Wise men learn from the other guy’s experience. . . .

As his company’s annual revenue climbed into the billions, Khan started to inquire about another process: how to buy an NFL franchise. He asked around, starting with Bears chairman George McCaskey, who he knew from social circles. Randomly, in 2007, Khan received a call from Redskins owner Dan Snyder while they both happened to be in Monte Carlo, at the Monaco Grand Prix. Snyder wanted to visit Khan’s $200 million yacht, Kismet, and he arrived with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in tow. “A lot of great stories,” Khan says of the encounter. “Stories I’m taking to my death.”

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That chance meeting, Khan says as he bites into a filet mignon, solidified his interest in the NFL. His bid to buy the Rams in 2010 failed, but he landed the Jaguars two years later for $770 million, becoming the first non-white owner in the history of pro football. At first he listened to ideas from his counterparts on how to run a team, but ultimately he decided, “In order to leapfrog a bunch of well-established franchises, it’s best to look at the league in a different light.”

A dessert platter materializes at the table, on the house. Khan digs into a slice of coconut cream pie as a fellow diner stops by. The man bows, indicating that he’s a fan of the Jaguars. . . or maybe mustaches. “I love everything you’re doing,” the diner says. “We’re so close.”

That, too, has been a process.

The best quarterback in team history, Mark Brunell, watches today’s Jaguars practice from one end zone, sweat beads pooling on his forehead, but there’s more than just inhumane humidity in the northeast Florida air. There’s also a whiff of something at once unmistakable and unfamiliar. Jags fans of a certain age might even recall the feeling. It’s commonly known as optimism. “Just a revived energy out here,” says Brunell. “Something we haven’t had in—golly—a long time.”

Brunell was there in the beginning, when pro football came to town. As an expansion team in 1995, the Jags’ 4-12 record felt more like 12-4. But with Brunell throwing TDs and Tom Coughlin roaming red-faced on the sidelines they made the playoffs in each of the next four seasons—a stretch that still marks the franchise apex. Jacksonville has only been back to the postseason twice in the subsequent 16 years, the last time in 2007, the year Khan hosted Jones on his yacht.

The transformation under Khan began bluntly. “On his first day,” says Jaguars director of football technology and facilities Mike Perkins, a franchise lifer, “he fired the coach [Jack Del Rio] before noon.”

“Nobody knew who to trust,” says tight end Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville’s longest-tenured player, in his 11th season. “We’d had so many not-so-good seasons.”

After a 2-14 clunker in Year One, Khan replaced general manager Gene Smith with Dave Caldwell and coach Mike Mularkey with Gus Bradley, a man so confident that even optimists find his disposition blindingly sunny. What positivity the Jaguars needed to jump-start their rebuild they got from a coach schooled in Stuart Smalley affirmations. Growing up in Zumbrota, Minn., Bradley’s mother woke him up each morning by saying, “Something good’s about to happen!” He still feels that way. He says things like, “Did you see that scrimmage? Can you imagine how much better we’re going to be after we watch that tape? That’s the coolest.”

Three bookshelves line the walls of Bradley’s office, the volumes as process-oriented as those Khan studied at Illinois. There are tomes on coaching (by Phil Jackson and John Wooden), resilience and on not making excuses. There’s even one book titled, naturally, The Process.

For three seasons under Bradley, the process-oriented Jaguars focused on development rather than results. The coach lectured his team on kaizen, the Japanese business philosophy of seeking continuous improvement, which he borrowed from Toyota. He ate with different coaches or players each day and challenged them to come up with new ideas.

Meanwhile, crucially, Khan remained patient where other owners have punted. He signed Bradley to a four-year contract—and then extended him to a fifth year—while NFL bottom feeders like the Browns, Titans, Bucs and Raiders hired-and-fired a combined four general managers and eight coaches. Khan likes to describe his team’s transformation as a tear-down rather than a remodel. But now it’s time to move in. “I’m glad people have expectations,” he says. “I have expectations. We have talent. We’ve gotta turn that talent into victories.”

Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

At Jacksonville’s first team meeting this summer, Bradley told players to scribble their goals onto notebook paper. After five minutes, he told them to put those sheets away. Then he told them to write down their commitments—what they pledged to do each day to attain those goals—and had them post those sheets on the walls of their meeting rooms. He wanted his charges to remain focused on growth, even as he also told them to welcome a higher set of expectations, to embrace the love from all these pundits who expected the Jaguars to, you know, actually win.

Mark Lamping takes a lap around his office, stepping over and around a hodgepodge of renderings, proposals, designs and maps that litter the floor. The clutter underscores the organizational transformation under the Jaguars’ president since Khan took over.

Lamping points out various binders as he traverses the mess: competing bids for his team’s food-and-beverage contract, blueprints for facility renovations and an EverBank Field seating chart updated with new club sections that the team remodeled this spring. (Cost: $25 million.) As the president of the St. Louis Cardinals for 14 seasons and then the CEO in charge of building MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Lamping thought he’d seen everything in sports. Then he arrived in Jacksonville. “I had no idea the ambition Shad had,” Lamping says. (No one here says “Mr. Khan.”)

The owner’s plan can be summarized in two words: change everything. That meant replacing substandard NFL facilities with best-in-class weight, training and locker rooms that feature stone tiles, locker-ventilation systems, oversized shower heads, theater chairs, a 48,000-watt sound system, the league’s largest underwater treadmill—basically the opposite of what you’d find at, say, 50-year-old Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Then the team sought to create an enhanced fan experience tailored to the challenges inherent in the local market—of which there are, well, many.

Jacksonville is a relatively new franchise, bereft of generational loyalty. Fifty percent of the city’s residents, Lamping says, moved to Florida from somewhere else. Compared to league averages, the typical Jags fan’s income is low and their median age is high. The team’s market size perpetually ranks in the bottom third of the NFL. Perhaps most damning of all: Lamping says that when asked to name their favorite team for a recent survey, 60% of local NFL fans named a team other than the Jaguars.

Khan and company have had to be creative in coaxing fans to games not just because of their dismal record or because of allegiances that lie elsewhere. For the fantasy football crowd, the team broadcasts the RedZone channel continuously on one of EverBank Field’s Jumobtrons. For the highlight obsessed, they installed two of the world’s largest video boards: 60x360 feet wide. For shock value (and for the particularly overheated), they built two in-stadium swimming pools, manned by a lifeguard. Among the pool rules: Don’t swallow water. No animals. No water wings.

To pay for all the changes the team focused on growing the revenue it earns locally through merchandise, sponsorship and ticket sales. The early Jags teams, largely riding novelty, had ranked as high as No. 2 in the NFL in local revenue growth, but the franchise fell to No. 30 before the new regime came in. So how have they climbed back to No. 25 (and jumped from 28 to 19 in sponsorship revenue)? First, the marketing department, led by Steve Ziff, grew the organization’s contact base from 30,000 names to more than 400,000. Ziff used optimization software to track fan behavior and rank the team’s supporters, based on engagement. To pursue a younger demographic and a future generation of new fans the team held a Pokémon Go Safari (22,000 attendees) and a Family Night with Nickelodeon (27,000). The sales force targeted Jacksonville’s most devoted fans, producing an additional $1 million in local revenue, along with the Jags’ first sellout since 2014, for the opener against Green Bay. The team surpassed its sales goals for individual and season tickets for the ’16 season months before it started.

Says Lamping: “People wonder, Why is all this important? Well, It’s local revenue that allows you to front-load contracts, to pay big signing bonuses and invest in technology, facilities, people. . . .”

The next place that money will go: toward a 94,000-square-foot indoor practice facility and a 5,500-seat amphitheater, set to open in 2017, where the Jags will host concerts, events and, they hope, eventually the NFL draft. There’s even talk of partnering with the city to revitalize the downtown area around the stadium, adding an aquarium and restaurants, everything building to capitalize on a winning a team. “When we win, we have everything in place,” Ziff says. “Hope is the strongest tool a marketer has.”

Caldwell, the Jaguars’ GM, grew up in Buffalo, raised as a Bills fan. In hindsight, his family’s season tickets and the Bills’ four Super Bowl runs in the early 1990s provided future job training for Dave, the youngest of his family’s four children. That team showed him what was possible for a small-market franchise.

Compared to those Buffalo squads, the roster Caldwell inherited in Jacksonville looked more like the old expansion Jags. Early on, his team struggled even to find a player with enough cachet to bother printing on season tickets. Caldwell told Khan he needed time. Khan tried to reassure Caldwell, pointing out the length of his marriage (now 35 years) and the nine executives who have each worked for him for more than 20 years.