It’s always easier to believe the Urban legend. And these days, it has grown increasingly more difficult for some to separate fact from fiction in our society.
But that’s not the case in an NFL locker room, where the fakes are easy to spot, and coaches like Urban Meyer — dismissed by Jacksonville owner Shad Khan late Wednesday after just 13 games as the Jaguars’ head coach — wear out their welcome in an awful hurry.
We saw something similar here with the Lions’ last regime, as Matt Patricia’s toxic tenure spiraled quickly in Detroit. And we’ve heard ownership explain some of the reasons why it decided to try another route last winter, with Sheila Ford Hamp promising a new era of unity and collaboration and respect — not exactly buzzwords in this business — even before she’d introduced Brad Holmes as the team’s general manager and Dan Campbell as head coach.
Fair or not, it’s easy to draw a contrast right now with how things have played out this season amid all the losing in Jacksonville and Detroit. Two franchises that have only briefly flirted with success over the last two decades are in the early stages of another rebuild. And not surprisingly, both are in the hunt for the No. 1 overall pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.
Yet somehow things have felt dramatically different for these two teams this fall, with a heavy emphasis on the modifier there. And I think Aaron Glenn, the Lions’ defensive coordinator, probably had the best explanation for why that is when I asked him Thursday how the Lions have managed to avoid the kind of drama that often accompanies the losses they’ve endured, both in terms of personnel — the team is currently down 10 defensive backs due to injury and illness — and games.
“I would say it all starts with our head coach, his personality,” Glenn said.
He’s right, too. And while he wasn’t offering any commentary on the Jacksonville situation, others have noted the disparate worlds these two head coaches created over the last several months.
All for one? Or one for all? With Campbell, the Lions got both, as Pat McAfee, the former NFL All-Pro turned broadcaster, pointed out the other day.
“So the crew that he was building from the very beginning was a blue-collar bunch, probably pretty like-minded people they brought in, and he was a part of that,” McAfee said of Campbell, widely ridiculed for his teeth-kicking, kneecap-biting introductory press conference in January. “He hired a bunch of ex-players (and said) ‘Hey, we’re gonna be doing this together, man.’”
The messaging from Meyer was something else, though. And whether it was his seemingly half-hearted decision to accept the Jaguars job in the first place, or his arrogant initial hire of strength coach Chris Doyle, who’d just left his job at Iowa amid allegations of racist and bullying behavior, it fit a pattern that runs throughout Meyer’s coaching career: He plays by his own rules.
That might work as a college coach, where you answer to no one — not even a university president — so long as you’ve got a championship ring or two and a recruiting machine capable of winning you some more.
But the NFL is a different game, and Meyer, whose record in Jacksonville (2-11, .154 win percentage) was the polar opposite of his college mark (187-32, .854), certainly isn’t the first one to find that out in embarrassing fashion.
Of the dozen men who’ve made the leap from college to the pros as first-time NFL head coaches in the last 20 years, only four can claim winning records. (Jim Harbaugh is at the top of that list, by the way.) And even back in September, it seemed to be dawning on Meyer that he might not be one of them.
“I don’t know Urban Meyer at all, really,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said after a Week 2 win over the Jaguars, “but after the game his comment to me was, ‘Every week it’s like playing Alabama in the NFL.’”
Well, yeah. That’s where it helps that eight of the Lions’ coaches, including Campbell, had lengthy careers as NFL players themselves. They know intuitively what’ll fly in a locker room, and what won’t. Or in some cases, what will come back at them like a boomerang.
Like, say, skipping a team’s flight home following a road loss, the way Meyer did in late September after game in Cincinnati, ostensibly to spend time with his grandchildren. Yet after video surfaced of Meyer out that night at a bar, behaving inappropriately with a woman who wasn’t his wife, and the coach’s first instinct wasn’t to immediately to accept responsibility for it, you could see where this was all headed.
Truth is, a lot of folks saw it before Meyer was even hired, though Khan apparently wasn’t one of them. He felt compelled to publicly reprimand Meyer after the Cincinnati shenanigans, calling Meyer’s actions “inexcusable” and insisting the coach he’d wined and dined on his $200 million superyacht only nine months earlier needed to “regain our trust and respect.”
Problem is, coaches like Meyer are good at giving ultimatums. They’re terrible at accepting them. And by the time the NFL Network dropped a damning report last weekend, detailing some of Meyer’s behind-the-scenes behavior — demeaning players, berating and belittling coaches and ignoring other staffers — there really was no turning back.
Former Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo going public with allegations that Meyer kicked him during a practice — an incident the franchise was aware of months ago — might’ve prompted Khan to give Meyer the boot now, rather than waiting until the end of the season. But it may also have been Meyer’s own comments this past week, from the veiled threats he made about the NFL Network report — “If there is a source, that source is unemployed — I mean, within seconds,” he said Sunday — to the pathetic body language he showed after the Jaguars lost their fifth straight game, a 20-0 shutout against the Titans.
Campbell certainly has had his moments this season where he let his frustration show. We’ve seen tears, angry outbursts and some brutal honesty.
But what we haven’t seen is any sense of resignation, or a lack of accountability, which is probably why that locker room celebration looked the way it did a few weeks ago after the Lions beat the Vikings.
It’s also why when some of the Lions’ veterans have been sent packing — Jamie Collins, for example — there hasn’t been any real acrimony. Or why Campbell taking over the play-calling duties on offense from Anthony Lynn hasn’t been a bigger deal. And so on.
“You guys hear him every day, just the way he operates, the way he talks, the way he goes out on the practice field,” Glenn said. “And you guys have probably heard, there are coaches from other teams that come back and tell us, ‘Man, you’d never think this is a 1-11 or whatever team,’ just by how we go out there and play. Again, I think that all starts with our head coach, because of his mentality.”
Where it ends, no one can say for sure. But it’s a safe bet that it won’t end anything like it has in Jacksonville.