Publish date:

Jacksonville Jaguars: Duval's Urban Renewal

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars

Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence are determined to transform the NFL's most downtrodden franchise

The worst season in Jacksonville Jaguars history hadn’t even happened yet when Shahid Khan met Urban Meyer at a private party in the days before Super Bowl LIV in Miami back in 2020. Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, had just brought back his head coach, Doug Marrone, after a 6–10 season. But his admiration for Meyer, the former Florida and Ohio State boss, was well known.

The two had met before, but this was the first time they really had a chance to talk about football, for Khan to pick the brain of the three-time college national champion about what it takes to win.

And Meyer was ready. He had long had his eye on the NFL and had been thinking about it since he retired from his job as head coach at Ohio State after the 2018 season. He had even reached out to 57 of his former players who had made it to the league to ask about their experiences, and he took plenty of notes.

“I was just intrigued,” Meyer says. “Why does this organization win? Why does it not? Or why do they fail to win? The research was very strong. Because the players will tell you. Players know.”

His conclusion: There was a way to turn the Jaguars, one of the NFL’s worst franchises, into a winner.

Khan was sold.

It would be 11 more months before they finished that conversation. By then the Jaguars had suffered through a miserable 1–15 season, and Khan had finally fired Marrone. About the only good thing that happened in that time was that the Jets somehow managed to win two games in that span, gifting the Jaguars the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

That led to what Khan called “an inflection point for the Jaguars” — a twist of fate and fortune for a franchise that hadn’t had much luck in its existence. Khan had already laid the groundwork to land the 56-year-old Meyer, one of the greatest coaches in recent college football history, and now he could pair him with quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a prospect for the ages according to many NFL scouts, and one who had been destined to be the No. 1 pick since before his first snap at Clemson three years earlier.

It led to a surge of excitement about a franchise that had just one winning season and one playoff berth in the last 13 years. Players were suddenly eager to sign with Jacksonville, a place from which so many had previously tried to escape. A fan base that had become understandably apathetic was suddenly snapping up merchandise printed with the phrase “Urban Renewal.”

And fans were so welcoming of Lawrence that a social media campaign to get fans to chip in to buy Trevor and his new wife, Marissa, a $300 toaster as a wedding gift ended up with $11,000 in donations that went to a local charity.

It’s worth noting that Lawrence is the 19th quarterback to be taken first overall in the last 32 NFL drafts. Only four of them have led their team to a Super Bowl, and the only two who won Super Bowls were both named Manning. And the success rate for great college coaches transitioning to the NFL is just as dismal. For every Jimmy Johnson, Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh, there’s a Steve Spurrier, a Nick Saban or a Lou Holtz.

In other words, the excitement is great, and it’s welcomed in the River City. But is the Urban (and Trevor) renewal project really going to work?

By the time Lawrence made his first college start at 18, in a game against Syracuse on Sept. 29, 2018, NFL scouts were already watching him closely. He was considered to be one of the greatest high school prospects of all time when he came out of Cartersville High School in Georgia. It was already assumed he’d be the No. 1 pick in 2021.

By the time Lawrence made his first college start at 18, in a game against Syracuse on Sept. 29, 2018, NFL scouts were already watching him closely. He was considered to be one of the greatest high school prospects of all time when he came out of Cartersville High School in Georgia. It was already assumed he’d be the No. 1 pick in 2021.

Meyer knew it too. He was still at Ohio State when Lawrence burst onto the scene at Clemson and had two years in retirement to see him on the field. He knew Lawrence had everything: the arm, the poise, the intelligence.

There’s a reason so many scouts and NFL personnel have said that Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect to come out of college since Peyton Manning back in 1998.

“No negatives,” says Jaguars GM Trent Baalke. “All the research we’ve done, you’re always looking for the stars to align when you’re looking at prospects, whether that be from a physical, mental, character aspect, whatever the case may be. With his situation, the stars all align, and that’s what you’re looking for.”

In many ways, Lawrence seems perfect for Jacksonville, one of the NFL’s smallest markets and for a long time its least desirable location. Lawrence is a quiet, laid-back Southern kid who seems far less into being a star than he is into being a quarterback. He even made some waves with that persona in the weeks before the draft, when he said, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, “It’s not like I need (football) for my life to be OK,” and “I don’t have this huge chip on my shoulder, that everyone’s out to get me and I’m trying to prove everybody wrong.”

That was a little too comfortable for some — those who want to feel the passion of elite athletes and believe they need to have that edge. It was a little too laid back for the fire-and-brimstone crowd.
Here’s the thing, though: That can work.

“Trevor’s style, the way that he leads, is definitely going to translate to the NFL,” says former Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who rejoined his college teammate when the Jaguars drafted him 25th overall. “I feel like he’s always cool, calm and collected. He can just take over a whole field anytime, and he always has a demeanor about himself that gives you complete trust in him.”

In other words, don’t let the quiet fool you: Lawrence still has a presence, especially on the field. Meyer describes him simply as a “winner.” Two state championships in three years in high school and a national championship and two other appearances in the College Football Playoff at Clemson seem to prove that point.

And Lawrence is determined to make sure that in Jacksonville he experiences more of the same.

“That mindset is still important,” he says. “You still have to expect to win; you still have to prepare the same way. I don’t know what the point is if you don’t expect to win every week.”

Expecting it and doing it are vastly different things in the NFL.

It helped that the Jaguars had more salary cap space than any team in the NFL back in March, which they used to acquire weapons like receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and running back Carlos Hyde. They also helped the offensive line by using the franchise tag on Cam Robinson and boosted the defense by trading for defensive tackle Malcom Brown and signing cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins. And it helps that they added Etienne and tackle Walter Little in the draft, too.

They join a cast that has a little more talent than most think, with dangerous players like receiver DJ Chark Jr., running back James Robinson and defensive end Josh Allen.

Related: Jacksonville Jaguars 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

In the end, though, how much success they have — and how quickly it arrives — will come down to the 21-year-old Lawrence. There’s rarely an in-between for franchise quarterbacks. They can make or break everything, from the team to the coaching staff to, really, the entire franchise.

“This is a monumental moment for this franchise,” Meyer says. “We’ve seen some franchises explode, and we’ve seen others fail. I’ve said this many times throughout my career: When the NFL says it’s a quarterback league, I would say ‘Well, so is college and so is high school, so is Pop Warner.’ It’s a quarterback sport.”

And choosing Lawrence to be his quarterback, Meyer says, “is going to be one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my lifetime.”

•••

Recommended Articles

In the month before the Jaguars drafted Lawrence, they made a flurry of free agent moves. Among them was signing Hyde, who had been with Jacksonville for the latter half of the 2018 season when the Jaguars went 5–11. He made the playoffs with Houston in 2019 and with Seattle in 2020.

Hyde had options in free agency. Yet when he saw Meyer, his old coach at Ohio State, leading the new-look Jaguars, he had an odd desire to go back.

“It was a no-brainer for me to come to Jacksonville, once I saw he became the head coach here,” Hyde says. “You take Coach Meyer’s record, the places he’s been, he’s won a lot. So, that’s one thing when I look at it as winning, and that’s what we’re all here for, it’s to win. So, that’s what persuaded me to come back to Jacksonville, because I know Coach Meyer. He wants to win, and he’s going to figure out how to win.”

One day earlier, the Jaguars had traded for Brown, a former first-round pick who had spent the first six years of his NFL career doing a whole lot of winning with the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. That included two Super Bowl championships in his first four years.

Yet when he got the call that he had been traded to Jacksonville, he was so happy that he says, “I was running around the house.”

“I was ecstatic,” Brown says. “I heard what coaches were here and what direction they were going in, and like I said, I was happy. It doesn’t matter where the program was last year, it’s about what we do next year.”

That’s remarkable, really, considering how hard veterans like cornerback Jalen Ramsey and edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue tried to get out of Jacksonville over the last few years. It had really become one of the NFL’s last, most desolate outposts. No one wanted to play there if they had any other options at all.

Meyer’s arrival changed all that. Players know how successful he was in college. He went 83–9 in seven years at Ohio State, including a national championship. He went 65–15 in six years at Florida and won the national championship twice. He was also 22–2 in two years at Utah, turning them quickly into a national power (going 12–0 in 2004), and 17–6 in two seasons at Bowling Green. Success had followed him everywhere, which is why his arrival immediately changed everything about the image of a franchise that was last relevant in the late 1990s when Tom Coughlin took a fast-rising expansion team to two AFC Championship Games in their first five years of existence.

“He’s a winner, a leader and a champion,” Khan said when he announced the hiring of Meyer. “He’s the man we want and need in Jacksonville, and as you’ll see, he wants the challenge. He’s ready.”

“The biggest thing is that he’s a winner,” Lawrence says. “You’ve seen he’s done that his whole career.”

That’s true, but his whole career has been spent at college, which has never been a guaranteed springboard to NFL success. Many have wondered if Meyer’s personality would work in the pros, if he was too sensitive to handle the increased criticism, too stubborn to change some of his ways.

Those fears were amplified in early February when Meyer made the very controversial decision to hire Chris Doyle as the director of sports performance, just eight months after he was fired by the University of Iowa when several players accused him of racism.

The move was roundly condemned around the NFL, even as Meyer staunchly defended it. And the moment seemed to prove everything Meyer’s critics said: That he’s used to being the king of a small kingdom, dealing with happy boosters, fawning media and young players who fall in line with his every whim. That his stubbornness would lead to mistakes like this and wouldn’t play well even in locker rooms that he’ll see are no longer filled with mostly scared kids.

Doyle resigned just days later, after the outcry, ending that controversy quickly. And judging by the number of free agents who signed with the Jaguars and all the good will coming out of Duval County, it doesn’t seem that the incident did any lasting damage. In fact, the belief in Meyer and his program has only continued to build.

“He knows how to win,” Griffin says. “I’m following a guy that believes in winning, that knows how to win — and I believe in the same thing. This is a guy that is going to take us exactly where we need to go, and he’s going to put the right pieces together to put us in position to win games that we need to win.”

“Everybody wants to think Jacksonville is going to be an easy win,” says edge rusher Jihad Ward, another free agent acquisition. “No, when you go up against Jacksonville, you better think twice. Watch your mouth when you come to us.”

•••

There is no doubt Meyer can coach. He not only proved that with nothing but winning at four college programs, but he’s also long been regarded as one of the best tacticians in college sports. Even some NFL coaches over the years have flocked to him for advice, to learn a bit of his often-electric offense, to hear his philosophy on how to make a team win.

There’s also no doubt that the team Meyer has in Jacksonville is better than the dysfunctional, passion-less group that was so awful last year. They believe they have the pieces in place, if Meyer can put them together. And if Lawrence is even half of what is expected, he’s more talented than the group of Gardner Minshew II, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton that the Jaguars suffered with last season. The bar is low, but he might already be the most talented quarterback to hit Jacksonville in the franchise’s 27 years.

But Meyer knows that winning is more than just about talent, and that he needs to lift the heavy anchor weighing down the entire franchise for this all-star coach-quarterback combo to work.

So a few months after he was hired, after some pandemic restrictions were lifted and everyone could report to the Jaguars’ facilities for work, Meyer gathered the Jaguars’ 150 or so employees in the stands at TIAA Bank Field. These were people who spent years toiling in obscurity for this listless organization, who were conditioned by the darkness of the last two decades.

Turning Pro: College Coaches Moving to the NFL

CoachCollege RecordNational TitlesNFL RecordSuper Bowl WIns

Pete Carroll

97-19

2

145-94-1

1

Jim Harbaugh

107-49

0

44-19-1

0

Lou Holtz

249-132-7

1

3-10

0

Jimmy Johnson

81-34-3

1

80-64

2

Chip Kelly

56-28

0

28-35

0

Urban Meyer

187-32

3

0-0

?

Nick Saban

261-65-1

7

15-17

0

Steve Spurrier

228-89-2

1

12-20

0

Meyer, speaking like a college coach at a pep rally — in a way that had to feel familiar to the former Buckeye, Gator, Ute and Falcon boss — he implored his new colleagues to rediscover their pride, to not approach their jobs like they’re already defeated. He wanted to flush the losing mindset from every corner of the organization, even though it was still months before his new team would take the field.

“When they see the Jaguar emblem, you better have ownership and you better love it,” Meyer had said two months earlier, at his introductory press conference. “If not, it’s my job to eliminate those people from this organization.

“And I take that very seriously. The two things I always talk about that inspire or are part of inspiration are love and ownership. I want you to own it and if you don’t want to do that then you can’t be here. Own that emblem.”

That’s easier said than done. The Jaguars emblem has symbolized a 128–208 record over the past 21 years — an embarrassing .381 winning percentage. The only pride they felt was fleeting, in a clearly flukey season in 2017 when Marrone and quarterback Blake Bortles led them to a 10–6 record and a run to the AFC Championship Game, where for a little while they had the New England Patriots on the ropes.

There was no building off that success, though, because there hadn’t been anything positive building in the organization since the early expansion days.

In those last 21 miserable years, they’ve achieved only three playoff berths. They’ve had a winning record in just four of those seasons and suffered double-digit losses an astounding 13 times.

That’s what the Jaguars emblem has represented. That’s what the organization owns. And all the pep talks and fiery speeches and inspirational words won’t change that — not until Meyer and Lawrence start to win.

Will they?

The people of Jacksonville seem to believe. Season ticket sales spiked when Meyer was hired, so much so that the Jaguars had to hire more people to their sales staff. And another wave came when Lawrence was drafted. So the fans, worn down by far too many years of losing, are definitely buying in, just like everyone inside the Jaguars’ building.

“I’m just pumped,” says Lawrence, the quarterback/savior. “The best is yet to come.”

— Written by Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine.