Doug Marrone was in his mid-20s, trying to make his mark and maybe even find a longer-term home as a journeyman offensive lineman. So it came that he hit Plan B Free Agency in the late 1980s and got an offer from the Vikings that he brought back to then Saints general manager Jim Finks.
Marrone wanted to stay in New Orleans and asked Finks only to match the offer he had. Finks, instead, gave his young tackle an education in the cold world of the NFL. He matched the signing bonus and salary Minnesota was offering. He declined to match the incentives.
“He said, Doug, look, those incentives, you're a backup offensive lineman. And if we have to pay you those incentives, it's because someone got hurt,” Marrone recalled from his office on Wednesday afternoon. “And I'll never forget it. I was pissed. Of course, you get kind of pissed off and you walk out of there. But what I learned from that meeting was, he was right. And I actually knew he was right in my mind.
“And I may have not liked what he said. But looking back, I respected what he said. And from that point, when I went into coaching, I've learned, I'll always shoot [players] straight. You may not like what I say. But at the end of the day, you've got to respect it.”
The larger point: Players respect the truth.
I got the idea to call Marrone this week because of something I’d heard after Jacksonville fired GM Dave Caldwell on Nov. 29. It was, basically, that Marrone survived Caldwell’s firing because ownership felt like the team was playing its tail off for him, and that Shad Khan & Co. thought what was best for the young guys on the team, guys who will be around past this lost 2020 season, would be to stay the course with the on-field staff.
So my question was how exactly Marrone was going about getting his team ready on a week-to-week basis in the midst of a losing streak that’s grown to 12 games, and with speculation of who’ll be running the team in 2021 (and ultimately deciding the fate of these players) running rampant outside the building.
What I found was laid bare in Marrone’s Finks story. He’s not skirting what’s happening here. He’s presenting his guys with the reality of their situation.
“These guys know,” he said. “The players know. Coaches know. … And if you try to sell them a bill of goods, holy s---, you're done. You can't bulls--- them.”
So Marrone isn’t trying to. And his reward has been an honest day’s effort, every day, from the people around him. Which has gotten him and the Jags through a trying year.
Week 15 is here, and so are we for this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A breakdown of how the 17th game (maybe as soon as in 2021) will be scheduled.
• A look at the word “raw” in diagnosing quarterback prospects.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting in Jacksonville, with the story of how a coach is keeping his guys aboard a ship that, at least from a results perspective, has spent the last three months sinking.
It was just two Sundays ago—after the Jags fell to 1–11 with an OT loss in Minnesota—that Marrone walked into the trainer’s room postgame and found his starting center, and team captain, Brandon Linder atop one of the tables, getting his ankle worked on.
Before the coach could say much, Linder wanted to make himself clear.
Hey, listen, I'm coming back, Linder told Marrone. You don't have to worry about it, I'm finishing this thing.
Unfortunately for Linder, he wasn’t physically able to deliver on his promise. The Jags kept him on the roster and eligible to return for a week, before ending his season by moving him to IR on Wednesday. But in a way, the story perfectly encapsulates where the aforementioned rewards have come, buried in all the losses, for Marrone this year
“Those are the type of people you want to be around,” Marrone said. “Those are the guys that are good football players, that are always going to have a chance. And that's the way a lot of these guys are. There's not one person who hasn't been that way. And even Josh Allen, how upset he is that he's not gonna be able to come back. Abry Jones, the same way.
“I mean, some of these guys have played a long time, have had a lot of good film out there on them, but still want to come back because they want to finish this thing with these guys, and do the best job they can for them.”
As Marrone’s saying this, he keeps coming back to the totality of the situation he and his Jaguars are in: "Make no mistake about it, I don't want anything coming out wrong, obviously we're very disappointed in where we are.”
But the truth is, this is probably where they were bound to be all along. The 2020 offseason was a total resetting of the team that Marrone, Caldwell and Tom Coughlin took to the AFC title game three years ago. Gone were Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Yannick Ngakoue, Leonard Fournette, et al. In their places were draft picks and cap space, and a plan that resembled similar recent teardowns in Miami and Cleveland.
The pain expected, after a season-opening upset of the Colts, has been felt. And while it was a necessary step for the franchise to move forward, no one was canceling the games for the players and coaches still wearing Jaguars colors after all the carnage of spring and summer.
So they’ve played through it—and Marrone feels like, no matter what happens in a couple weeks, all the guys who’ve worked for him have good reason to walk away with their heads held high. And as we talked about the whole thing Wednesday, it became pretty clear to me how they’ve gotten to that point.
Playing for each other. It probably sounds a little corny, but football requires that guys do things that may not benefit them in the moment, that are designed to serve a greater purpose. Marrone has known from the start, that had to begin with him. So when I asked about his own job security, he swore to me he’s not as worked up over it as some people might expect him to be. And his hope has been that approach would filter down.
“When I was younger and my children were young, and I [wound up] out of a job, I was concerned,” Marrone said. “But I look at it as I have a greater responsibility now. I can't afford to be concerned about my own well-being when I'm responsible for the coaches and players. But you've got to remember, I do think differently than a lot of other people and for lack of a better term, I am [messed] up that way.
“How can you be so focused? How can you be that? Because that's the way I'm wired. I mean, I'm wired where I have a job, I have responsibility, and that takes precedence over anything that I feel personally.”
And, really, that’s the only way the players were going to buy in anyway—knowing their coach was putting them first, in a difficult situation for everyone.
Leveling with players. This comes back to truth-telling—in explaining to the players why they should stay locked in on the here and now, Marrone sent the message that what’s best for the team will, in the long run, wind up being what’s best for the guys individually.
“It's, Hey, listen, we're not doing well and there's obviously going to be changes, and it hit Dave and there'll probably be more changes, whether it's to the roster or to the coaches or to myself,” Marrone said. “But we're in the NFL and we're professionals. And if you want to stay in this league, people are going to be watching how you play right now more than ever. If you want to coach in this league, people are watching now more than ever, how you're handling things, how you're performing, how you're playing. If your contract is up, people will probably look at this even harder.
“I think a lot of what we do, not just on our performance, which is going to be obviously evaluated, but how we go about our business.”
In essence, this season has given the other 31 teams a window into how Jacksonville’s players and coaches handle adversity. It’s a test in that way, and an important one. Marrone asked they try to pass it—for the team’s good, and their own good.
Knowing what to look for. For Marrone, having years as a player and a coach, both in the NFL and in college, has taught him to identify trouble spots. Given the situation, he’s kept an eye out for those this year, and it’s revealed a lot about the people he’s working with.
“I've been in places before: Are the doors closed? Are the little groups gathering? Things like that, I haven't seen any of that here,” he said. “So I don't concern myself with that. What I do concern myself with is that we have a bunch of guys on this team that want to play and help the team win, and they're doing everything they can. They’re playing banged up, which I appreciate because we all have been in places before where guys have been banged up and kind of just check out. But not with this group. These guys are trying to come back. …
“If anything, what I see is people want to play more. Kind of like how Gardner [Minshew], when he first came back, wanted to go out there, and all those things came out that he wanted to play. You have that at multiple levels on this team, it’s everyone—Hey, coach, give me a shot. I can help this team win. Those are the stories that never get out there because of the record.”
Confronting the noise. Marrone knows that in 2020 you can’t shut your players off to the outside world. They hear speculation on who their next coach might be, and discussion on which quarterback the team’s going to draft in April. And Marrone’s not going to pretend they don’t.
“I tell the players the truth: Hey, there's going to be a lot of stuff on who's going to be here, who's not, who we're building around, if I'm going to be here, who we're going to draft, what we're going to do,” he said. “I say, Look, I’m just telling you, all we can worry about is what's going on right now. It's the only thing we can control. What are we going to do today to make ourselves a better football team? What are you going to do to be a better teammate? What am I going to do to be a better head coach? These are conversations you have.”
And so when a 24-year-old player turns on the radio on his way to work, and hears about Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence, he doesn’t have to try to pretend he didn’t hear it.
The future is the future. This is along those lines, but something I wanted to address with Marrone—given that there are young pieces and the locker room hasn’t imploded, it would at least seem like a solid foundation is in place for 2021, whoever is coaching the team. And while he affirmed that he does feel like the right kind of guys are there, in that locker room now, he wasn’t going to project forward. Mostly because he’s asked his team not to.
“I never want to comment on that, me personally,” he said. “Because what happens is other people come in and you always hear the same thing, Hey, it's better now than it was when I got there. I never wanted to be that guy. Albert, I never wanted to be that guy. People are always going to look at it and they're going to say what they think. And then if someone asks me, if I'm part of it, and, people ask me, I'll be able to tell them what I feel.
“But I'm not going to I'm not going to put stuff out there, whether it's for me or for the next guy. I think that right now what I'm trying to do is day-by-day see what I can do to get this place better. … I've got this question before, like, Hey, you guys have draft picks, you got salary cap, you have young guys like, does this look like a great job? I'm just trying to make sure I do the right job today, do the best job I can right now.”
That, of course, is the other part that’s unavoidable—it does look like a path out of the woods pretty clearly exists for the Jaguars. They’ll likely have a top-two pick, and they do have multiple picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds in April. They also project to have the most cap space in the league, and that’s going into a year in which a lot of teams are going to be strapped, with the cap, at best, expected to be flat in 2021.
And what’s happened this year does factor into it. There’s a group of young pieces to build with—in guys like Allen, C.J. Henderson, James Robinson and Laviska Shenault—that doesn’t need to be completely rewired by whoever’s running the show next year.
But it’s taken a lot of pain to get there, too, and while Marrone wouldn’t flat out say how he’s felt it, because of how that would affect his players’ outlooks, it’s not hard to see how it would hit someone in his position. At some point, maybe, he can talk about it. It just can’t be now.
“Listen, we got three opportunities left,” he said. “We're going to fight our asses off for each one. And at the end of the year, it is what it is, and we move on and try to learn from it and use this experience to help us in whatever we're going to do next. I mean, that's how I've talked to the players. I'm not a finger pointer and I'm not a guy to blame. And if anyone has to take a bullet, it's going to be me.”
And if he does have to take that proverbial bullet in a few weeks, he at least knows that he’ll have fond memories of the group he went down with.
“I mean, what they've done, and a lot of it will depend on how we finish these three games, obviously, but if they can continue the way they're going?” Marrone said. “I will hold these coaches and players we've dealt with this year in the highest regard.”
That won’t put another win on his record, of course, and it probably won’t save his job come January. But all those close games against the Packers, Vikings and Browns, after all hope of making the playoffs were lost, and everything in between? That’ll give the coach plenty to remember his players and coaches by, beyond wherever the final tally winds up.
1) Kansas City Chiefs (12–1): The Chiefs got the ball on their own 25 with 10:14 left in the second quarter on Sunday in Miami, after the Dolphins took a 10–0 lead. Less than 13 minutes of game action later—with 12:48 left in the third quarter, the score was Kansas City 28, Miami 10. And the Dolphins came into that one at 8–4. The lesson? The Chiefs are borderline unstoppable when they’re clicking.
2) Green Bay Packers (10–3): No respect! The Packers are 23–6 under Matt LaFleur, and Aaron Rodgers is leading the NFL in passer rating (119.7), touchdown passes (39) and TD-INT ratio (9.75-to-1). And yet I’m not sure LaFleur has been talked about for Coach of the Year, and people didn’t start talking seriously about Rodgers for MVP until Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes started throwing more interceptions. Nor have the Packers really been discussed as a truly elite team. The time to start talking about all these things is now.
3) Buffalo Bills (10–3): We mentioned how loaded they are last week. They showed it again on a frigid Sunday night against a really good Steelers team. And if they can find a way to get the second seed, which would require Pittsburgh losing another game, that would mean they’d be at home until the AFC title game. Having to go to an empty stadium in Orchard Park in January wouldn’t be pleasant for an opponent.
4) New Orleans Saints (10–3): Rather than killing New Orleans over a really rough loss, I think it’s worth pointing out that was Sean Payton’s first defeat with a backup QB over the last two years. Which drops him to 8–1. Which is remarkable. And a sign that if Drew Brees can get healthy soon, New Orleans sure could be a force in January, as we’ve expected the Saints to be.
5) Pittsburgh Steelers (11–2): I don’t want to overreact to a couple losses. But the injuries at linebacker have mounted, and the offense still hasn’t reached its potential and it’s December. And after this week’s game in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh’s got the Colts and Browns. We should know a lot more about this group on Jan. 4.
THE BIG QUESTION
How will the 17-game schedule work?
Glad you asked. On Wednesday, the NFL voted through the scheduling formula for the 17-game season—owners still haven’t voted to actually implement it, but can do it unilaterally for the 2021 season—and in the process set up answers to a lot of questions that were lingering on how an uneven number of games would be managed.
Want those answers? We have them for you here.
How can the schedule be equitable with some teams getting nine home games and others getting eight? The truth is, it can’t be 100% equitable. But, at the very least, the NFL was able to get there among direct competitors, by alternating years between the conferences. So one year, all AFC teams will get nine home games, the next all NFC teams will get nine home games. That way, teams competing for seeding, and then within the same playoff bracket, will have taken a similar path along the way.
How does that affect the formula? It makes it so the add to the schedule—the 17th game—had to be an inter-conference game. So now, every AFC team will play five NFC teams and vice versa. And the fifth nonconference game will be determined by the standings. So every team will be assigned two divisions in the other conference. With one pairing, the teams in both divisions will all play each other, as is the case now. In the second pairing, a team will play the team that finished in the same place it did in the other division—i.e. 1st vs. 1st, 2nd vs. 2nd and so on.
So how will the division pairings be determined? Cross-conference divisions will never be assigned to each other in consecutive years. So the second NFC division that an AFC division is assigned to for 2021 will be the one it played against fully in 2019. For example, next year, the AFC North is scheduled to play the NFC North. Should the NFL decide to go forward with the 17th game in 2021, the AFC’s North second cross-conference pairing will be the NFC West, which it was paired with in 2019.
And so now, we wait to see whether or not the NFL will actually go through with adding a 17th game. You can follow the money to find your answer on that one.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How the dynamic of the “raw” college quarterback is changing.
That word was pretty commonly thrown around on Patrick Mahomes in 2017, Josh Allen in 2018 and Justin Herbert in 2020—all three were guys seen as having outsized talent, but in need of major development. To put it lightly, the track record over the years with QBs of that profile hasn’t been great (e.g. Kyle Boller, JaMarcus Russell, Josh Freeman).
And yet, here we are and Mahomes is the sport’s best player, Allen is this year’s breakout star and Herbert’s the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
What gives? Do tools matter again? How should teams process this? To try and get answers, I reached out to a number of guys who evaluated those three and asked them to assess this emerging trend for me.
NFC exec: These guys are called raw because the offenses were, let’s say, “basic” or "not NFL” offenses. That doesn’t mean they weren't highly gifted. I think what separates these guys is their natural gifts. Mahomes is such a natural thrower and so highly instinctive, certainly needed development, but wow the arm was rare. Herbert and Allen, I’ve asked myself the same thing. It becomes 20/20. Whenever you see a rare arm talent, that’s mobile, smart and loves the game, disregard the other “noise”—there were questions about Allen’s accuracy, Herbert's leadership and quiet demeanor. They were raw but had some elite skills to work with, and it’s hard to screw up an elite skill set.
NFC scouting director: I’ll start with Justin Herbert. There was nothing raw about him. That’s why I thought he was so safe, because he was incredibly polished. When you start with the size, it was rare. The athletic ability and speed, considering the size, was outstanding. The mental ability to process was off the charts. And he was accurate and a natural thrower of the football that made great decisions, protected the ball and won lots of games as a starter. That’s as easy as it gets for me. In fact I went on my visit to Oregon in August in 2019 prior to his junior year and told their pro liaison, “Well it looks like you have the first pick in the draft.” Then he ended up staying, which blew my mind. He put two more years of tape together and again the eval was very easy. So in the conversation of raw quarterbacks, I don’t think he qualifies.