After achieving every noteworthy goal there is in college football, Urban Meyer now attempts to conquer an even bigger challenge: succeeding in the NFL, where so many before him have failed.
History is littered with college coaches who flopped at the highest level of the sport. From Steve Spurrier’s ill-fated tenure in Washington, where the ol’ ball coach went 12-20 in two seasons before walking away, to Chip Kelly, who bombed with the Eagles after a starring role at Oregon, the transition from college to the pros usually is unworkable.
Why? A variety of reasons.
College coaches have the final say over everything that happens in their programs, and their players are in no position to question their authority. That’s not the case in the NFL. Players are older, make a handsome salary, have free agency available and frequently question the kind of authority that college coaches wield with impunity.
Nick Saban may be the greatest coach in college football history, but he compiled a 15-17 record in two years with the Dolphins. Greg Schiano moved from Rutgers to the Buccaneers and went 11-21 before being fired. He’s now back where he belongs at Rutgers, trying to resurrect a program that foundered after he left.
The one notable exception: former Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson, who took the burned-out husk of a team left behind by Cowboys legend Tom Landry and rebuilt the team into an NFL dynasty in short order.
Johnson brought the swagger he created at Miami to Dallas, used his keen eye to bring in exceptional talent and then finagled the most one-sided trade in NFL history — and perhaps sports history — in the Herschel Walker swap with Minnesota.
Johnson won two Super Bowls in January 1993 and 1994 before being pushed out by credit-hungry team owner Jerry Jones, and Barry Switzer won another title in January 1996 with the team left behind by Johnson. But the Cowboys have not come close since, a testament to Johnson’s brilliance and Jones’ inability to recreate the team’s dominance.
Meyer, 56, who created dominant programs at Utah, Florida and Ohio State, now will try to join Johnson in the small group of elite college coaches who have succeeded in the NFL. He walks into a compelling situation in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are uniquely situated to build a strong team with the right moves.
They have the No. 1 overall pick, which almost certainly will be Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. They have the Rams’ first-round pick and fourth-round pick from the Jalen Ramsey trade last year. They have a second-round pick from the Vikings in the Yannick Ngakoue trade. And they are flush with salary-cap cash; the Jaguars’ $75 million in cap space is the most of any team heading into the offseason.
"I think it’s prime to put together a good team," Meyer said at his introductory news conference Friday. "I’m not going to jump into a situation where I don’t believe we can win."
If Meyer adjusts to the pro game the way Johnson did, there’s a chance. In fact, Meyer spoke at length with Johnson during his deliberations before taking the Jaguars’ job, and they will continue to communicate.
"He told me that you have to be much different'' in professional football than in college football, Meyer said. "But he made clear that players want to win. They understand their value, their brand and their lifestyle [improve when you win], and they want to be around winners. Jimmy Johnson was fantastic, and he’ll be a guy that I’ll lean on quite frequently."
Meyer walked away from jobs at Florida and Ohio State, citing health concerns. He said he feels fine now but will be mindful of achieving a proper work-life balance. It's a noble goal, but it's one that many coaches don’t find.
"I’m older and it’s something I’m going to be conscientious of, something I’m going to watch very closely," he said. "I will be the head coach, but I’m going to hire great coaches that are going to be expected to do their job. I’m not going to be running around like a nut on the practice field. Those days are gone."
The expectations are huge for a fan base that hasn’t had sustained success since the days when Tom Coughlin coached the expansion franchise to the playoffs in the 1990s. But like so many before him, Meyer faces long odds to go from great college coach to NFL champion.
Defending champs are fresh
Kansas City came into the season as the AFC favorite to get back to the Super Bowl, and nothing has changed now that the team is ready for its first postseason game on Sunday against the Browns in the divisional round.
The defending champions earned home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs with a 14-2 record, but it’s not as if Kansas City was blowing opponents out the entire time. In fact, the team's last six wins came by a combined 27 points.
Patrick Mahomes went through most of the season as the presumptive MVP, but those narrow victories allowed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers an opening to the sport’s most coveted individual award.
That said, there’s no reason Kansas City can’t win its next two games in convincing fashion — but only if the team recaptures its form from last year’s playoffs.
Kansas City has scored at least 30 points in five straight playoff games dating to the 2018 divisional round of the playoffs. If it does it against the Browns, Kansas City will tie the Saints (2010-12) for the most consecutive playoff games with at least 30 points in NFL history.
And if Kansas City beats the Browns, it will be the first AFC team to host three straight conference championship games in NFL history. The 2002-04 Eagles hosted three straight NFC title games. Oh, and those teams have something in common: Andy Reid was the coach.
It’s personal for Hunt
Browns running back Kareem Hunt will face his former team when Cleveland visits Kansas City in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Hunt was Kansas City’s third-round pick in 2017 but was released by the team in 2018 after video surfaced of him appearing to kick and shove a woman during an incident in Cleveland that year. Kansas City released Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie, after the team determined he was not entirely forthcoming about the incident.
Hunt believes the team gave up on him too soon, which became clear when he appeared on an Instagram Live event after Cleveland beat Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card game last weekend. "Next week’s personal," he said.
"Kareem talked about this game all year like he knew it was going to happen," Browns running back Nick Chubb said. "He’s excited for it. I’m excited for him. He’s ready for it."
Watson drama continues
The best thing the Texans have going for them — by far — is quarterback Deshaun Watson, one of the best young players in the game.
But the team’s repeated mishandling of personnel decisions and its front-office and coaching issues have created a very real scenario in which Watson will not be a Texan much longer.
The trade of All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the firing of coach Bill O’Brien, the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio and the initial refusal to interview Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy for the team's vacant coaching position have created a nightmare scenario — one that could wind up with Watson forcing his departure.
Watson made this cryptic comment on Twitter on Friday, suggesting that he is fed up with the situation: "I was on 2 then I took it to 10." It was an apparent reference to ESPN insider Adam Schefter’s characterization of Watson’s frustration level after the hiring of Caserio, the former Patriots front-office executive who now joins former Patriots life coach Jack Easterby in the Texans’ organization.
Stay tuned on this one. It’s a toxic brew of circumstances, and unless the Texans figure out a way to include their most important player in a most important decision, Watson might force his way out of town.
Stefanski’s debut a week late
Kevin Stefanski did a masterful job in getting the Browns to the playoffs in his first season, and the coach now will get a taste of playoff coaching after missing last weekend’s wild-card win over the Steelers because he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Stefanski got clearance to return after a 10-day quarantine that ended Thursday.
"Those walls were closing in on me," he said.
Stefanski was fortunate to experience only mild symptoms but still hasn’t fully regained his sense of smell. In his absence, special teams coach Mike Priefer served as head coach for Cleveland’s 48-37 win at Heinz Field. Priefer is delighted to give up his interim duties.
"Any time your leader comes back to the building and he’s going to lead us into battle this weekend," he said, "it’s a great thing for our football team."