Just 11 months ago, coming off another pitiful season, the Jacksonville Jaguars found themselves in one of the more enviable situations in the N.F.L.
They had oceans of salary-cap space. They had the first pick in a draft with an elite quarterback prospect available. They had vacancies at general manager and head coach.
This chance to remake their image, to restore some civic pride and build a winning team, was, the team owner Shahid Khan said in an April interview, “once-in-a-lifetime.”
“It was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Khan said at the time. “I mean, we better not screw this up.”
They did anyway.
The Jaguars lured Urban Meyer, one of the most successful college coaches in decades, from the stress-free comforts of a TV gig, and then proceeded to flounder as he made one regrettable decision after another, after another, after another, after another.
Khan reached his threshold for embarrassment late Wednesday night when he fired Meyer after only 13 games. The Jaguars took 11 losses, more defeats than Meyer absorbed during his seven seasons at Ohio State, though the putrid 2-11 record still managed to belie the dysfunction and tension that engulfed his brief stewardship of the team.
“After deliberation over many weeks and a thorough analysis of the entirety of Urban’s tenure with our team, I am bitterly disappointed to arrive at the conclusion that an immediate change is imperative for everyone,” Khan said in a statement issued after midnight Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
The first two words of that statement named the interim coach, the offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Khan did not even mention Meyer’s name until the end of the second sentence — a rhetorical clue, perhaps, that he wanted to distance himself, and the organization, from Meyer as quickly as possible.
Bevell said Meyer left the Jaguars’ headquarters at some point before Wednesday night’s scheduled meetings and he never saw him again. The team continued preparing for Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans without Meyer, he said, and then Bevell learned late Wednesday night, from General Manager Trent Baalke, that Meyer had been fired.
Meyer’s final game, a 20-0 defeat Sunday at Tennessee, marked the Jaguars’ fifth time in seven games scoring 10 or fewer points. Afterward, he appeared disinterested shaking the hand of Titans Coach Mike Vrabel — one of his assistants at Ohio State — and then the next day seemed not to realize that the rookie safety Andre Cisco hadn’t played a defensive snap against Tennessee.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
But the death blow to a stint defined by friction with assistants and players and his own questionable off-the-field behavior appeared to come Wednesday night, when the The Tampa Bay Times reported an incident that the Jaguars had known about for three-and-a-half months: The former kicker Josh Lambo claimed that Meyer kicked him during warm-ups at an August practice.
The backlash on social media was swift, as it was last weekend, when NFL Media, citing unnamed sources, reported that Meyer berated players and assistant coaches. Meyer, speaking after the loss to Tennessee, denied the content of the report and said that he would fire anyone discovered to have leaked information.
“There’s been some drama, there’s been some distractions,” the rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence, chosen first overall in April, said. “You can’t ever go back. You’ve just got to move forward.”
Lawrence said he woke up Thursday around 6 a.m. to texts about Meyer’s firing “and then naturally kind of Googled it.” He turned to his wife, Marissa, and told her, “It’ll be an interesting day at work.”
Meyer, 57, won three college national titles as the coach for Florida and Ohio State, and his teams across four schools went 187-32. But scandals and stress- and health-related issues caused him to resign or retire three times in his career. Thirty-one of his players were arrested during his time at Florida, while at Ohio State, he protected a longtime assistant with a history of domestic abuse.
Within days of taking over in Jacksonville, Meyer invited more scrutiny by hiring as director of sports performance Chris Doyle, who resigned in February amid public criticism over accusations that he made racist remarks and bullied people while he was a strength and conditioning coach at Iowa.
The N.F.L. fined both Meyer and the team in July for violating league no-contact rules for off-season practices, and the Jaguars were ordered to forfeit two organized team activity sessions in 2022.
In Week 4, after an overtime loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati, Meyer did not travel back to Jacksonville with the team, saying he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren. A video soon circulated of a woman, who is not his wife, dancing near Meyer’s lap at a bar in Ohio.
The breach embarrassed the team, though Khan declined to fire Meyer after the episode, saying in a statement at the time that Meyer’s actions were “inexcusable” and that he must “regain our trust and respect.”
Khan acknowledged the previous indiscretions in the announcement of his decision to remove Meyer. “As I stated in October, regaining our trust and respect was essential,” Khan said in the statement on Thursday morning. “Regrettably, it did not happen.”
The N.F.L. Players Association in late August opened an investigation after Meyer acknowledged in a news conference that the vaccination status of players influenced his decision to reduce the size of the team’s roster during training camp.
Since Khan’s first season as owner in 2012, no team has a worse record than the Jaguars (41-116), who hoped that hiring Meyer would grant them immediate credibility. Khan and Meyer spoke in depth at an N.F.L. party before the Super Bowl in February 2020 in Miami Gardens, Fla., and Khan said he was impressed with Meyer’s leadership traits.
Khan poached Meyer from a TV analyst position at Fox Sports, despite competition from other teams, by convincing Meyer that he could remake the franchise in his image.
Meyer, already a hero to college football fans in northern Florida, drafted Lawrence as part of his plan to overhaul an organization that has experienced only eight winning seasons since joining the league as an expansion team in 1995.
The aspirations were bold, especially considering that college coaches have traditionally struggled in the N.F.L. High-profile failures include Lou Holtz with the Jets and Bobby Petrino with the Atlanta Falcons. Both resigned in the middle of disastrous debut seasons.
Only three coaches — Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll — have won both a college national championship and a Super Bowl.
At a staff meeting in March at TIAA Bank Field, nearly two months after he was hired as coach, Meyer offered a self-imposed timeline for success.
Within three years, he said, if the Jaguars’ team logo was not respected, “then you’re probably looking for a new coach and we’ve not been very successful,” he told the 120 people listening.
Three years turned out to be too optimistic. Meyer did not even last one season, and the Jaguars’ logo has been tarnished once again.
Lawrence discussed the importance of finishing strong these next four weeks, when Bevell has the opportunity to match — or surpass — Meyer’s win total. Results matter to the players, but the most important aspect of the remaining season is how Lawrence continues to develop.
He is tied for the league lead with 14 interceptions, and he will most likely have to learn a new offensive system, with a new head coach, in 2022. Most of the league’s other successful young quarterbacks, from Josh Allen of Buffalo to Lamar Jackson of Baltimore to Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City, have enjoyed relative stability throughout their tenures.
The Jaguars’ job, again, should be appealing for prospective candidates, with Lawrence and another probable top-five draft pick. The circumstances are essentially identical to the opportunity Meyer was given.