If it were up to Tom Coughlin, he’d still be pacing the Giants’ sideline. He’d be screaming encouragement — or criticism — to his players, waving his arms, having his face turn red in anger after officiating calls he didn’t like, raising a fist in the air after an Eli Manning touchdown pass.
At 71, nearly two years removed from being ousted after a 12-year run with the Giants, he makes no secret of the fact that he misses coaching. But Coughlin still is very much a part of the NFL, and his influence undeniably is a part of one of the game’s biggest success stories this season.
Coughlin is back where he began as a head coach, helping the Jaguars he once turned into playoff contenders as an expansion team back into a winning organization after years of losing. He’s no longer coaching — Doug Marrone was promoted from assistant head coach/offensive line to the top job after last season — but Coughlin’s fingerprints are all over this team.
Coughlin now is the Jaguars’ top decision-maker as the executive vice president of football operations, and he has helped transform the AFC South underachiever into a 10-4 team that has clinched a playoff berth and is headed for the division title. The worst-to-first makeover is a testament to his vision of how a team should be built, as the Jaguars have turned into a team that features terrific defense, a power running game and efficient quarterback play.
That vision is shared with Marrone, who was named head coach before Coughlin was hired, and the two went about reshaping the roster with some terrific personnel moves. Among the biggest:
Defensive end Calais Campbell was signed as an unrestricted free agent. The former Cardinals pass rusher has long been one of the league’s most effective, if underappreciated, defenders. The 6-8, 282-pound lineman has a career-high 14 1⁄2 sacks. Not only that, but he’s a terrific presence in the locker room who has greatly helped the team with his leadership. The Jaguars, who boast the third-ranked defense, lead the NFL with 51 sacks, prompting the team’s Twitter account to be renamed “Sacksonville.”
Rookie Leonard Fournette, a former LSU star drafted fourth overall, has 923 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and the Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing yards per game. Having a reliable ground game has greatly helped fourth-year quarterback Blake Bortles, who has thrown fewer interceptions (eight) and has taken fewer sacks (21) to this point than he did in any of his previous three seasons.
The Jaguars initially targeted Branden Albert as their starting left tackle, acquiring him in a trade with the Dolphins. Albert had a change of heart and decided to retire, then wanted to come out of retirement a week later. Coughlin said no thanks and released him. The Jaguars turned to second-round rookie tackle Cam Robinson, who is having a solid season as the starter.
The like-minded football czar and his coach have proved to be an excellent combination. Coughlin has always believed in dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and the Jaguars have done just that. And Marrone is a straight-shooting coach who still believes that establishing the run and playing great defense is a winning formula. But the Jaguars aren’t afraid to throw it now, and Bortles has had a renaissance season after becoming a punching bag of negative comparisons during his first three years.
Even in training camp, it looked as if Bortles would be a flop. He was briefly replaced by Chad Henne as the starter, but Marrone went back to Bortles before the start of the season, a decision that was rewarded by Bortles’ improved play.
That’s an important development, because it could mean that a potential answer at quarterback — Manning, Coughlin’s quarterback with the Giants — might no longer be necessary.
Manning to the Jaguars seemed to make perfect sense, especially given his uncertain future with the Giants. But if Bortles continues to show improvement, the Jaguars could opt to stick with the quarterback they took third overall in the 2014 draft.
How does Coughlin feel about all this? Well, he’s not saying. The two-time Super Bowl championship coach is a firm believer in having one voice for an organization, and that voice belongs to his coach. Coughlin declined an interview request through a team spokesman.
For a former coach whose favorite expression is “talk is cheap, play the game,” the Jaguars are doing just about everything to Coughlin’s liking.
Having clinched the team’s first playoff berth since 2007 and producing double-digit wins after six straight years of double-digit losses, the Jaguars can earn a home playoff game with a win over the 49ers in San Francisco on Sunday.
“To be a part of the team that is changing the culture, it is tough to put into words,” Bortles said. “It’s special. Unbelievably proud to be a part of this group and play for this organization.”
There is more work to be done, though.
“It’s kind of cool that we solidified our [playoff] spot,” said defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who was signed in 2016 after winning Super Bowl 50 with the Broncos. “It’s cool to be where we are, but we’re not done yet.”