Will Urban Meyer Succeed in the NFL?

Rumors had been swirling for the past week or so that Urban Meyer was near an agreement to become the next head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but now it is confirmed: Urban Meyer is going to the NFL.

He retired from coaching (for a second time) after the end of the Ohio State’s 2018 season and many thought he wouldn’t stay retired for long. There was speculation last month that he might take the Texas job, and Texas did pursue him, but he turned them down.

Ever since he stepped down at Ohio State, there have been rumors that Urban might want to jump to the NFL, but he resisted the NFL for two straight years before finally saying yes to the Jaguars.

Urban Meyer has a history of retiring for “health reasons,” but then he ends up coming back to coaching, so naturally people are skeptical of his move to the NFL. He certainly wins a whole hell of a lot of games wherever he goes–he has a total record of 187-32 as a college football head coach, an incredible 85% win rate–but his last two stops, Ohio State and Florida, have ended abruptly.

Will his tenure in Jacksonville end similarly to his tenures at Florida and Ohio State, with “health issues”? Who knows.

Does Meyer actually have health issues, or does he, as his detractors claim, fake his health issues to get out of dodge when he senses things are going south? After all, his “health issues” that caused him to retire from Florida didn’t persist very long, because he took the Ohio State job 11 months after leaving Florida and suddenly all was fine. And his “health issues” that caused him to step down at Ohio State are now, two years later, apparently all good in the hood.

Well, here’s the thing: Urban Meyer has never pulled a Pete Carroll. Remember when Pete Carroll left USC for the Seahawks job and then, almost immediately afterward, USC got slapped with massive NCAA sanctions that basically set the program back a whole decade and they still haven’t recovered. It was awfully good timing on Pete Carroll’s part, almost as if he knew USC was about to be nuked by the NCAA.

But Florida didn’t get in trouble with the NCAA shortly after Meyer left. Nor has Ohio State. In fact, Ohio State has been great since Meyer left. The program didn’t go south at all.

People wondered if maybe Meyer’s departure at Florida had something to do with Tim Tebow going to the NFL and Meyer not wanting to stick it out for the rebuild. Another conspiracy theory for why Meyer left Florida was that he wanted the Ohio State job. But he announced his retirement at Florida on December 8, 2010, and Jim Tressel didn’t resign at Ohio State until May 30, 2011. It’s possible Meyer knew what was brewing in Columbus prior to the story going public, but it seems far-fetched.

Don’t get me wrong, Urban wanted the Ohio State job his entire life. But I don’t think he left Florida due to somehow having inside information that Jim Tressel was on the way out. I think Urban got too stressed and burned-out at Florida and stepped away, figuring the Ohio State job would become available within the next couple of years, and he’d be ready to go back to coaching by then.

And if Meyer was trying to bail on Ohio State for greener pastures, why did he spend the past two years working as a talking head for Fox Sports? There were no greener pastures to immediately bolt to.

I think, and this is just my own two cents, Urban Meyer’s early retirements were more related to stress and burnout than they were health issues. Perhaps the stress led to health issues. From what I’ve read about him, he’s a very intense guy who pours every ounce of his heart and soul into coaching. He’s a perfectionist who demands nothing less than the very best, including from himself. And that wears on a person. From the recent Albert Breer article about Meyer: “Fourth-and-one with the game on the line, that’s how he lives his life,” said one of his ex-assistants. It’s a mantra that leads to smashing success, but it hasn’t been sustainable over the long-term for Meyer. He lasted 6 years at Florida and 7 at Ohio State.

But he always gets the itch again and returns to football.

I think most people would agree that Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll are the three best college football head coaches of the past 20 years. Now, as of yesterday, all three of those guys have made the jump to the NFL. Nick Saban only lasted 2 seasons as head coach of the Dolphins, going 13-17 overall before bailing and taking the Bama job in 2007. Pete Carroll has been with the Seahawks for over a decade now, and as we all know won a Super Bowl in 2013 (and should’ve won it again in 2014 had he just decided to hand it off to Marshawn Lynch on the goal line instead of have Russell Wilson throw it).

What’s the difference? Why has Carroll succeed where Nick Saban failed? Clearly Nick Saban can coach.

There’s been talk that Saban’s coaching style didn’t really translate well to the NFL. You can be a dictator in college football, but pros aren’t really receptive to being treated like college kids. Look at the contrast in styles between Pete Carroll and Nick Saban: Carroll is the laid-back, smiling, fun-loving player’s coach, whereas the fiery Saban is as no-nonsense as it gets.

Both coaching styles obviously work, but perhaps Carroll’s is better suited to the NFL.

But then again, the most successful NFL coach of the modern era and perhaps of all time, Bill Belichick, has a similar style to Saban. Belichick is my-way-or-the-highway, a true dictator if there ever was one. In fact, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick developed their styles together in Cleveland in the early 1990s. Saban is technically a Belichick disciple, having been the Browns defensive coordinator under Belichick from 1991-1994.

So why is Bill Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history while Saban only lasted two years in the pros? Because when you have a Super Bowl title under your belt, you can be a dictator to your players because you have the credibility to do so. When you don’t, you really can’t. Guys start rolling their eyes at you if all the yelling and hardassery isn’t accompanied with winning. You lose the locker room real quick. As Breer put it:

That starts with how difficult his program is, which is demanding in the way Nick Saban’s is (which wasn’t a roaring success in the NFL) and Bill Belichick’s is (which has been). The key? The key will be how quickly he can give older players results. Saban’s ways grated on Dolphins players after Miami chose Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees and the losses mounted. Belichick, conversely, won a Super Bowl in his second year in New England, which gave him license to point to the trophy case if anyone complained.

And there’s the difference. Belichick won a Super Bowl so nobody could say a damn thing to him. If you complained about his coaching style, then you could take a hike. Winning a Super Bowl basically validates you for life. Your way works, and no one can ever claim otherwise. You don’t have to put up with anybody’s bullshit.

But how did Belichick get a Super Bowl? Two words: Tom Brady. Remember, Belichick flamed out as head coach of the Browns, getting fired in 1995, but he became the greatest coach of all time in New England. The difference was that he had a great quarterback in New England while he didn’t have one in Cleveland. Belichick’s first season in New England, he went 5-11 with Drew Bledsoe as his QB. His second season, 2001, the Patriots started 0-2, but with about 5 minutes left in the second game, Bledsoe got injured on a huge (but clean) hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and was replaced by Brady. The Patriots still lost to the Jets, but then went 11-3 over their remaining 14 games, won the Super Bowl that season, and went on to win 5 more Super Bowls over the next 17 seasons. Belichick’s fortunes changed in an instant on that fateful hit to Bledsoe.

Breer alluded to the fact that Saban’s Dolphins missed out on Drew Brees in 2006 and went with Daunte Culpepper as their QB. Drew Brees was originally the Chargers’ QB, but they chose not to bring him back because he had shoulder surgery and they doubted he would ever recover fully. The Saints and Dolphins were both interested, but the Dolphins ultimately passed on signing Brees after he failed a physical with them. The rest with Drew Brees was history, as we all know. The Dolphins traded for Daunte Culpepper, went 6-10 in 2006, and Saban was done with the NFL after that season.

Things ended up pretty great for both Brees in New Orleans and Saban at Alabama. But you have to wonder what things would’ve been like had Brees and Saban teamed up in Miami. It’s perhaps the biggest football what-if of the past 20 years. College football would be radically different and the NFL probably would be, too. There’s no telling if Brees would’ve still become the most prolific passer of all time with Saban as his coach instead of Sean Payton, but you have to figure Saban would’ve lasted longer in the NFL with Drew Brees as his QB. (And imagine him being in the same division as Belichick! How much harder would life have been for the Patriots these past two decades with Saban and Brees in Miami?)

I know all this talk about Carroll and Saban and Belichick seems off-topic, but here’s where it connects back to Urban Meyer: success in the NFL hinges almost entirely on whether or not you have a quarterback.

The Jaguars have the #1 pick in the 2021 draft and they’re going to take Trevor Lawrence. I believe Lawrence is the primary reason Urban Meyer decided to make the jump to the NFL. Urban knows full well that you are basically hopeless in the NFL unless you have a great quarterback. I sincerely doubt he would be taking the Jags job if they had the #2 pick in this year’s draft instead of the #1 pick.

Meyer, and just about everyone else, view Trevor Lawrence as a generational talent, and one of the best quarterback prospects ever. Lawrence was the game-changer for Urban Meyer. Because of Trevor Lawrence, Urban Meyer wants to take a crack at the NFL.

The sports media has a lot of questions about Meyer’s viability in the NFL. I highly recommend reading Albert Breer’s piece, because he sat down with the new Jags coach and asked him about all of it. Now, Breer is an Ohio State guy and clearly a big-time Urban Meyer backer, so it’s a bit of a puff piece, but there’s still some good info in there. Clearly Urban has analyzed this decision every which way.

Here’s a little more from the piece about Urban’s mindset going into this thing:

“Culture and criteria,” Meyer continued. “There’s two things you have to do. Number one, develop and implement a culture in your organization. And it’s gotta be a culture: This is the way it is, nonnegotiable. And then the other thing is talent acquisition. How are you acquiring talent? What’s your criteria? Is everyone on the same page? And what I found out, those who win, that’s it. Those who fail to win, that’s it.

“It’s not whether they run the zone or the stretch play, or the three-level passing vs. the crossing routes. I know people think that’s it. Yeah, that’s fun. That’s intriguing. But that’s not why certain teams win. You walk in the locker room and you know why they win. And you talk to your players who are in those organizations and you know exactly why they win. Because the head coach and GM, and everyone, are aligned with culture and talent acquisition.”

It’s still easy to be skeptical of Urban Meyer’s prospects in the NFL. He literally has never had a job in the NFL ever. Every one of Meyer’s coaching jobs since he first started coaching in 1985 have been in college. Saban at least had some NFL experience. In addition to being the Browns’ defensive coordinator from 1991-1994, he was the Houston Oiler’s defensive backs coach from 1988-1989.

Pete Carroll had a lot of NFL experience. From 1984-1993 he worked his way up as an assistant coach in the NFL, and became the Jets head coach in 1994 but got fired after just one season. He spent two seasons as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator before being hired as the Patriots’ head coach, where he was from 1997-1999. Despite never actually having a losing season with the Patriots (10-6, 9-7, 8-8), he was fired after three seasons. Funny enough, it was Pete Carroll being fired by the Patriots that enabled them to hire Bill Belichick.

So Carroll and Saban both had NFL coaching experience, while Meyer has absolutely zero. But the NFL coaching experience didn’t really matter much for Saban, did it? As we went over above, it’s all about the quarterback. Saban’s QB for the Dolphins in 2005 was Gus Frerotte, and in 2006 it was Daunte Culpepper.

Until Pete Carroll got Russell Wilson in 2012, he wasn’t all that great in Seattle, going 7-9 in each of his first two seasons, 2010 and 2011. Once he got Russell Wilson, things turned around awfully quick in Seattle. Carroll went from being a mediocre head coach who was probably a year or two away from getting fired to one of the best coaches in the league.

Having a quarterback is everything. If Trevor Lawrence is as good as he’s cracked up to be, then the biggest obstacle to Urban Meyer’s success in the NFL will be gone. Probably 25 of the 32 coaches in the league would gladly take Trevor Lawrence over their current QB.

So what other factors could prevent Urban from succeeding in the NFL, then?

Coaching skills are largely people skills, and are therefore transferrable from the college level to the pros. Leaders are leaders. Motivators are motivators. As we already went over, whether as coach’s “style” works in the pros or fails has a lot to do with how much winning he does, and winning depends largely on whether or not he has a great QB.

So what about the NFL schemes compared to college?

Obviously the schemes in the NFL are different, but these days, the line is getting blurry. NFL offenses are starting to look a lot more like college offenses. In 2017, Broncos’ cornerback Chris Harris famously said the Eagles ran a “college offense” after the Eagles beat the Broncos by 28 in the regular season game. The Eagles won the Super Bowl that year with their “college offense.” Look at how popular the shotgun formation is in the NFL now. In 1996, the average NFL team only ran 7% of their offensive snaps out of the shotgun. By 2016, the average NFL team was running 68% of its snaps out of the shotgun. The 49ers were 99% shotgun by 2016. That’s the most recent year I found data for, but I’m sure it’s an even higher number now.

Josh McDaniels in 2018 said the Patriots have been running spread offense concepts for a long time, and he also said that the spread has become “much more the norm in the NFL.”

The Chiefs are running a glorified Big XII offense with great success in the NFL. And remember like 8-9 years ago when Big XII quarterbacks could never succeed in the NFL? Today we’ve got Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray all excelling.

And look at the Baltimore Ravens. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman incorporates lots of “college concepts” into their offensive gameplan. Roman even says the future of the NFL is the no-huddle and the spread.

So I don’t think the NFL schemes are going to be that difficult for Urban Meyer to adjust to. In many ways the college game is ahead of the curve in terms of schemes and concepts. After all, the NFL can only take what colleges send up to them, so if the spread and the no-huddle become the norm in college, they’ll eventually become the norm in the NFL. They may already have.

Plus, every year, hundreds of college football players have to adjust from college to pro schemes. Why can’t a coach do the same? Urban will adjust to the schemes in the NFL just fine. It’s not like it’s a foreign language. He’s a coach. He understands all the concepts and ideas. He’s probably not even going to call the plays; very few coaches in the league actually do.

As you can probably already tell, I’m quite bullish on Urban Meyer’s chances in the NFL. It’s partly because I think he’s a great leader and motivator, but it’s primarily because he’s going to have a good QB. I’ve said in the past I think Trevor Lawrence could be somewhat overrated, but I’m starting to possibly change my mind here. Urban Meyer is such a firm believer in Trevor Lawrence he decided to try his hand in the NFL for the first time ever. That’s got to count for something.

Could Meyer fail in the NFL? Sure. Jacksonville is a dysfunctional organization. They’ve had one winning season and 5 head coaches over the past 13 years. There are murmurs that if the franchise doesn’t turn it around soon, they’re going to get moved to London. Urban is going to have to undertake full-scale renovations to the whole entire franchise, from the football team itself to the front office. He’s going to have to create a winning culture there, and that is not an easy thing to do. If he does fail, I think it will be because he will not have been able to overcome the organizational dysfunction of the Jaguars.

But if anyone can turn that franchise around, it’s a guy like Urban who understands that it’s about more than just players and schemes; it’s about culture.

Urban Meyer has won everywhere he’s gone. He is a winner. He expects to win and he doesn’t take losing well. That’s why I think he can change the culture in Jacksonville. I love how people are saying that Urban’s spectacular record as a college football coach is actually a concern for the NFL. As in, “because Urban is so used to winning, he’s not going to be able to handle losing in the NFL, where losing is more frequent.”

Like, what? How, exactly, is intolerance of losing a bad thing?

It should be common sense, but you want a coach that hates losing. That’s a good thing. You want a coach that knows nothing but winning and will not accept anything less.

Do people think other NFL coaches are cool with losing? Like Matt LaFleur or Andy Reid tell their teams, “Look, if we don’t win today, that’s cool. We can lose like 3-4 games this year and it’s all good.”

No, that’s not how these guys are wired. Every successful coach hates losing. Every successful coach is ultra-competitive and relentless. They all want to go 16-0.

Urban isn’t going to be discouraged by losing games. He’s going to be encouraged to work even harder. That’s how ultra-competitive alpha male winners are wired. I guess most sports journalists don’t really grasp this, but I’ll say it again: Urban Meyer being a winner is a good thing.

The Jags are about to go full throttle into a full-fledged rebuild of the roster, too. In addition to the 1st overall pick, they have the 25th pick (from the Rams via the Jalen Ramsey trade), two second round picks and plenty of later-round picks. Oh, and they have over $70 million in cap space for 2021 free agency, which is by far the most in the league. This thing might turn around real quickly in Jacksonville.

That improbable Jets win over the Rams, which ultimately cost the Jets the #1 pick and therefore Trevor Lawrence, might end up being one of the biggest “Butterfly effect” moments in NFL history since Saban’s Dolphins passing on Drew Brees in 2006.

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