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Mailbag: On Urban Meyer, Indy’s Playoff Chances and Chicago’s Next Coach

Plus, questions on Justin Herbert, Mitchell Trubisky’s next stop, Tyler Huntley’s future and Jim Caldwell’s chances of a return.

There’s a trap I’ve fallen into with some football coaches that, admittedly, I could do better to avoid in the future.

Urban Meyer is no one’s idiot. He’ll go down as the second-most successful college football coach of the last 30 or 40 years. He coached dozens of players who made it to the NFL, and I’ve even talked with him a bunch over the last couple of years about how hard he’s studied the pro game, working with the guys he coached at Florida and Ohio State to learn what works and what doesn’t at the sport’s highest level.

And still, his fit in the NFL went the way so many of his detractors predicted. Part of that result is hard for me to reconcile—how someone as sharp and accomplished as Meyer, with access to as much information as Meyer had, and the drive to win that Meyer has, could come undone for reasons easily identified by people with no deeper knowledge of the NFL than what they can get from an internet connection and cable subscription. How these things happen to guys like Nick Saban and Chip Kelly, too, who were more successful (and, yes, smarter) than the great majority of those who land head coaching jobs in the NFL.

That’s where the trap is for me: assuming that the next guy in this sort of position isn’t going to step on the rake laying in the yard just like the last guy did.

There was Tuesday’s story from Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, revealing former Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo’s allegation that Meyer had kicked him during warmups last summer, setting off a profane exchange and leading Lambo’s agent to contact the team’s legal counsel the next day. (Meyer said Lambo’s “characterization of me and this incident is completely inaccurate.”)

But before that, there was the reporting of Tom Pelissero of last week, which revealed more than just a building in two-win turmoil. It showed a willingness of those within the building to lob grenades into the work Meyer was doing, and to tear the Jaguars’ football operation down to the studs, requiring a rebuild from the ground up.

Among those people were assistants that I’m told Meyer had quickly identified as weak links on his own staff. It revealed not only the strife within his group but also the mistakes Meyer had already made. Going forward with Meyer would require doubling-down on him—having to pay some of his handpicked lieutenants to get lost while hiring new ones to replace them.

How the hell did we get there? Again, I think the answer is probably easy. Meyer’s program is difficult. He pushed everyone. He’s hard on players. He’s much harder on coaches. It’s an old-school way. And he and Saban, and Bill Belichick, too, have proven over the years that having that sort of foundation can be an incredibly effective way to build a football program.

Here’s the catch—if you’re going to do it that way, you better win quickly. Or at the very least, you better show the players, and the assistants that you haven’t worked with before, that working in that kind of intense, edgy environment is going to benefit their own career development in the short term, and their finances in the long term.

Belichick has shown over and over and over again that his program does that, so guys put their heads down and work, trusting that following him will lead to the right results, both individually and collectively. And for a lot of people, it has. Others, of course, get weeded out along the way, in an operation that naturally became self-selecting over the years.

A reason many of Belichick’s assistants haven’t made it as head coaches over the years is right there, too. Most put the same demands on players and coaches that Belichick would but without the testimony to go with the theory. Then, once the losses start to mount, people get worn out working in a way that few in football, at any level, are asked to work nowadays. Then, they go from worn out to checked out, which ultimately can lead to speaking out—and once they start speaking out, it’s over.

Things went a similar way for Saban, one of the greatest football coaches ever to walk a sideline, in 2006. He picked the wrong quarterback, lost more than he had in ’05, had a harder time getting players on board, wore everyone out and bailed. At Alabama, where it took him about 20 games to have the Tide rolling at a national-title level, he’s had the promise of consistently getting guys to championship stages and into the first round of the draft to keep them captivated. In the NFL, he couldn’t point to the trophy case the same way.

So it went for Meyer—who often talked at Ohio State about testimony over theory. He was selling theory to those in the building, but the lack of results on the field meant he had no testimony. At Ohio State, he went 12–0 in Year 1. At Florida, he won a national title in Year 2. Quickly, any room to question how he did things evaporated. He won at a historic clip, and his players were being developed into high-end pro prospects, then getting rich.

In Jacksonville, he couldn’t create enough of that sort of value for people before people tired of his ways. And when people tire of your ways in the NFL, they don’t tend to keep it to themselves, no matter how hard you insist things stay in-house.

That brings me back to the trap I fall into. I assumed that, with time on task, a smart guy like Meyer would adjust and find a way to achieve, because he always had achieved. What I underestimated was how deeply set in his ways he was, like Saban and Kelly were in theirs. And why wouldn’t they be? Until they got to the NFL, it hadn’t failed them—so there was no need for any period of self-reflection the way there might’ve been for, say, Kliff Kingsbury after he was fired by his alma mater.

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It’s why Meyer has been known in the past to say the plan he and his people have is infallible. Maybe, in the end, it was that belief that got him.

On to your mail …

From brown (@hb4172): Why is national media killing Urban? Coaches call out offensive and defensive lines after every game!! And player mistakes—Go listen Tomlin postgame, Titans coach walking off the podium! Call that out. Why not call out Bevell? He calls plays. Or Baalke for lack of talent?

Brown! Thanks for checking in—obviously, this email came in before Meyer was ousted as Jaguars coach early Thursday morning, but I thought it would provide a good jumping-off point. I’ve seen Urban Meyer coach at an exceptionally high level, and I’m an alum of a school he won a national title for. This wasn’t the boogeyman out to get Meyer, even if not everything that was said over the last week was completely fair.

Meyer arrived in Jacksonville with the keys to Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s kingdom, and an ability to remake the team as he saw fit with budget to fill out his coaching staff, power over the roster and the green light to shape the support staff and infrastructure in his own image.

When you have that amount of autonomy, you have the power to push the wrong GM out, to hire and fire every assistant and to ensure that every player transaction has your fingerprints on it. It is, then, on you to pick the right people. And if you aren’t picking every last person, it’s still your responsibility to have the right people in place to pick the right people.

Now, that’s not to say I think every inch of snow within the avalanche that crashed down on Meyer fell justifiably. Clearly, there were people invested in seeing him fail—that happens with just about every coach that comes from college into the NFL (go back and look what people were saying about Kingsbury before this year)—and those people pounced. Year 1 is often bumpy in these sorts of rebuilds, yet Meyer’s grace period with a team that was 1–15 last year and made the playoffs once in the last 13 seasons was nonexistent.

But again, it’s on Meyer to understand his NFL circumstances, adjust his program to them and work accordingly. He certainly hasn’t done that well enough. And while maybe others would’ve gotten more time to get the Titanic turned, the issue he ran into now is that perception quickly becomes reality. Regardless of how each of last week’s allegations are viewed, he had to deal with what he had to deal with, the microscope was trained on him and those inside the building, to be sure, felt emboldened to fight him by undermining him.

Meanwhile, you had a team with promising young players hanging in the balance, and Khan then had to consider two questions. One, had a chaotic situation spun too far out of control to be reeled back in? And two, were things such a mess that it could start to affect the development of those young players? Khan, it seems, answered those questions yes and yes.

From Taylor (@TimeIsAfterUs): Do you believe the Colts will ultimately make the playoffs, and if they do, do you think they have what it takes to make an actual run at a championship?

Taylor, I think, yes, they’ll make the playoffs. And I had to vet this out to make sure. Right now, I see the Patriots, Bills, Titans and Chiefs as likely to get in. The AFC North champion brings the total to five teams in. That leaves the Colts, Chargers, and North runners-up for the other two spots. Indy is 7–6. They play the Patriots and Cardinals the next two weeks. If they split those two, and beat the Raiders and Jaguars after that, they’re at 10 wins.

This year, in the AFC, I think 10 wins gets you in.

With that established, I don’t think they can run off three or four wins in a row when they get to the tournament. They’re well constructed. They’re strong at the line of scrimmage. I just don’t know how their pass offense and pass defense would hold up if they get into a shootout, and generally you’re going to have to win different ways to get to the Super Bowl.

From SigInSoMD (@SigSomd): Why is Justin Herbert the next superstar QB?

Sig! I love Herbert. I don’t know whether he stands alone as the next superstar QB. But he’s right there with young vets like Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray, as well as a couple of this year’s rookies (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Mac Jones), as guys on rookie deals where you can see a very bright future for the league at the game’s most important position.

There’s the obvious parts. Herbert’s a big, agile athlete with as strong an arm as there is in the league (that throw against the Giants on Sunday was proof of it) and with a ton of untapped potential—he’s got the capacity to fill out his frame a little more, and also came into the NFL a little raw, in part because he played in a relatively simple offense at Oregon.

And then, there’s the reason you’d bet on someone like Herbert, for the same reason Drew Brees did back in the spring, when he spent time with the Chargers quarterback at OTAs. Chargers coach Brandon Staley described that interaction to me just after it happened, and it was as good an illustration of how Herbert the person would ensure that Herbert the player would be maximized.

“That was fun for me, to hear Drew Brees talk about what he observed from him, just how special Justin is,” Staley recalled about that day back in June. “And it goes far beyond just him throwing the football, which … it’s special and that definitely stood out to Drew. But just the intangibles as well. And I think that at the heart of all these special quarterbacks that you’re aware of, it was big relationships with their coaches.

“When you think of Tom Brady, you think about Josh [McDaniels] and Peyton Manning and Tom Moore. I mean, you think about the great quarterbacks of our generation, of John Elway and Mike Shanahan, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Bill Walsh. I mean, you keep thinking about these guys and it’s just … it’s relationships; it’s knowing one another, trusting one another, believing in one another.

“And that’s really, the takeaway hopefully for Justin, as he talks to Drew, is that seeing that take shape, with Drew and Sean [Payton] and then Pete Carmichael and Joe [Lombardi], that happened over the course of a long time. Where they started is not where they finished. They kept getting better each and every year. And that’s why it was able to go so well, they had that ultimate trust in one another. And we’re certainly working for that.”

Which is just another reason why the future for Herbert, and the Chargers, is very bright.

From Usayd Koshul (@usaydkoshul): Who replaces Matt Nagy if you had to guess and will Josh McDaniels draw serious interest in Chicago?

Usayd, you might start to see where this is going sooner than you think. The firing of Meyer means teams now have a carrot to pull the plug on coaches on life support 12 days from now—when the two-week window to interview other teams’ assistants virtually opens. Both the Jaguars and Raiders are now positioned to dive in, and so now this puts other teams in a spot where not firing a coach before the regular season ends could mean putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage.

Either way, whether it’s on Dec. 28 or Jan. 9, it does appear that the Bears will be looking. I think the first, and most obvious, place for them to check out will be with quarterback-friendly candidates, for the benefit of Justin Fields. We went over a few in the mailbag earlier this month. The moonshot would be trying to leverage being in Sean Payton’s hometown, and having a former Sean Payton teammate, in Ryan Pace, as GM to land the Saints’ Super Bowl–winning coach. Ohio State’s Ryan Day is another obvious swing to take, because of his connection to Fields, and his offensive acumen. And Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels makes sense—they interviewed him back in 2018.

Is it possible they go another route? Yes. It is. One, they’d just be moving off a quarterback-centric hire, in Nagy, and two of their last three hires (Marc Trestman being the other) were a result of the team taking that path. And two, owner George McCaskey is very involved in the league’s diversity efforts over the last few years, and that has been part of an effort not just to get teams to look at diverse candidates but also to convince them to run truly open processes that aren’t just focused on predetermined types of candidates.

Stay tuned. With how the Jaguars’ situation has played out, there’ll be a lot of attention on what the Bears do over the next couple of weeks.

From Murphy McHugh (@NotMurphyMcHugh): How can fans, specifically WFT fans, get the league to release the Wilkinson Report publicly?

Murphy, I’d say the best way anyone can influence that is to keep talking about it. The league and teams’ strategy in these situations has always just been to get to Sunday, when most people get distracted by unfavorable stories like these by all the shiny objects that are on their televisions. If you want that report to see the light of the day, the best thing you can do is keep the conversation going.

From TDLiveSports (@TDLiveSports): Will Tyler Huntley be a hot commodity in trade talks this off-season?

TD, I don’t think Tyler Huntley will be a starting quarterback in 2022. And so I don’t think the Ravens are going to move him, because I don’t think you’ll see another team ready to offload a bunch of picks to get him—which means his destiny is likely to sign the deal he’s tendered by Baltimore as an exclusive-rights free agent in the spring and play another year as the backup to Lamar Jackson before getting to test restricted free agency in ’23.

That said, what Huntley has done in showing he can play the position at a competent, professional level is set himself up to be in the league for years to come. And there’s a chance that as more athletic quarterbacks come into the league, his ability to mirror their skill sets, and fit into systems built for them, will juice his value as a backup. Which is to say that I think Huntley’s made himself some money this year.

From LEO (@Leo18521467): When will the #nfl investigate Aaron Rodgers using over inflated footballs?

Leo, you guys just won’t leave well enough alone.

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From Aaron Bodzin (@abodz2000): Do you think Trubisky gets a shot at a starting job next year? He was on a one year contract in Buffalo.

Aaron, Mitchell Trubisky looked great in the summer, and it’s fair to wonder how much his failure in Chicago was him and how much of it was his circumstances. I’m just not sure where, exactly, you’d slot him as a starter—similar to the way I’d see Jimmy Garoppolo coming out of San Francisco this year, presuming the Niners move wholesale to Trey Lance once this season is over.

For both those guys, I think the future is probably latching on with a team that’s planning to draft a young quarterback, and being the for-now starter, while the rookie’s readying to play, like Andy Dalton was in Chicago this year (or even Garoppolo himself was in San Francisco).

From Nick Palazzolo (@NickPalazzolo5): I think Jim Caldwell got a raw deal in Detroit and should still be a Head Coach in the league. That being said do you think he gets a shot this cycle, or sometime in the future? Would really like him as the next Bears Head Coach.

Nick, I’d agree that Caldwell got a raw deal in Detroit. But what happened to him isn’t exactly uncommon. In fact, it’s pretty similar to what happened to Mike Mularkey in Tennessee—who, like Caldwell, was blown out by a GM who wanted to bring in his own guy. You just don’t hear as much about what the Titans did, because the hire of Mike Vrabel really worked out.

I also love Caldwell’s history with quarterbacks and his ability to stabilize a chaotic situation. That said, he’ll be 67 years old in January. Outside of working the 2019 offseason in Miami, he’s been out of football altogether for four full seasons now. So I think the idea of hiring him is a tougher sell than it might’ve been a couple of years ago.

More NFL Coverage:

Urban Meyer Never Stopped Living in the Past
Why the NFL Should Postpone Browns-Raiders
The NFL May Incentivize Booster Shots
Micah Parsons Is the Key to a Transformed Cowboys Defense

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