Dec 17, 2021
CloseESPN Staff Writer
- Staff Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from Penn State University.
- Covers college football and college basketball.
CloseESPN Staff Writer
- Covered University of Florida for 13 seasons for ESPN.com and Florida Times-Union
- Graduate of Jacksonville University
- Multiple APSE award winner
TWO WEEKS TO the day before Urban Meyer would be fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars — less than one year into his fraught, scandal-ridden tenure — he stands at a small black lectern deep in the bowels of TIAA Bank Field. He’s here to offer up the latest reckoning for his inaugural season as NFL head coach, an experiment that is rapidly spiraling.
Meyer ruminates on the challenges of transitioning from college football to the NFL — a leap that has claimed a litany of coaches before him. “It’s about what I thought,” he says. His team is 2-9.
He expresses awe at the Los Angeles Rams, who are up next on the Jaguars’ docket (and will defeat Jacksonville 37-7), referring to them, with admiration bordering on reverence, as an “all-star team.” And this, perhaps, is the more honest, if unintentional, glimpse at Meyer’s introduction to the league. Two months earlier, when the season was still new and hadn’t yet curdled into one more double-digit-loss affair (the franchise’s 10th in the past 11 years), he met Denver coach Vic Fangio on the field postgame and told him, “Every week it’s like playing Alabama.” Meyer was, for the first time in his career, in a league that was out of his league.
He seems cowed today at the stadium, as he often has this season — on the sideline during games, at the dais afterward detailing what went wrong in those games. His voice doesn’t carry, often receding into a near-whisper. He looks down to his left, like the answers might be scrawled on the wood floor.
Meyer’s self-ascribed mantra for this season — “OWN IT” — is plastered on the hallways in the stadium, on the signposts in front of meeting rooms and on the walls surrounding the practice field.
But instead of owning it, he deflects. Why doesn’t the offense have an identity this late in the season? “Good question.”
He dodges. Was running back James Robinson, the team’s most reliable offensive threat, benched? “You’d have to ask [running backs coach] Coach Parmalee.”
He sows a constant sense of disorder. Twice, in a span of two weeks, he’ll answer a question — one about his chief of staff, Fernando Lovo, departing Jacksonville for a role with the University of Texas; the other about Robinson, again, being sidelined — by insisting “there’s no something behind Door No. 2.”
But what has become clear in 2021 is that for this entire season — for this entire Urban Meyer exercise — there has always been something behind Door No. 2. There was problematic decision-making: the offseason hiring of strength coach Chris Doyle, who had just left the University of Iowa after two decades because of accusations of mistreatment of Black players. There was problematic behavior: a leaked video of Meyer touching a young woman’s backside. There was tension among coaches: assistants unhappy with everything from how Meyer treated them, to having to stay late to game-plan for preseason games, to Meyer’s aforementioned calling out of Parmalee. There was discord among players: Sources confirm Marvin Jones Jr. had to be convinced to come back to the team facility after frustration with Meyer’s criticism of the wide receiver group, and Josh Lambo publicly accused Meyer of kicking him in warmups before practice, an allegation that, when made public, would prove to be the final embarrassment before Meyer’s undoing.
Urban Meyer leaves the field after Sunday’s loss to Tennessee. His tenure with the Jaguars would end days later. Andy Lyons/Getty Images
In interviews with nearly two dozen coaches, former front office staff members, agents and current and former Jaguars over the past two months, one recurring theme arose: The organizational culture Meyer fostered proved problematic from the start. And all the while, Meyer was leading yet another season of futility in Jacksonville, now with Trevor Lawrence, a generational talent at quarterback. Meyer, perhaps the coach most visibly and pathologically destroyed by losing, was losing like never before. What’s more, the team wasn’t just losing; it was regressing.
Back at the news conference, when he’s finished speaking, he sidles off to the corridor just beyond the interview room to answer one more question in relative quiet.
What has he learned this year, when wins — his lifeblood — have been so hard to come by?
“That my distaste for losing is as strong as it’s ever been,” he says.
It’s the rare moment when there doesn’t seem to be anything else behind Door No. 2. Earlier in the season, as the losses started to snowball, he ran into one of his players in the hallway. Meyer’s face was grim. “I’m not used to this s—,” he told the player.
So what does that distaste look like now?
“Trouble eating, trouble sleeping,” Meyer says.
“Trouble functioning as a human being.”
Meyer celebrates a defensive stop during the first quarter of the Jaguars’ victory over the Buffalo Bills in early November. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
THE STARTLING EXTENT to which Meyer has trouble functioning as a human being amid the losses was laid bare on Wednesday evening.
That’s when Lambo — the most accurate kicker in franchise history, who was released by the Jaguars on Oct. 19 — revealed in an interview to the Tampa Bay Times that Meyer, frustrated with a rare bout of inconsistency from Lambo earlier in 2021, kicked him in the leg during a preseason warm-up.
Lambo alleged a slew of other misdeeds on Meyer’s part. That Meyer, the self-professed special teams evangelist, wouldn’t address his specialists by name, but rather by position (“kicker, punter, long snapper”) or crude epithet (“s—bag, dips—“). That Meyer took exception to Lambo taking exception to being kicked in the leg, and voiced as much in practice, within earshot of the rest of the team.
“I’m the head ball coach, I’ll kick you whenever the f— I want,” Lambo says Meyer told him. Meyer denies Lambo’s description of the interaction.
That revelation, or at least the public airing of it — Lambo says he told his agent about the incident, and he, in turn, informed Jaguars legal counsel — was one more drain on team owner Shad Khan’s once-expansive well of patience. (Just eight months ago, Khan was so enamored of Meyer he pronounced, “This time, I got it right,” a notion he clung to even as he stood by Meyer in the wake of his viral night out in Ohio.) As Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, just about seven hours after Lambo’s allegations broke, news broke that Khan had fired Meyer. He was the Jaguars’ head coach for 336 days.
There had been fleeting moments of hopefulness, or at least not catastrophe, in those 11 months. He engendered the goodwill of his players after he convinced Khan to spend $1.5 million on the installation of a “rejuvenation room” at the stadium — a one-stop shop where players could recover with massages, red-light therapy, acupuncture, cupping, a cryotherapy chamber, a flotation tank, and an infrared sauna.
In the waning minutes of one demoralizing loss, this one in late November against the 49ers “at home” — the stadium boasted as much scarlet as teal that afternoon — Lawrence stood on the sideline with his arm around Meyer, and Meyer’s arm around him.
“I just told him I’m going to keep fighting,” Lawrence said in the aftermath of the 30-10 loss. “Like, it doesn’t matter the situation, I’m always going to be me. You don’t have to worry about me.”
It looked like solidarity, a literal and metaphorical linking of arms that Meyer, and Lawrence, and the team, would wade through this morass together.
Until a few days before his firing, one source close to the team maintained that while there were players who didn’t like Meyer, most of the team felt just fine about him. He hadn’t, at least by the last weekend before his dismissal, lost the locker room, the source said.
A ringing endorsement? Perhaps not. But a looming fiasco? He said it wasn’t that, either.
And on days other than fall Sundays, there were moments of levity. On a Thursday practice in early December, the team formed a circle, with Meyer at its center. He wound his arm back, then spiked the football, sending it hurtling toward earth. He called up assistant head coach Charlie Strong, who spiked the football. He called up offensive lineman Andrew Norwell, who opted not to spike the ball, but kick it. He called up James Robinson, who spiked it, too. In the background, a song blared through the practice speakers:
“Ain’t I blessed as I can be? Ain’t I laughing at you haters tryna take a shot at me?”
The news of massive internal strife — from the coaches down to the players — broke two days later.
On Dec. 11, an NFL.com report detailed a dust-up between Meyer and veteran wide receiver Jones, which culminated in Jones leaving the facility, then having to be persuaded to return, after which a confrontation with Meyer occurred. Meyer denied the incident, returning to the lectern in the bowels of the stadium to suggest to assembled reporters he wanted to pass along Jones’ cellphone number so Jones could verify Meyer’s version of events.
Jones’ cellphone number remained private, but he did speak to reporters two days later, when, in an efficient two-minute news conference, he said, “I’ll just say this. There was something that was brought to my attention that I didn’t like too [much]. I approached him about it and we talked and we handled it like grown men. And that’s all I have to say about that.”
As was so often the case this year, there were other offenses reported. An alleged coaches meeting where Meyer dubbed himself a winner, and his assistant coaches — the ones he hired — were losers, which Meyer publicly denied and a source close to the team also told ESPN never happened. The contention that, despite previously claiming a lack of knowledge about Robinson’s diminished playing time, Meyer was the driving force in keeping the running back off the field against the Rams after his opening-drive fumble.
These incidents, taken together, are a microcosm of the larger problems that plagued Meyer’s time in Jacksonville from the start.
One source familiar with the team lamented that, unlike a healthy organization, honesty and transparency were not rewarded within the confines of TIAA Bank Field. That culture, in turn, bred mistrust and a vacuum where a system of checks and balances, even for the highest individuals in charge, should be.
“Was there enough independent thought?” the source said. “Was there enough of, ‘Let’s hit the brakes on this one and let’s think this one through?'”
Compounding that, few within the organization seemed to have the standing or will to guide Meyer as he transitioned from overseeing 18-to-22-year-old college amateurs to adult professionals.
“He can’t just overcome [missteps] by smiling and saying, ‘Hey, I’m Urban Meyer, this is Columbus, and we’re all good,'” says an agent who represents a former Jaguar. “This is the NFL. It’s just different.”
By several accounts, that road from college football czar to NFL head coach was full of potholes for Meyer and his new charges. Running back Carlos Hyde, who played for Meyer at Ohio State in 2012 and 2013, says some Jaguars balked initially at Meyer’s intense approach.
“One thing with Coach Meyer, he wants to keep you on your toes,” Hyde explains. “He never wants to let you walk around here feeling comfortable. Some guys were trying to figure him out. ‘He made me feel like I might be here today, gone the next.’ But I was like, ‘That’s Coach Meyer.'”
Another former Jaguar echoes Hyde’s assessment. Meyer would stand in one spot as the team filtered out to practice, inspecting each player. What were their mannerisms? How was their body language? Were their heads up or down?
“I think a lot of guys were just so mind-blown with the intensity of it, really,” the player says. “There would just be times where some guys didn’t like how he did practice and things like that.”
There was Meyer, ruling up-close and personal and with an iron fist — but also oddly, and ahistorically, at a remove.
For his entire hyper-successful career as a college head coach, Meyer was, to use his own words, a “micromanaging nutjob.” His micromanaging led him to a 187-32 record. To three college football championships with two different programs. To crippling health problems. Whether it was the latter that compelled him to change his ways, he didn’t say in those final weeks at the Jaguars’ helm — but he did change. He confessed as much at that very lectern.
“I just evaluated myself as my career went along, and I wasn’t as productive in the things I needed to be productive,” he said. “Worrying about which foot the three-technique is stepping with.”
What that shift in attitude looked like, at least in Jacksonville, was a lack of knowledge — feigned or otherwise. About why Robinson, the team’s top offensive playmaker, rode the bench for interminable stretches of a game. About the quantity of reps a young defensive rookie took in a game. And a general sense of being checked out, mind elsewhere, anywhere else, really, than in the game.
Last Sunday, as time expired on the Jaguars’ latest loss, 20-0 to the Titans, Meyer walked — practically limped — to midfield, where he met Tennessee coach and former Meyer disciple Mike Vrabel. Meyer offered his onetime Ohio State assistant a brusque handshake and a despondent look. The entire exchange took less than two seconds, after which he kept on limping back toward the tunnel. It would be Meyer’s last game and, fittingly, his last loss as a Jaguar.
“You can’t always be in the headlines,” Jags quarterback Trevor Lawrence said amid his team’s dramatic week. “You have to go play football.” AP Photo/Mark Zaleski
ON THE LAST Sunday in November, while Meyer paced the sideline during the Jaguars game against the Falcons, his hands on his hips, his head tipped downward, the broadcast showed a graphic painting a grim reality for the viewers at home: The Jaguars had managed the ignominious feat of trailing their opponent in 40 consecutive games, the seventh-longest such streak since 1930. The game was one quarter old.
(That streak has since grown to 42 consecutive games, nudging the Jaguars into sixth place.)
It told an ugly but vital truth: Urban Meyer didn’t invent losing in Jacksonville.
Behold a snapshot of a football-incompetence quagmire: Since 2012, the year Shad Khan took over as owner, no team has a worse record (41-116) in the NFL than his Jaguars. They achieved that mark by posting five-game losing streaks in eight of the past 10 years — and twice this season alone. Before the Jaguars edged out a win with a 53-yard, time-expiring field goal over Miami in Week 6, the team lost 20 straight over the course of the 2020 and 2021 seasons. It was the second-longest losing streak in NFL history.
The issue was never whether Meyer brought ineptitude to the city. It was whether he was the one who finally could fix it. He was not, at least in his truncated 13-game tenure.
This 2021 version of the Jaguars was never destined for greatness. It wasn’t even tagged for mediocrity, really. But after so many ghastly campaigns, for the first time last year, the Jaguars were ghastly enough to earn the first pick in the NFL draft — right on time to land the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. There should have been signs of hope. Glimpses of development. Trevor Lawrence-infused optimism, at least.
The ingredients for a productive offense were there: An offensive-minded head coach to pair with that exceptional talent at quarterback; an offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell, now the interim coach) who worked with Russell Wilson in his first six seasons and reached two Super Bowls, winning one; a 10-year veteran (Jones) joining a talented group of young receivers; a 1,000-yard rusher.
2021: Urban Meyer, Jaguars**
2007: Bobby Petrino, Falcons**
1978: Pete McCulley, 49ers
1976: Lou Holtz, Jets**
*Since 1970; **Was college head coach
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Instead, with Meyer in charge and Bevell calling the plays, the team is on pace to post the worst points-per-game average in the franchise’s 27-year history (13.9), which, if it holds, will shatter the previous mark (15.2 in 2011). Meanwhile, the Jaguars haven’t scored more than 23 points in any game this season, averaging 9.1 per game since the bye. The receivers have dropped 24 passes, tied for the second-highest total in the NFL; they also provided a hearty laugh for the opposing Titans on Sunday with a busted route that resulted in a collision.
There have been times when Lawrence has looked like who he was billed to be. “You’ll see some legitimate, wow, NFL-type throws where you see him dropping it in the honey hole on the sideline, let’s say, where you’ve got to throw over a linebacker, or over a corner, but you can’t float it too high because the safety’s going to be coming in,” says one scout.
And he’s almost always sounded the part. Amid the chaos of Robinson’s was-he-or-wasn’t-he-benched drama, Lawrence was the one who stepped forward to clearly and unflinchingly say Robinson is one of the team’s best players and, as such, he needs to be on the field.
But Lawrence does not have the supporting cast (particularly with injuries to DJ Chark Jr. and Travis Etienne Jr.), nor the support system, to succeed right now. He threw exactly one touchdown pass in the month of November; it’s his only touchdown pass in the last six games. He ranks 28th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks in expected points added on passes. His QBR through his first 13 games is 32.0. (Compare that to the three most recent No. 1 draft picks: Baker Mayfield posted a 50.9 QBR through 13 games in 2018; Kyler Murray, 57.4; Joe Burrow, 48.5, in his first 10 games before he got hurt.)
Still, there is another less ugly, but equally vital truth. Lawrence will be given the gift of time. He was always going to be able to survive Jacksonville without Urban Meyer. But Urban Meyer couldn’t survive Jacksonville without Trevor Lawrence.
“There’s going to be a day when we don’t get our ass kicked here,” Meyer said after the 30-10 loss to San Francisco. “It’s coming. I know that guy [Lawrence] is going to be a part of it. I care deeply for that guy.”
He may yet be right about that part. Lawrence has plenty of runway left to bring success to Jacksonville. Meyer, though, won’t be there to steer it.
On Monday, Jags owner Shad Khan had seemed willing to give Meyer more time. “I want to do the right thing for the team,” he said. “I want to do the right thing for the city. That, to me, is way more important than just acting helter-skelter on emotion.” Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
TWO DAYS BEFORE he fired Urban Meyer, Shad Khan hosted a smattering of local media aboard the Kismet — his 308-foot yacht, anchored in the St. Johns River near downtown Jacksonville, the football stadium in the distance — and preached patience when it comes to his beleaguered head coach.
“I want to do the right thing for the team. I want to do the right thing for the city. That, to me, is way more important than just acting helter-skelter on emotion,” he says. “Gus Bradley was here four years. Doug Marrone was here four years. … I’m going to reflect on all of that and do what’s the right thing for the team and the right thing for the city.”
Khan had gathered the reporters to discuss the 10-year anniversary of his purchase of the Jaguars, and he convened them in style. Upon boarding, attendees were asked to remove their shoes, proffered a glass of champagne and given a tour of the $200 million yacht, which is also available for rent at $1.2 million a week.
The vessel’s flourishes included, but were not limited to: textured leather walls, a handblown glass chandelier, a retractable basketball court, a retractable fireplace, an elevator giving way to a below-sea-level view, a spa, a sauna (with heated flooring), a beauty parlor, an onyx tub.
It was an exercise in luxury and extravagance, a stark contrast to another of Khan’s lavish purchases — the decaying dinghy that is the current iteration of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Khan offered his paean to patience on Monday. By Wednesday, Lawrence told a different room full of media that the sheer amount of the drama engulfing this team had to change. “That’s something we need to work on, for sure,” he said. “You can’t always be in the headlines. You have to go play football.” By Wednesday night, drama dropped in on the Jaguars yet again. Meyer was relieved of his duties.
In the end, it wasn’t the mounting losses that undid this Meyer project. He inherited a mess. But he left a bigger one in his wake, one with plenty of on-field losses, yes, but one also with self-inflicted wounds and the ever-leaky drip-drip-drip of scandal.
In his stead, Bevell assumes interim head coach responsibility, a change that doesn’t seem entirely unwelcome. One agent informed a few of his current Jaguars of Meyer’s firing by text, to which they responded with a “peace out” emoji.
Cornerback Shaquill Griffin took a more nuanced approach on Thursday afternoon, advocating for a shift in approach with this new shift in leadership.
“I feel like this locker room needs a head coach that actually believes in what their players are saying, trust in that we can all make this work. This is not a one-man show. I feel like sometimes head coaches can come in and flip around, ‘This is my way. Let’s do it,’ and sometimes they forget about us,” he said. “For any head coach who decided to take on this job or whatever the case may be, trust your teammates. We can do this together.”
Meyer is gone now, but, in truth, Lawrence was always the foundational piece to this rebuilding puzzle. That part, at least, is no surprise.
Just three weeks before the great unraveling, in the hour after the 49ers game ended — the same game when Meyer professed his faith in Lawrence — the two left the stadium minutes apart. Meyer departed with a small police detail, but he escaped quietly to his car with little fanfare. The small crowd of lingering Jaguars fans were shouting for Lawrence.
Lawrence emerged in a black hoodie and sunglasses, ran his hand through his plentiful hair, then met his wife, Marissa. Together, they made their way to those fans and their cheers, where he offered them a handful of autographs and, perhaps, a hint at a brighter future. He was the one all along.