The Wild Card Round always presents some interesting dynamics. There are teams who just barely scratched and clawed their way into the big dance who simply look overmatched, just as there are real contenders who are hitting their stride and fine-tuning each aspect of their team.
Then there are teams like the Jaguars. After a 3-14 season that saw the Jaguars end 2021 with the worst record in the NFL for the second year in a row, the Jaguars don't have many rooting interests in the first-round of the playoffs -- but that doesn't mean the playoffs don't matter.
With the Jaguars looking for a new head coach and interviewing several candidates who coached on either Saturday or Sunday, the Jaguars got a last-minute audition of a number of coaches who are positioning to lead Jacksonville into the future.
So, what did this weekend tell us about the coaches and the Jaguars search for Urban Meyer's replacement? We examine below.
Byron Leftwich navigated Tampa Bay's injuries with relative ease
If you were looking for Byron Leftwich and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go with a bombs away-type offense and just challenge the Eagles defense downfield all game, then Sunday's display likely didn't do much for you. But in the context of the Eagles' strength (their defensive line) and the injury issues facing the Buccaneers at offensive line, running back, and wide receiver, it is easy to see why Leftwich and the Buccaneers went with a dink and dump game plan that got the ball out of Tom Brady's hand with swiftness.
From Tristan Wirfs to Ryan Jensen to Leonard Fournette to Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, the Buccaneers were missing several huge pieces of their offense on Sunday. They still had Brady, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and O.J. Howard, but they also had to ask players like Breshad Perriman, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Wells step into major roles. Due to an offensive line and skill group full of backups, Leftwich changed the Buccaneers' approach and played a game that let Brady not be left at the mercy of the Eagles' front.
With receivers who were struggling to win one-on-one and a line that wasn't a lock to hold up for slow-developing plays, we saw Leftwich tap into an offense that put Brady in the best position to win despite their losses on offense. Whether Leftwich and Brady can keep the offense afloat against better defenses remains to be seen, but Sunday did show us that Leftwich knows how to navigate injuries and play to his team's strengths, even in unideal situations.
Todd Bowles goes down as a big winner
One coach who I think doesn't get enough respect during recent coaching cycles is Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He was hamstrung in New York by a bad front office and an inconsistent Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he has stood out as a defensive coordinator time and time again and has the kind of fiery leadership that would likely bode well for his chances if he got another head coaching gig. While I don't think he is likely to be the Jaguars' hire, I do think he is in better standing than most would presume, with many likely seeing him as the most improbable option.
Bowles did enough on Sunday, though, that I think any team looking for a new head coach should have some interest in him. The Eagles' running game has been among the NFL's best in recent weeks and Jalen Hurts had come into his own over the second half of the season, but Bowles had a perfect game plan for the Eagles' attack. By bringing pressure from different areas of the field and always mixing up the pre-snap look on Hurts, Bowles put the second-year quarterback in a blender and effectively shut down one of the NFL's most effective rushing attacks. Bowles is gifted with lots of talent in Tampa Bay, but he also knows how to use it.
Should Brian Daboll or Eric Bieniemy at least get an interview?
This is the second year in a row the Jaguars are looking for a head coach and haven't even reached out to the Bills about offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, while the Jaguars also haven't reached out to Kansas City Chiefs coordinator Eric Bieniemy after interviewing him in 2021. The Jaguars have brought in a completely new slate of candidates this year and have left two of 2020's coaching cycle darlings in the past, but is that the right move?
For Daboll, it remains to be seen. The Bills' offense was inconsistent throughout 2021 and likely asks Josh Allen to be too much of a one-man show at times, but no offense is more quarterback-centric than Buffalo's. Daboll knows Allen's strengths and plays to them perfectly, and his rededication to the running game has boded well for his balance as a play-caller. For a team like the Jaguars with a quarterback who is similar to Allen from a tools perspective, it would make sense for the Jaguars to at least sniff around on Daboll, especially after arguably the best offensive performance in playoff history on Saturday.
As for Bieniemy, who coordinated the Chiefs to a massive blowout of the Pittsburgh Steelers that saw Patrick Mahomes throw for five touchdowns and over 400 yards, Sunday couldn't have gone much better. The questions with Bieniemy has rarely been his ability to scheme things up, though. We knew he was a good coordinator, and games like Sunday only emphasize that. For the Jaguars to not talk to him this year after doing so last year would suggest they simply weren't impressed by Bieniemy as a candidate. Still, it is odd for the Jaguars to interview a coach like Bill O'Brien -- who doesn't have an impressive offensive background -- but not want to speak to a coach with the background of Bieniemy.
Kellen Moore, Dan Quinn, end the weekend as the biggest losers
The two coaches who in my eyes lost the most momentum this weekend come from the same team. The Dallas Cowboys were widely picked to advance past the San Francisco 49ers and advance into the second round, but the 49ers dominated them in the first-half and were simply the more physical and efficient team on both sides of the ball.
For the Cowboys' offense and coordinator Kellen Moore, it was hard to be impressed by anything Dallas did. Moore's offenses have put up big numbers over the last three years, but Sunday showed all the issues some have with his play-calling. He puts a ton on Dak Prescott's plate and is asking him to work full-field reads to find open wideouts, rarely giving him easy completions to get him into a rhythm or to move the ball with urgency and consistency. Moore was decidedly outcoached by 49ers' defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans on Sunday, and that should concern the Jaguars.
As for Dan Quinn, Sunday was simply more of the same that we have seen from his brand of defense. While Quinn is a good coordinator whose unit put together a productive year, his scheme has always been picked about by certain plays and certain offensive attacks, primarily the type of offense that Kyle Shanahan calls. This is the same type of defense the Jaguars saw struggle for most of 2013-2020, with only two years of above-average defense in that span. And even when the scheme was at its best, it still was beat fairly easy by the same simple plays -- bootlegs, tosses, quick outs, etc. This was the case for Dallas' defense on Sunday, and it looked far too familiar for the Jaguars' interests.
The importance of finding a coach with quarterback ties becomes even more obvious
The quarterbacks who won playoff games this weekend: Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Patrick Mahomes. Of those teams, all but one (Buffalo) have an offensive-minded head coach. And Buffalo's offensive success has come on the heels of hiring Daboll, who has helped Allen reach new heights in his development.
In short, teams with quarterbacks who were hitting their stride found the most success over the weekend. Zac Taylor has built his scheme around Joe Burrow, Leftwich and Brady are in lockstep, Bieniemy and Andy Reid have been perfect for Mahomes, and Shanahan makes things as easy on Garoppolo as they could possibly be. These are all examples of the influence of quarterback-centric coaches, which is the exact coach the Jaguars should likely hire to get the most out of Trevor Lawrence. Not all good head coaches are ones with quarterback ties, but that is clearly the direction the NFL is heading.