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Lesson of the Week: Moneyball in the NFL? It’s Jacksonville, not Cleveland

How Doug Marrone and the Jaguars took advantage of market inefficiencies—and used a nightmarish training camp—to build what looks like a lasting winner in Jacksonville

So I’ve written often about the advantage the Jaguars have in building their team the way they are, which is pretty much what the Titans did last year—putting together a bully to throw hands at smaller, quicker teams built for today’s pass-happy NFL. And I’ve been meaning to get to Doug Marrone to ask him about it. We talked on Tuesday, and I asked him about zigging (building a big, physical, ground-oriented team) when everyone else has been zagging for a decade.

“I just go back to what I believe, and I believe, I always have, that this is a big man’s game,” Marrone said. “I think that you have to be tough, have to be physical, you’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, to have some type of consistency. And I’ve always been more defense-oriented at first, even though I’m an offensive coach.

“I think you build your defense, you build your depth, you get your special teams together at the same time, and the offense is going to take a little bit longer to jell and get together and on the same page, with timing. That’s always been my philosophy. I like big running backs, I always have . . . So I just think it’s what I’ve always believed on how a team should be built, that’s what really drives it.”

It also proves something else: Moneyball is alive and well in the NFL, and the Jags, rather than the Browns, are the best example of it. While analytics and stats geeks got the attention coming from Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, the truth is that the guiding principal arched higher than that. It was about finding inefficiencies in the market. The Jags did by investing in running backs (Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory) and linemen (Cam Robinson, Brandon Linder) like Tennessee did a year ago (DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, Ben Jones).

But it was also in the way the Jaguars prepared for the season, with Marrone pushing old-school methods (did you hear they did up-downs?!) and intentionally scheduling practices for midday in steamy North Florida. They beat the crap out of each other for a month, and did it, as Marrone explains now, with three goals.

1) “We want to win the physical battle, we want to be a physical football team. Being physical means being able to run the football, being able to stop the run, being able to play good, hard press-man coverage, to be able to win vs. man, all these physical battles that you have on the field, we wanted to make sure we’re able to win those. And my thing is you don’t want to just be able to talk about that, you’ve got to practice that way.”

2) “We want to win the turnover battle. We want to be a team that protects the football, that doesn’t turn the ball over, and we want to be a team that creates turnovers, however we can do it, whether it’s on special teams or defense.”

3) “And then knowing, it’s the first year and we’re trying to get it done, when we get in this fourth quarter, we’re gonna fight and scratch and find a way to win the game situationally. Whether it’s two minute, or four minute not giving the ball back. So really we tried to keep it that simple in the beginning.”

To get all this done, Marrone and his coaches ran long practices, and held long days, and generated a lot of confrontation through 1-on-1 competition during camp. As you might expect, some players weren’t wild about it. But Marrone promised the players—citing his previous head-coaching experience at Syracuse and then with the Bills—there was a purpose to all of it.

“You get your team together, your coaches together, you say, Hey, who wants to win a championship here? Raise your hand. Everyone will raise their hand,” Marrone said. “If you say, ‘Who wants to put in the work?’ Everyone will raise their hand.’ O.K., now who wants to be the bad guy to make people do what they might not want to do? Not a lot of hands are going up.

“So when you talk to the team, you say, ‘Listen, these are gonna be our principles, this is going to be our foundation. We’ve all decided what we want it to be. And you have to trust me to put the foundation in.”

Thus far he’s gotten the trust, and delivered moderate results. Posed with the question of whether the blueprint is coming to life, Marrone answered, “We’ve done it for four games, and not done it for three.” A deeper look at the numbers, though, reveals that the plan is working. The Jaguars have broken 150 yards on the ground in six of their seven games, and lead the NFL in rushing by more than 20 yards per game. On defense, their 33 sacks are nine more than any other team’s figure, and their 16 takeaways are also an NFL high. Team-wise, they’re second in turnover differential.

The Jags, though, were also blown out by the Titans and Rams at home, so it’s not like there isn’t material for Marrone to hit the players with now. The difference is that a couple months out from training camp, the players know what they’re getting and have results to justify the work, as did the team’s performance in the opener, a shellacking of Houston.

“Guys said, ‘Hey, this camp was tough, I don’t know if I’m gonna be ready for the season,’” Marrone said. “And I’ll say, ‘Listen, this is the same thing that I’ve heard before, you just gotta trust me, you’ll be back for the first game, you’re gonna feel great. This is the schedule, this is the plan, this is how we’re doing it.’ And then all of the sudden, the players are like, ‘This is great.’”

Compared to where the Jags have been, it certainly has been thus far.

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