Inside this column
- Trevor Lawrence Politely Got Urban Meyer Fired
- Texting with KC Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
- Yards Per Pass Differential Rankings
- John Harbaugh is Smart. Bill Cowher is Not.
Trevor Lawrence faces a daunting situation.
You can point to any number of situations that led to Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer being fired after only 13 games of his NFL career. His list of humiliations was stunning in less than a year, capped by the super-odd story that came out in the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday about Meyer kicking former Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo while he was stretching in August.
But the truth is that the common sense of quarterback and No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence is really what got Meyer kicked to the curb. In the last two weeks, Lawrence made two simple points. The first is that James Robinson should be playing if the Jaguars want to win. The second came Wednesday when Lawrence said simply that the drama has to stop.
How Trevor Lawrence Politely Got Urban Meyer Fired
Since Meyer was the source of all the drama, it was Meyer who had to go. And Lawrence was able to get that accomplished without the messy kind of divorces that often happen between coaches and quarterbacks. Even before the decision was made late Wednesday night to move on, several executives around the league talked about the power Lawrence not only had, but had to exert in this situation.
“That kid has so much power in that situation and he probably doesn’t even realize it,” a former NFL executive said. “He really needs to think about this carefully. I know he probably feels some loyalty to Meyer, but this is business. You can’t tolerate what’s going on there and expect to win.”Advertisement
Lawrence made that point earlier in the day in remarks to ESPN reporter Mike DiRocco.
“You’re always going to have some form of drama. I’ve learned that the NFL is just more drama, in general, than college, no matter where you’re at,” Lawrence said. “But you’re right, there’s been a lot. To your point, I do think that has to change and that’s something that we need to work on for sure.
“So, you can’t always be in the headlines. You just got to go play football and that’s where we’re trying to get and I have no doubt we’ll get there, but for sure [it has to change].”
In the span of a few sentences, Lawrence told Jaguars owner Shad Khan all he needed to know. Sure, Lawrence is probably a little young to be making decisions like that. He doesn’t have the experience of Aaron Rodgers, who helped push out Mike McCarthy, or Dan Marino, who did the same with Don Shula in 1996, or John Elway, who had a highly ugly and highly public split with coach Dan Reeves.
I know there are many of fans who think it’s absurd that a quarterback — especially such a young one — could have such sway on who is the coach. But it’s a reality of the NFL. Finding a great quarterback is a lot harder than finding a great coach. Admittedly, neither is easy, but don’t fool yourself.
In the face of Meyer’s clownish behavior, Lawrence had to protect his career and the future of the organization. This isn’t just about one week where Meyer lamely claimed that he wasn’t responsible for Robinson not playing — hey Urban, you’re the head coach — or that late last week Meyer called his assistant coaches “losers.”
This is about an entire season that has exposed how little Meyer really understands about football. It’s about exposing that Meyer was really just a great recruiter in college who rolled out more talent than opposing teams could handle.
It’s about Meyer being tone deaf to the world, a fact that dates to his college football days when he tolerated one ugly incident after another at Florida (Percy Harvin punching a coach, Harvin secretly leaving school for months, Aaron Hernandez beating people up and shooting at others). It includes him tolerating an assistant coach who repeatedly beat his wife at Ohio State. It includes him trying to hire a strength and conditioning coach in Jacksonville who just lost his college job for making racist remarks.
It’s about Meyer not getting the simplest ideas about leadership, like getting on the team plane after a game in Cincinnati earlier this season and flying home with your players and coaches.
Instead, Meyer stayed in Ohio to literally play grab ass.
And that’s not just a bad pun, it’s fact. Just like it was fact that every time the camera focused on Meyer during Jacksonville’s humiliating loss to Tennessee on Sunday, Meyer was by himself. He was never talking to an assistant, a player or even an official. He was alone, walking around with nothing to contribute or trying to avoid the idea that he was part of the humiliation.
When Meyer had the audacity to come out and blame “leakers” for being the problem, it was laughable. The guy who isolated himself was now pointing fingers? Classic.
The truth about Meyer is that he worked well at the college level because he could hide his bad behavior in smaller cities like Gainesville, Florida, or Columbus, Ohio. He could be a bully and not have to back it up. These are places where the antics of the head coach are tolerated more easily, especially when they win. But the truth is that Meyer also wore out people in those places.
When you have to compete at the highest levels of the sport, the scrutiny is much tougher. The expectation of professional behavior is supreme and the difference between winning and losing is measured in follicles, not recruiting classes. Your ability to keep a group of coaches and players together is tested to the extreme.
Otherwise, it all falls apart quickly, which is what happened the past two weeks, despite the presence of a young passer who people once compared to the next Elway or Manning or Namath.
Even with Lawrence, the Jaguars offense is so inept that they have now gone seven consecutive games without scoring even 20 points. Shutout was just the exclamation mark on that streak. In a league where the rules are tilted toward scoring, that’s hard to do. Throw in the fact that they have Lawrence and it’s troubling.
Furthermore, Lawrence is starting to look rattled. One of his four interceptions against Tennessee came on a fake blitz/drop combo play by the Titans. Tennessee initially showed four rushers in the middle with a fifth rusher coming on a delay from Lawrence’s right side. Just as the rusher came from the right, the Titans dropped two of the four rushers in middle. They ended up in coverage right where Lawrence’s hot read was expected to go.
It was a classic trap, exacerbated by an inept design, a lack of offensive talent to expose the defense, and a quarterback who doesn’t trust what’s going on around him. This is a recipe for destroying a great prospect, similar to what Houston did long ago with David Carr.
And that’s where Lawrence had to put his foot down, even if it wasn’t overly dramatic. In reality, it didn’t have to be because of the level of Meyer’s incompetence. Questioning Meyer was the first step. Pointing out the drama was the next one.
Texting With an NFL Defensive Coordinator
Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has quite an established record of success. In his eight years as a defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo has been to three Super Bowls and has helped the 2007 New York Giants and 2019 Kansas City Chiefs win titles.
The intriguing part of those two seasons is that they were not only in his first year running the defense for those teams, but also that the teams started off very poorly before turning things around. In 2007, for instance, the Giants allowed 80 points in the first two weeks of the season as they started 0-2 before turning the year around and eventually beating undefeated New England in the Super Bowl with a stunning defensive performance.
In 2019, the Chiefs were 6-4 and had allowed more than 30 points four times and at least 26 in two other games. From there, the Chiefs ran the table on the way to beating San Francisco in the Super Bowl. That nine-game run started with five straight games allowing 17 points or less.
This season, the Chiefs gave up 27 points or more in six of the first seven games, including four straight games allowing 30 or more. The Chiefs were 3-4 and many analysts left them for dead. Now, they have won six straight and have allowed 17 points or fewer in five of those games. There’s a caveat to that, including playing Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers (COVID-19), Dallas without Amari Cooper (COVID-19) and facing the reeling Raiders twice.
With that in mind, Spagnuolo was asked via text why it is that some of his best teams have followed that pattern of getting better as the team wears on?
“Good loyal assistant coaches who believe in what we do and players who buy into the words and the fundamentals of what those coaches teach,” Spagnuolo wrote. “That and working through (the) early part of season and getting players in (the) right spots as we go through early games … figure out what they do best.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s similar to the philosophy of New England coach Bill Belichick, who starts every season with fundamental schemes and then adds complexities as the season goes on. Sometimes it’s not so pretty early on, but it gets settled at the end.
“You’d be right about that!” Spagnuolo said.
Yards Per Pass Differential Rankings
About 20 years ago, a fellow football writer was pointing out that quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was then playing for Minnesota, was having a better season statistically than Brett Favre in Green Bay.
That writer attempted to use that point in his argument that Cunningham was better than Favre. While Cunningham is a vastly underrated player in NFL history and sadly wasted a lot of his career playing in a poorly designed offense in Philadelphia, he simply wasn’t better than Favre.
Not at that point in their careers and, ultimately, not really ever.
I listened as my fellow writer (we are both now selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame) spouted his contention and then rested his case as if he was a latter-day Clarence Darrow. He had a grin on his face as if to say, “Prove me wrong.”
“So,” I said. “If we’re choosing up sides for a game and I give you the first pick, does that mean you’re taking Cunningham over Favre?”
The grin disappeared from the other writer’s face.
All of that is meant to make a simple point: Don’t be fooled by stats in football. Most of them don’t mean a lot. That said, there is one I consider a relatively consistent indicator of judging a team, particularly in this era.
Yards per pass differential. It’s the average of the number of yards your team gains on each pass play (including incomplete passes) versus how many yards your team’s defense allows on each pass play. Some people like to drill it down even further to yards per play differential on all plays, but passing yards is usually enough of an indicator these days.
My good friend and talented gambler Dutch Wydo was the first to point this out to me. I consider it a great resource, particularly once you get this far into the season and the numbers aren’t influenced by one or two good games.
With that, here’s a breakdown of how this season is going. This analysis is done without adjusting for the strength of the opponents each team has played.
- Arizona +1.6 — Cardinals got tripped up on Monday night, but they are legit.
- New England +1.5 — This is fueled mostly by the defense, but Mac Jones doesn’t make mistakes.
- L.A. Rams +1.4 — Matt Stafford has had big swings in performance but is on the upswing now.
- Buffalo +1.4 — They were over 2.0 yards early in the season when they were beating up on the Jets and Dolphins.
- San Francisco +1.2 — The 49ers are a legit contender but don’t always play like it.
- Tampa Bay +1.1 — Tom Brady with good skill players is beautiful to watch.
- Green Bay +1.1 — Packers fans need to enjoy the final few games of the Aaron Rodgers Era.
- Cincinnati +1.0 — The Bengals are legitimate contenders…man, that’s weird to write.
- Las Vegas +1.0 — Chaos, nine turnovers the past five games, and the league’s biggest negative penalty differential have overwhelmed some early positives.
- L.A. Chargers +0.8 — There are times the Chargers look serious and times they wobble.
- Dallas +0.4 — The Cowboys can look brilliant at times, but the sum total is just above average.
- Cleveland +0.3 — Baker Mayfield can whine all he wants. He is holding back this team.
- Denver +0.2 — The Broncos are closer than most people think, but the last piece is a great quarterback. Good luck.
- Minnesota +0.1 — Kirk Cousins isn’t the problem. But he’s probably not the solution.
- Philadelphia +0.1 — Is Jalen Hurts worth staying with or is he a really great backup?
- Seattle +0.0 — Obviously, missing Russell Wilson hurt, but this is still an average team.
- Kansas City -0.1 — Chiefs are +0.8 the past five weeks after a brutal start to the season.
- Indianapolis -0.1 — The Colts are a better story than they are a contender.
- Carolina -0.2 — No Christian McCaffrey hurts. No good quarterback hurts worse.
- Tennessee -0.2 — The Titans defense is vastly underrated and is saving this season.
- New Orleans -0.5 — One executive said this week he could see Aaron Rodgers with Sean Payton next season. Fascinating.
- Atlanta -0.5 — Losing Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley has really hurt the chances for Kyle Pitts.
- Pittsburgh -0.5 — The end of the Roethlisberger Era is pretty damn ugly.
- N.Y. Giants -0.5 — Daniel Jones has his moments. Not nearly enough of them.
- Baltimore -0.6 — The Ravens are unusual because of Lamar Jackson, but a crash could be coming.
- Washington -0.6 — Taylor Heinicke is fun to watch. He’s not the answer.
- Miami -0.6 — Part of the problem is a terrible running game. Part of it is Tua Tagavailoa.
- Chicago -1.2 — Justin Fields has a ways to go. He’ll get there. But he needs real help.
- Houston -1.7 — Davis Mills? Maybe, but this organization is a disaster in so many ways.
- N.Y. Jets -1.7 — One NFL source called Zach Wilson “Colt McCoy with a better arm.” Ouch.
- Jacksonville -1.9 — Urban Meyer’s NFL learning curve appears to have flat-lined.
- Detroit -2.2 — The youngest team in the NFL, by far, is playing like it.
This and That
- Baltimore coach John Harbaugh took criticism from the likes of CBS analysts Phil Simms and Bill Cowher for his decision to go for two after scoring against Cleveland down 24-15 instead of playing conservative and going for the simpler point-after. That included Cowher leaning on the “analysis/paralysis” cliché that he also butchered. Contrary to Cowher’s lack of understanding what the phrase means, Harbaugh was not paralyzed by analysis. He was actually quite aggressive in making a decision about how to play the situation. Most importantly, he was right. The reality of the situation is that the Ravens had to get a two-point conversion at some point or either risk losing or having to change strategy. Or as Twitter follower @JeffAntigua explained succinctly: “Pushing the 2 point conversion attempt to late in the game is like waiting to do your Xmas shopping on Dec 24th. The store either has it or does not but all the other possible avenues are now gone. Yes it is the safe way or lazy way of thinking for a coach.” If you’re an old-world, conservative thinker like Cowher who doesn’t like to think about situations, it’s easy to play safe like that. It’s a long-term losing theory.
- Here is one of the big concerns about the Raiders going forward: Owner Mark Davis has no deep relationships with people around the league who he really trusts at this point. Now that he has had to move on from Jon Gruden, many people wonder if he will know enough people to get proper guidance who to hire as the next coach, especially if he moves on from General Manager Mike Mayock. Fact is, Mayock might have to stay to hire the next head coach. In addition, losing President Marc Badain cut off most of any deep relationships Davis might have developed.
- Speaking of Meyer and leaks that have existed all season with the Jaguars, it’s not hard to imagine that somewhere in Michigan, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh is laughing about the fact that Meyer is now dealing with Trent Baalke. It was Harbaugh who dealt with one leak after another during his days working with Baalke, a guy who would do well in job creation for plumbers.
- People around the league are still waiting to hear about the terms of the settlement between the league and St. Louis. The most important part is just how much Rams owner Stan Kroenke is paying and how much the rest of the owners are paying. At the root of this issue is a growing concern that some of the league’s super-rich owners may not be trustworthy after Kroenke backed out of an agreement to foot any legal bills for relocation.
Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992 and has been a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2012. He is the author of seven books, including the biography of John Elway (Elway: A Relentless Life).