- Shad Khan took a gamble on hiring Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone to work with GM Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville—and that dynamic made the Jaguars’ exemplary run to the AFC title game last year that much more interesting. Now, can they keep it going in Year 2?
DUVAL, Fla. — Jaguars owner Shad Khan cemented football’s most interesting power structure in a series of three brief phone calls that took about a half hour in total. No fancy steak dinner, no formal conference-room meeting between the three of them, not even a four-way call between all relevant parties until everyone was in agreement.
On that early January afternoon, the first call was to Tom Coughlin, informing the two-time Super Bowl winning coach that he would not be considered for the head coaching vacancy, but that the team wanted to hire him as the czar of football operations. Coughlin accepted, telling Khan “If you want to do that, there are two coaches I can work with.”
One of those coaches was Doug Marrone, which made Khan’s next call offering to remove the interim tag easier (the other coach on that list was widely believed to be Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith). Marrone had developed a relationship with Coughlin through their shared alma mater, Syracuse, after a meeting between the two was brokered by university legend Floyd Little. Marrone would call Coughlin regularly for advice and guidance during a turbulent stint as head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
The third call was to general manager Dave Caldwell, who had already gutted Jacksonville’s roster and put the foundational pieces of a competitive team in place. Khan admitted the talk was “a little bit hard,” but only because Caldwell had drafted well and set the Jaguars up to attract big-ticket free agents again but would now have someone above him on the organizational chart. Khan found Caldwell excited to have someone to bounce ideas off of.
After they’d all reached an understanding, Khan pledged all of his monetary resources and implored the group to “roll up their sleeves.”
“I had a lot of people who I respect tell me ‘look, this is never going to work,’” Khan says just a few hours before the Jaguars opened camp in July. “There are examples—you know better than I would—Bill Parcells in Miami, Mike Holmgren in Cleveland. But all of those, there were many reasons I felt they had some key components missing. I could see why those situations were not successful.
“I think this is the better structure, you have to have the right people in it.”
If Khan’s gamble seemed sensible at the time, you might be forgetting that former head coaches turned executives can spoil a building like meddling in-laws overstaying their visit. You might be forgetting that Coughlin, in particular, is so meticulous that he’ll comment on the punter’s decision to change his plant-foot cleat—a trait that can (and has) rubbed conflicting personalities the wrong way.
Marrone, during his various stops in both college and the NFL, has developed a sometimes-thunderous reputation; a hot temper that, according to one former staffer could “brutalize” a staff over the course of a long season. That perception is widely combatted by members of the Jaguars staff and other allies, who say his sudden departure from Buffalo was misunderstood. Caldwell, while lacking in a storied ego, was a widely-courted general manager candidate in 2013, picking the Jaguars over other suitors like the Jets and Chargers. Many in his position would have taken new oversight as an invitation to walk away, or battle their way out in the press.
In short, the powder keg was idle, but only needed one match.
The Jaguars were never going to be conventional, which makes the story of their run to the AFC title game in 2017 and quest to replicate their success in ’18 behind a throwback, face-punching offense and pressure defense all the better. Football’s greatest odd couple is tighter than ever, and ready to go after a Super Bowl.
And to think, it all started with the idea of designers and developers.
Khan, a self-made billionaire who made his fortune selling custom bumpers to major auto manufacturers, couldn’t help but think about staffing his own company over the years when building the Jaguars’ front office. While the management of egos and cohesion among employees are important in the business world, the greatest temptation is to first accumulate and stack talent. He likened the head coaching and general manager roles especially to the design and development departments, where a company generates its lifeblood.
“You want to have as much brain power and opinion as you can,” Khan says.
Five straight seasons of five or fewer wins motivated him to sidestep warnings from many in the NFL who had seen different versions of the model fail. It didn’t hurt that, in Marrone, he found a similarly wayward soul willing to try anything after years in the grinder.
“The head coach position, it’s a lonely deal,” says Marrone, en route to the stadium after the kind of long, muggy practice that has become synonymous with the new Jaguar regime. “You know? To have someone like coach Coughlin, whose been through pretty much everything, to help me and to make sure I don’t make mistakes…”
Marrone stops himself and recalls one of the many conversations he’s had with others in the business who have wondered why he agreed to something like this. “They always ask, ‘what’s it like?’” Marrone says. “And I’m like, ‘it’s unbelievable. It’s awesome.’ When you’re in there making critical decisions about your team, it’s unbelievable to have a resource there who watches it and sees it.”
While the head coach at Syracuse, Marrone says he failed at properly delegating power and responsibility. The initial weight of the head coaching position tends to hit a newbie all at once as questions mount—with only one person to answer them. Marrone would fret over what position groups to watch in practice, whether he wanted to be the one blowing the whistle, whether he wanted to be the one calling for wind sprints after practice and which side of the ball to watch film with more frequently after workouts. He had to plan and organizes staff meetings, and craft a message to the team.
This is where Coughlin comes in—he negates some of that in Jacksonville, and can assume a role closer to the school principal (right down to dictating the dress code), which takes some of the over-arching administrative duties from the coach’s desk.
“I look at the situation as being perfect, at least for me,” Marrone said. “It was years ago, in college football, the college coaches coached for a long time and had success, then they’d retire and become the athletic director and someone on staff became head coach.
“He takes some things off my plate that are a little outside the realm of the team.”
When pitched a generality about most coaches being the type of people who crave the control Marrone ceded in this position, he stopped and laughed—perhaps a recognition of where he was at one point in his head coaching life, and where he hoped to be.
“No,” he said. “No, no.”
It’s 10:52 a.m. on a mercifully overcast Thursday during training camp and signs of Coughlin are spread throughout the practice field.
His former offensive line coach, Pat Flaherty, and former defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell, are both on staff in similar roles (Fewell is the team’s secondary coach). Coughlin’s son-in-law, former Giants Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee, is an area scout for the team but hangs around for camp and the beginning of the regular season to aide in coaching the rookie linemen. Keenan McCardell, who played for Coughlin in Jacksonville, is the team’s wide receivers coach.
Above the mundane clatter of pads and cleats shuffling in the grass rises the voice of one assistant not pleased with the tempo of a drill and screams: “It’s a short f------ run! SO RUN!” Another Coughlin staple.
Wearing his trademark bucket hat and long sleeves, Coughlin sidles up to Marrone for a five-minute chat between two practice fields. In so many places, this would be considered blasphemous. The head coach is the maestro, and no one taps him while the orchestra is humming. Here, it’s all part of the framework.
When talking to those who closely observe the Jaguars, it comes down to that continued suppression of ego. Who gets the credit when things go right? And, is everyone cool with that?
It still seems so impossible, and yet here we are, at the beginning of a season in which they’ll open as a Super Bowl favorite. Everyone has hand a hand in this so far, from Caldwell’s continued free-agency hit streak, which netted them $13 million guard Andrew Norwell to supercharge the running game, to Coughlin’s efforts in messaging and discipline. Marrone, unlike previous coaches, has been able to maximize the talent around him.
The three—Coughlin, Caldwell and Marrone—walked off the field together that Thursday looking like the Reservoir Dogs in athleisure. After one long season, one incredible run, they are still in lockstep.