Over the last three years in Jacksonville, in his role as executive vice president of football operations, Tom Coughlin did his best to be respectful of Doug Marrone, the Jaguars’ head coach. But Coughlin’s desire to do coach-like things sure did make for a bizarre dynamic in Jacksonville. And you don’t have to look far to find people who picked up on it.
“Anyone would tell you they’d never seen anything like it,” one source said.
“Look across the other 31 teams, there’s not another role like that,” said another.
Indeed, Coughlin, in his golden years, was one of one; nowhere else was there an executive vice president who’s also a boots-on-the-ground minister of discipline. Nowhere else would simple mention of an EVP’s name elicit such a visceral response, well beyond the normal hard feelings of a tough contract negotiation or roster decision. Nowhere else would the head coach throw up his hands and openly concede a major football decision wasn’t his.
All this was happening in Jacksonville, which is the best explanation you can give to describe why Coughlin was ousted after three years, ending his second at the helm of the franchise (with his first time as head coach).
And the fact that he wasn’t the head coach this time sealed his fate well before he was fired Wednesday afternoon.
Week 16 is here, and while Thursday Night Football is finished for the season, there are three Saturday games this week, with plenty to sort out. Four AFC teams (New England, Buffalo, Baltimore, Kansas City) and four NFC teams (New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Green Bay) have clinched playoff spots. The NFC East (Dallas-Philadelphia) and AFC South (Houston-Tennessee) champions will account for two more. Minnesota will almost certainly round out the NFC field, though the Rams are hanging by a thread. And the AFC South runner-up or Pittsburgh gets the last AFC spot.
You ready for it? You will be after this Game Plan, where we’ll give you a good look at …
• The Cowboys ahead of their showdown with the Eagles, after chatting with COO Stephen Jones.
• A couple under-the-radar draft prospects, one from Florida Atlantic and the other from Boise, to keep tabs on Saturday.
• The Week 15 Watch List, with key players from all the big NFL games this weekend.
• My power rankings ballot!
But we’re starting with the news of the day.
There wasn’t outward in-fighting in Jacksonville. In fact, to those that worked there, Coughlin, Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell appeared to be in lockstep on some decisions, even if it wasn’t clear to those outside that immediate circle who was actually making them. However it was clear that Coughlin was really in charge—and elements of the draconian nature of the team’s program, and problems that arose, were easily pinned on him.
• Coughlin feuded with star corner Jalen Ramsey to the point where Ramsey told people that his desire to be traded out of Jacksonville was related to his broken relationship with a single person—his team’s EVP of football operations.
• Just before training camp last summer, Coughlin declared that the Jags had made their final and best offer to pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue. The problem? It was late July, and negotiations were still in the early stages, having only started earlier that month. And the comments sufficiently angered Ngakoue, who was planning on reporting to training camp, to the point where he launched a training camp holdout instead. And this was a player that the team wanted to sign.
• Coughlin fined RB Leonard Fournette $99,000 for sitting on the bench last year’s season finale (he was inactive and in street clothes for the game). The third-year back won his grievance against the team over the fine this week. He was also suspended a game earlier in the season.
• Coughlin couldn’t demand attendance at the team’s 10-week offseason program, but he messaged that the players’ presence was strongly suggested. At one point, he even told the team website, "We're close to 100% attendance—and quite frankly all of our players should be here."
• Coughlin fined DE Dante Fowler $700,000 for missing on-site rehab sessions between January and March 2018. The NFLPA grieved the fines, and an arbitrator found that while team can required injured players participate in rehab work, they can’t demand that it be held at or near the team facility. It’s up to the player, per the CBA, to decide on location.
And that last incident led to his firing. Upon winning the grievance, and getting Fowler his money back, the union issued a stern warning to its players: “In the last two years, more than 25% of the grievances filed by players in the entire league have been filed against the Jaguars. You as players may want to consider this when you have a chance to select your next club.”
Khan was then pushed to react in real time. And react he did—with plenty of reasons to do so.
NOW OR NEVER FOR THE COWBOYS
On one hand, the Cowboys head to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Sunday staring down every goal they set out to achieve in August. If they win, they’ll clinch a second straight NFC East title and would host a wild-card game. Sunday’s trucking of the Rams potentially served as a good head start toward achieving these goals.
On the other hand, no one’s off the hook for what’s preceded it. If this goes the other way, there’s a good chance that a lot of people won’t return next season, which, for now, remains the unavoidable, unspoken truth inside the team’s opulent Frisco, Texas headquarters.
“That’s for you guys to speculate on,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said over the phone early Wednesday afternoon. “What’s never happened with us, whether it’s Jerry, myself, the organization, the coaching staff, the players … we worry about each game each week. We’ll worry about our future when the season’s over. Hopefully, that’s a couple months away.”
It’s not hard to envision the Cowboys on a winning streak heading into the playoffs. It’s also not hard to see a scenario where the Cowboys are knee-deep in a coaching search 11 days from now. We’ll know more at about 8 p.m. ET on Sunday night. For now? It’s one interesting spot for a team to be in. And you can be assured the guys in charge still believe in what they’ve put together.
Stephen Jones and I had a long conversation back during training camp about that, and he was steadfast then that the franchise was in a sweet spot, with a strong veteran line, ascending young quarterback on a rookie deal, reworked skill group blending youth with experience, a defensive core loaded with speed and playmaking ability entering its collective prime.
To that end, Jones said, “We believe this roster, because of the depth, is right there with the ’90s roster.” And when I gave him the opportunity to walk that back even a little four days before the Week 16 game in Philly, he wouldn’t consider it.
“I’ve never wavered on our roster,” Jones said this week. “It’s obviously been a huge disappointment in terms of where are record has been. The great news is we can still right the ship. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that we can. Someone asked me last week before played the Rams, ‘What do you think’s happened to your running game?’ I said the only thing that’s happened to our running game is we don’t stick with it. That says a little bit about our team.
“Because we have such high expectations, whether it’s our coaching staff, whether it’s our players, you get in the game and you get behind a couple scores and you kind of push too much. I think part of pushing, even with the staff, you want to make it all up quickly and get away from what you do best.”
Jones, whose Cowboys are now 7-7 under the weight of those expectations, then said, “I just feel like when we execute and go out and do our jobs, we’ve got a team that can play with anybody.”
Saying it is one thing. Proving it is another. And whether the Cowboys can or not, starting Sunday, will paint the future of the world’s most valuable sports team. That may sound hyperbolic, but in reality, it’s more simple statement of fact.
Consider that Jason Garrett’s contract is up, meaning there’s no kick-the-can-down-the-road option after this year for the team. Either the team walks away, or re-up for four or five more years and $30 million or $40 million. Garrett can’t just make the playoffs and expect to survive this time around. He’ll have to do something when he gets there.
Dak Prescott’s contract is also up after the year, and multiple offers from the Cowboys in excess of $30 million per year have been rebuffed. The team may well be forced to put a version of the franchise tag on him (the exclusive tag projects to $33.43 million, the non-exclusive tag is expected to come in around $27 million) in March.
If the team is forced to franchise Prescott, it wouldn’t be able franchise Amari Cooper; the wide receiver made the choice to wait on a new contract, and Cooper’s gamble on himself has, for the most part, paid off. He’s registered his fourth 1,000-yard year with a career-high eight touchdowns, and Mike Thomas and Julio Jones reset the top of the receiver market in the meantime.
There are other integral parts here on expiring deals—corner Byron Jones, edge rusher Robert Quinn and linebacker Sean Lee are three—that may be tough for the team to retain after taking care of Prescott and Cooper.
If the Cowboys win on Sunday and later advance deep into the playoffs? A lot of these guys get rewarded, for sure. If they lose? Then there will be some tough questions to answer for everyone in North Texas. Here are a few that Jones and I covered ahead of all of that.
• Dak’s future. Prescott remaining unsigned isn’t for lack of effort on the part of either side to get something done, nor is it a reflection, Jones promises, of any doubt the team might harbor in its 25-year-old quarterback. Is the team confident in Prescott? Jones answered without equivocation: “Absolutely. It’s kind of gotten out there, we’ve got big offers on the table to Dak and always have. If anything, we’ve got more confidence than we’ve ever had in him. All he’s done is gone out and proven that he deserves to make money. And we’ve certainly offered him a lot of money.”
• The coaching staff. Everyone knows what it is here. Garrett most certainly has to win to keep his job. That said, Jones was adamant that his confidence in the staff to handle the end of this season remains: “I’ve had confidence in this staff since Day 1. ... It’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating for them, it’s frustrating for the players, it’s frustrating for the organization, that we’re in the spot we’re in. The good news is we go out and do our job against the Eagles, and we win our division, which is goal No. 1, and we’ll have a home playoff game and you go to work from there.”
• The turning point. Could the win against the Rams, a 44-21 thrashing, be that for the Cowboys? Jones doesn’t see that way, actually. “I think we’ve known what we can do. And we’ve done that. In the seven games that we’ve won, I think six of them have been blowouts. You get to the fourth quarter and it’s over. We’ve known how to play this way for seven games. And unfortunately, unlike last year, when we had some tight ones, we didn’t get it done. That’s added to where we’re maybe pushing a little too much when we do get behind.”
Jones’s point checks out. Dallas is 0-5 is games decided by seven points or fewer. Their wins have been by 18, 10, 25, 10, 27, 19, 8, and 23 points. Their plus-90 point differential is sixth best in the NFL, better than the 11-3 Saints. The Eagles’ point differential, by comparison, is plus-six.
Interestingly enough, those Eagles are the other 7-7 NFC East team that’s fallen short of outsized expectations. Sunday’s winner gets new life, with its first goal for the season complete (or in Philadelphia’s case, nearing completion) in a sort of haphazard way.
“Your first goal is to win the division,” Jones said. “If we go out and take care of business—that’s gonna be difficult, we’re going in their backyard, they know what’s at stake—then we take care of Step No. 1. And we certainly feel like we can still accomplish all our goals.”
A loss will bring something else entirely. And after the year the Cowboys have had, that’s not a secret to anyone.
WEEK 16 WATCH LIST
Bills WR Cole Beasley: It looks like the Patriots are going to be without slot corner Jonathan Jones (groin), and that would make how they handle Beasley an important piece in how they defend the Bills offense. Beasley been relatively quiet in the two weeks since his big revenge game against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins: Good opportunity for Cousins to show up on a big stage, at home on Monday Night Football against the rival Packers, and sew up a playoff spot for Minnesota. The first time these two teams met, Cousins had his worst game of the season, and maybe his worst game as a Viking.
Eagles CB Ronald Darby: Philly’s No. 1 corner practiced on Wednesday, which is a good sign that he’ll be available on Sunday. He wasn’t for the Eagles’ first game against Dallas, a 37-10 loss, and Cooper wound up with five catches for 106 yards.
Rams RB Todd Gurley: L.A.’s star has failed to hit four yards per carry in nine of the Rams’ 14 games this year, and so how he finishes the year—with the Rams’ playoff hopes on life support—could color how the Rams handle the position in the offseason. A big one against a really good 49ers defense would be good for Gurley’s case to stay as the centerpiece.
Saints DE Cam Jordan: How the New Orleans defensive line will hold up without Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport remains an open question, and this week will be a good test in that regard, with a physical Tennessee offense piloted by a red-hot quarterback on the docket. Jordan’s a legit DPOY candidate. The Saints need him to keep playing like one.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Florida Atlantic TE Harrison Bryant (vs. SMU, Boca Raton Bowl, ABC, 3:30 p.m.): The early part of bowl season is a good place to look for draft sleepers, and Bryant could be one. The 6' 5", 240-pounder has 65 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns through 13 games, and played well against the Owls’ toughest competition, No. 2 Ohio State (six catches, 79 yards).
“He’s a pass-catching tight end —limited in the run game as a blocker because of size and strength but not effort,” one NFC exec said. “Very good hands, physical after the catch, he’ll be able to break a few tackles. The Senior Bowl will help him, and I won’t be surprised if he’s the first tight end taken in a down tight-end year.”
An AFC college scouting director echoed that in saying he’s solid, if a little limited, across the board—“Short arms are a problem as a blocker, but he’s really competitive.”
Boise State LB Curtis Weaver (vs. Washington, Las Vegas Bowl, ABC, 7:30 p.m.): There’s no arguing the production here. He has 34 career sacks and 13.5 this year, and going up against the Huskies’ star-studded line—and left tackle Trey Adams, in particular—should give him the chance to validate those numbers.
“He’s a savvy and instinctive player,” an AFC exec said. “He won’t win the combine from a height/weight/speed perspective, but he’s productive.”
Weaver’s best physical trait going into the process will his ability to explode off the ball, which makes up for not having a freakish athletic profile. Based on how pass-rushers are valued, it’s not out of the question that he lands in the first round, though I’m not sure those I spoke with view him that way.
POWER RANKINGS BALLOT
1. Ravens (12-2): I don’t think there’s much question about this right now.
2. Saints (11-3): If the Saints team we saw Monday night is who they continue to be, and they win home-field through January – meaning Drew Brees wouldn’t have to play outdoors until the Super Bowl – then this group has a really good shot at putting to bed the bad memories of its last two playoff exits.
3. Seahawks (11-3): The loss of Josh Gordon would worry me a little bit, because Seattle has been thin all year in pass-catching options for Russell Wilson.
4. Chiefs (10-4): Kansas City’s lurking – the defense has come together in holding four straight opponents under 20 points, and the offense is finally getting healthy. So I’ll give the Chiefs the nod over a banged up New England team as the AFC’s second best team. KC in Foxboro in the divisional round would be interesting.
5. 49ers (11-3): The loss to Atlanta wasn’t great, but I didn’t see any massive signs of trouble in there either. The Falcons are better than their record, and have won four of six, and the Niners were coming off a stretch of the schedule where they played the Packers, Ravens, Saints consecutively. A little letdown is understandable.
THE ONE THING NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The role of Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta in where Cleveland goes from here—and how ownership there trusts him. DePodesta advocated for the team to hire then-Panther defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in 2016 and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski last January, and the team went in different directions in both cases, and those are things that haven’t been forgotten inside the building.
Will DePodesta return for another year in 2020? If he does, will he have more of a say in what happens going forward? Those questions are fair to ask with owner Jimmy Haslam still looking to find solid footing for his franchise. (To be clear, DePodesta lives in San Diego, has never shown any desire for more on-paper power, and I’m not sure he’d even entertain changing his day-to-day involvement.)
Cleveland hosts Baltimore on Sunday, and the Ravens will be looking to avenge their September loss to the Browns and lock up the No. 1 seed. It doesn’t look like a great spot for the home team, but it is a chance for the current group to make a strong case for getting another chance in 2020. And if that doesn’t happen? Then there’d be one guy in-house that Haslam might turn to for advice.
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