JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's been three years since Tom Coughlin was the returning hero, the right person at the right time to lend a floundering franchise the legitimacy it hadn’t had in two decades.
Jacksonville Jaguars fans embraced owner Shad Khan’s decision to hire Coughlin as the executive vice president of football operations in January 2017, giving him final say on all football matters. Coming off six consecutive seasons of double-digit losses, fans were ecstatic about the discipline and accountability they knew Coughlin would bring.
Less than three years after he returned, however, Coughlin is gone, done in by his failure to apply that same standard of discipline and accountability to himself. But does his firing last week have an impact on the way he’ll be remembered in Jacksonville? And how, exactly, will he be remembered -- for his quick successes or his ungraceful exits?
“Why would this taint his legacy?” said defensive tackle Abry Jones, the longest-tenured current Jaguars player at seven years. “He was known as a tough coach that got the job done. ... Taint his career? No. It’s not like he went out and killed somebody or something.”
Well, no. But Coughlin did leave the franchise in worse shape than it was when he arrived, and it looks like it might take a while before the Jaguars will be competing for the playoffs again.
Things started out pretty well in his second stint, though. The Jaguars hit big in the 2017 free-agency period, with defensive end Calais Campbell (31.5 sacks), cornerback A.J. Bouye (six interceptions in 2017) and safety Barry Church (four INTs in 2017) -- signed by general manager Dave Caldwell with Coughlin’s blessing. They landed two starters (running back Leonard Fournette and left tackle Cam Robinson) and a late-season impact player (receiver Dede Westbrook) with three of their first four draft picks.
The Jaguars led the league in rushing, quarterback Blake Bortles' numbers rose from 2016, and the defense was one of the league’s best (ranked No. 6 in yards allowed). They went 10-6, won the AFC South (the franchise’s first division title since 1999), hosted a playoff game for the first time since January 2000 and reached the AFC Championship Game after upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Since then, however, the team has won just 10 games. The quarterback situation is a mess after the Jaguars essentially bid against themselves to sign Nick Foles to an $88 million deal (including $50.125 million guaranteed). The defense is now one of the league’s worst. There were bad personnel decisions, both in the draft and free agency. Former franchise cornerstorne Jalen Ramsey got so fed up with management and Coughlin that he asked for, and forced, a trade.
There was internal strife between Coughlin and the coaching staff, including coach Doug Marrone, per a league source. According to another league source, players were disgruntled with the frequency and severity of the fines doled out by Coughlin, and they regularly complained to Campbell, their union rep. One player, who requested anonymity, said he knew he would be fined for missing a team meal but expected the fine to be what was outlined in the collective bargaining agreement ($13,285 in 2018). Instead, he was fined a game check -- which is what players are fined when they’re disciplined for conduct detrimental to the team.
The NFL Players Association even took the unprecedented step of sending out a letter to every player in the league, warning them about potentially signing with Jacksonville because more than 25% of the grievances filed by NFL players in the past two years have been against the club, and that players "continue to be at odds with Jaguars management over their rights under the CBA far more than players on other clubs."
But really, nobody should be surprised that Coughlin was over the top on fines and discipline. He was the same way during his first tenure. That kind of stuff is easier to overlook and tolerate within the locker room when you’re winning -- and the Jaguars haven’t done enough of that the past two seasons.
And that's the bottom line: Khan hired Coughlin to turn around a franchise that had lost 11 or more games for six consecutive seasons. The success of 2017 is looking like an anomaly after a 5-11 record in 2018 and 5-10 so far this season.
“It’s a pretty black-and-white business in the sense of it’s cut-and-dried, wins and losses, and success and failure,” said Tony Boselli, the team's first-ever draft pick. “When the ledger doesn’t add up in your favor, a lot of times it doesn’t end the way you want it to.
“Obviously I played for him and he’s a stickler for the rules. For his rules. And I just find it ironic the thing that drove him crazy when guys weren’t disciplined and didn’t follow the rules is one of the things that, in the end, was a big part of [why he was fired].”
That Coughlin was unable to finish what he started in 1995 is something that will always bother him, according to people who have known him for more than two decades. Everything he did was with the desire to bring a championship to the city.
“It’s important to him,” said Brian Sexton, the Jaguars’ play-by-play broadcaster from 1995 to 2014 and now the senior correspondent for Jaguars.com. “Really, critically important to him that this succeed because this is still his baby. The Giants, he stepped in and carried on a championship tradition. He will go to the Hall of Fame because of what he did with that team. This is his team. This is his legacy.
“Unfulfilled might ... I don’t know that he would agree with that word because when he looks at his family and the life that he’s had as a football coach and good football life at that. I don’t think he would say that. But I think he would always have that longing in his heart that he wanted to put a trophy in Jacksonville.”
Jeff Lageman, who was in Coughlin’s first class of free agents in 1995 and played four seasons with the Jaguars, said winning a title here would have meant more to Coughlin than winning the two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
“Any time as an individual you take ownership in something it’s always more special,” said Lageman, now an analyst on the Jaguars' radio network. “He was born with this franchise. He chose the freaking color of paint in the hallway of the stadium. He had so much input into everything that the Jacksonville Jaguars were and are to this day, how could he not take a sense of ownership in this city and this franchise?
“Would it be more special for him to win Super Bowl in Jacksonville? I don’t think there’s any doubt.”
There’s also no doubt that what happened the past three seasons doesn’t erase the accomplishments Coughlin reached in his first eight seasons with the Jaguars (1995-2002), when he went 68-60 as coach.
Tasking with building an expansion franchise from scratch as the coach and GM, Coughlin had the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game in their second season and back again three years later after compiling the best record in the NFL. They made four playoff appearances in a row. Coughlin drafted the best player in franchise history (Boselli, who was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2019) and Fred Taylor, the Jaguars’ all-time rushing leader. He also traded for Mark Brunell (the team’s all-time leading passer) and signed wide receivers Jimmy Smith (the Jaguars’ all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards) and Keenan McCardell, who is second to Smith on the team’s receiving list.
He certainly had misses, too -- most notably receiver R. Jay Soward in the first round in 2000 and linebacker Bryce Paup in free agency in 1998.
But Coughlin’s biggest issue during his first tenure was his mismanagement of the salary cap when making a push to win it all. The Jaguars were $23 million over the cap in 2002 and needed to make five players available for the expansion draft for the Houston Texans. One of them was Boselli.
Coughlin had three losing seasons after reaching the AFC title game following the 1999 season, and owner Wayne Weaver fired him following the 2002 season.
Boselli believed that Coughlin belonged in the team’s The Pride of the Jaguars ring of honor before the former coach's return in 2017, and Boselli said nothing has happened over past three seasons that would change his mind.
“I don’t think it affects his legacy in the long run,” Boselli said. “And if it does, people don’t know what the heck they’re talking about, because if you look at what he’s done in the NFL and specifically in Jacksonville, he did great things with this organization.
“Didn’t end well but that happens, and it doesn’t take away from the coach he was, the influence he had on the game here in Jacksonville and in New York and in the NFL in general, and I don’t think it should.”