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The Jaguars and Raiders Hired Coaches They Saw As Saviors; Now They’re Stuck

Jon Gruden and Urban Meyer were untouchable the moment they were hired. Two struggling franchises and their commitment to embattled cult-of-personality coaches.

Editor's note: Gruden announced Monday he was resigning as the Raiders' head coach after a New York Times report revealed emails of him using misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ language.

The Raiders hired Jon Gruden and the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer using the same flawed thinking that sometimes causes mania over tech stocks: with no regard for underlying value or the marketplace. Gruden, Meyer, Tesla—it’s all the same story. When the buyer is convinced the future depends on them, price does not matter.

The other 30 NFL coaches were not hired this way. Bill Belichick and Andy Reid had been fired from their last head-coaching jobs. John Harbaugh was a special teams coach who wondered whether he would ever get his shot. Sean Payton had been demoted as the Giants’ play-caller (how absurd does that sound now?) and left to work for Bill Parcells in Dallas before New Orleans called. All those hires were tough sells to significant portions of the teams’ fan bases, and so all of those coaches knew they were expendable.

Gruden? Raiders owner Mark Davis was so bent on pleasing Raiders fans as he moved the team to Las Vegas that he focused exclusively on the coach they wanted. He gave Gruden a preposterous 10-year, $100 million contract, outbidding nobody.

Meyer? A stable, well-run organization would have found the red flags (perhaps by asking a crack private investigator to Google “Urban Meyer red flags”). But the Jaguars had been floundering for so long that owner Shad Kahn convinced himself that a man who had never worked a day in the NFL on any level was the only one who could rescue his franchise. The financial terms of Meyer’s deal have not been made public, but the nonfinancial terms have been clear from the beginning: Meyer gets to do what Meyer wants.

This helps explain why the Jaguars and Raiders are trapped now. When you hire a savior as coach, you subject your whole franchise to a cult of personality. You have very little recourse if the coach fails or misbehaves—and the coach knows it.

The Raiders could not reasonably anticipate that Gruden used a racial trope to describe NFL union leader DeMaurice Smith in an email 10 years ago or that the email would become public. But now that it has happened, what can they do? They sided with Gruden the moment they gave him that ridiculous contract.

Of course, money and security factor into professional decisions, but if Gruden really wanted to coach the Raiders, Davis did not have to offer him a 10-year deal to sign him. Six would have done it.

Gruden is a good NFL head coach. He has won a Super Bowl and taken five teams to the playoffs. But he is in his fourth year in charge of a franchise that had a young Pro Bowl quarterback when he arrived. He has yet to make the playoffs, and now he is swimming in a controversy of his own making. Logically, he should be on a hot seat; that’s just how the NFL works. But how can a coach with six years left on his deal be on a hot seat?

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When you give a coach a 10-year deal, you are telling him, and the world, that he can do no wrong. The Raiders say they are bothered by Gruden’s email, but are they really approaching this with an open mind and a willingness to fire him if need be? Gruden says he often says somebody who is lying has “rubber lips,” regardless of their race. Has he shared old emails that support that claim? Are the Raiders even willing to ask?

The Jaguars, meanwhile, could have reasonably anticipated most of what has gone wrong for Meyer. Sure, the video of him being a creepy grandpa at his Ohio restaurant was a surprise. But the reasons that Meyer was there in the first place were highly foreseeable.

Anybody who has followed Meyer wondered whether he could handle the inevitable losing in the NFL, whether he was too sure of himself to admit responsibility for his own failures and whether he could put his ego aside and realize the NFL is a different world from college ball. Yet when his team lost to the Bengals, Meyer stayed in Ohio rather than get on the team plane, a stunning breach of professional standards. He either didn’t think he had to do what coaches are expected to do, or he didn’t know how wrong that was and the people working for him are so beholden to him that they were scared to tell him.

Meyer then put on an Ohio State quarter-zip and went to a restaurant that bears his name. It’s almost like he was so stunned and sad about being just another losing coach that he needed a heavy dose of adulation to prop up his ego and was too self-involved to realize the effect it would have on his team. Yeah. Almost.

Once the video leaked, the Jaguars paid another price for giving Meyer so much power: Because he can do whatever he wants, he can apologize however he wants. Instead of, “I acted like an idiot and it’s entirely my fault,” he dragged quarterback Trevor Lawrence into his statement and couched his apology with excuses. He said he was dragged onto the dance floor and should have left. The video does not support that. Most NFL players can appreciate somebody being a fool in a bar, but they don’t have much respect for coaches who twist the truth—especially when that coach preaches accountability and fails to apply it to himself. The Jaguars made a bad situation worse by failing at crisis management.

Meyer was one of the great college football coaches of all time. But for him to succeed in the NFL, he needed to drop his worst habits, check his ego and recognize how much he didn’t know. Maybe Khan had those conversations with him last winter, but it’s hard to convince a man he needs to change when you’re desperately wooing him.

Americans are conditioned to believe their elected officials are lying and their football coaches are telling the truth. Gruden and Meyer are not gods, saviors or above reproach. They are humans who need boundaries and standards like the rest of us. The owners of their teams should have thought about that when they hired them.

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