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Column: The Urban Meyer NFL experiment was an even bigger disaster than we realized

Sorry, Jacksonville. 

Jacksonville Jaguars v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Like many watching Saturday night’s Wild Card matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers, I tuned out at halftime, feeling confident that the beatdown we’d witnessed in the first 30 minutes would lead to a W for the Chargers and an early playoff exit for the Jags on their home turf.

But then the improbable happened. After throwing four first-half interceptions, Trevor Lawrence turned it on in the second half (and at the end of the first) with four touchdowns in the last 31 minutes of play. The Jacksonville defense stepped up, allowing just three points in the final two quarters. Jacksonville emerged with a one-point win.

After this game, we learned three things that we’ve probably suspected throughout this season:

  1. Doug Pederson is a better coach than we realized
  2. Trevor Lawrence is a quarterback with a bright future
  3. The Urban Meyer experiment in Jacksonville was even worse than we realized

Turnarounds happen. They’re meant to happen. It’s the reason the NFL Draft is structured the way it is, so the worst teams in the league can have a shot at redemption. And yet, we don’t often see turnarounds from teams being the worst in the league to winning a playoff game in a single season. That’s why we have to give credit to Doug Pederson and the effort he’s made in Jacksonville.

But it’s not all on the head coach. Of course it makes sense that a quarterback like Trevor Lawrence would show some improvement during his sophomore season in the league since it’s hard to have a sophomore slump when there’s nowhere to go but up after the freshman season.

And credit the $175.3 million Jacksonville doled out in free agency this year to secure players like Christian Kirk and Brandon Scherff.

The thing is, though, teams don’t simply go from 0 to 60 in a single year. There was clearly untapped talent that Pederson was able to put to work in 2022 in ways that weren’t possible in 2021. In business we might call it “building operational efficiencies” — because coaching an NFL team is, after all, like running a business.

So why did this talent not thrive in 2021? Why did these efficiencies remain untapped? For all the reasons Urban Meyer had success at Ohio State, they led to abject failure in Jacksonville.

There’s no doubt that Meyer was a phenomenal college coach because he was good at the things that were required of him as a college coach. And the thing you need to be successful at in college is, uncompromisingly, recruiting. For Meyer, that meant bringing to life a winning culture and then convincing 17 and 18-year-olds to join the program because of that winning tradition — and he was really good at it. When Meyer was still at Ohio State, it was easy to point to the mutually reinforcing recruiting, championship and NFL Draft pick machines that were all but unstoppable. The “developed here” mantra was real when recruits could see guys a few years their senior being taken in the first round with a handful of Big Ten titles under their belts.

In college, even scheming doesn’t need to be all that brilliant (consider the service academies which send one or two teams to bowl games every season running the triple option). Here, recruiting once again played a role. Meyer was able to take his athletes who, because they were four- and five-star recruits, were generally better at their positions than most of the athletes on the other side of the field, and draw up schemes that made his teams look like dynamite.

Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as recruiting in the NFL and you can’t scheme when your athletes are just as good as those on the other team. And the latter point, unfortunately for Meyer, is what matters in the pros.

Every player Meyer coached at Jacksonville was one of the top players on their teams in college, which is why they’re in the NFL. Trying to overpower opposing NFL teams simply doesn’t work; there’s more nuance to it. That’s why NFL point spreads are usually less than two touchdowns while college spreads are much, much higher. There is simply greater parity as teams are more evenly matched.

Individual game strategy matters much more in the NFL than it does in college football. That’s why even the worst teams in the league generally win a few games every season. Meyer learned the hard way that he simply cannot rely on talent mismatches to win games.

To the first point on recruiting, Meyer’s plan in the NFL revolved around the idea, so successful in college, that building a culture would lead to championships. There’s a reason we hear the Meyer-coached players on Sunday Night Football announce they went to “THE Ohio State University,” while Ryan Day-coached players (as we’ve seen throughout this season) fall back on “Ohio State.” Having come from the NFL, Day seems to approach Ohio State as a business manager.

Meyer’s culture-centric program doesn’t work with adults who are earning a paycheck and who, if given the opportunity, could earn a paycheck elsewhere. His methods of treating them like he did a complete college team seem absurd in retrospect.

Unfortunately, when culture building didn’t work, the culture in Jacksonville got so severely toxic that we couldn’t go a whole week without another wild story from the locker room. We don’t need to get into the allegations of verbal and even physical abuse that clouded the short-lived experiment in Jacksonville.

In business and football, the danger is not learning from the lessons we’ve seen. It’s one more data point of why some college coaches don’t make good NFL coaches. Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better, but especially with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that things got much, much worse than they had to in Jacksonville under Meyer’s tenure.