Thirteen games into his NFL head coaching career, Urban Meyer has reached the Bobby Petrino threshold.
Almost to the day, this is when the ill-fated Petrino era ended with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 — with the successful college coach bombing so badly after 13 games that he snuck away one morning to take a head coaching job with the Arkansas Razorbacks. This space isn’t the first time someone has engaged the Petrino prism to frame how poorly things are going for Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars. But it might be the first time someone suggests that the performance comparison between the two coaches is unfair… to Bobby Petrino.
That’s how bad this is going for Meyer. There have been so many bottoms to this season that we might need to consider that there is no bottom. That in actuality, this can continue to get worse because it can continue another week, month or who knows how long. It's a litany of missteps that brought Meyer’s team plummeting to a new low last week, first with an NFL Network report of dissent inside the organization, then with a 20-0 loss to the Tennessee Titans that looked like the worst game of the season for No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
But Meyer will press on into Week 15, fitting in games between meetings with team owner Shad Khan — who is believed to have signed Meyer to a six-year contract last offseason and still owes him a boatload of money. That might be the best thing going for Meyer at this point: the reality that an NFL divorce after only one season may still be perceived by Khan as more expensive than holding fast and praying for a revelatory turnaround.
Whatever Khan’s motivation, he would be foolish to think this can’t get worse. It can. And if it goes on unraveling like this — with the leaks, sniping and Meyer’s Nixonian ability to dig a deeper hole — the franchise could be looking at permanent damage to Lawrence's development, which should be Khan’s top concern.
This dissent that led to the NFL Network report can grow. The locker room can be poisoned. The coaching staff can take up sides. And the front office can shift into survival mode. It happens all the time in the NFL, creating a residue of failure or apathy that is hard to wash away, all while a coach who still has a lot of years and a lot of money left on his deal is left in place, protected by a team owner who is either too cheap or too stubborn to admit a mistake.
That, or the coach falls so deeply into his misery that he quits, like Petrino did 14 years ago. Meyer doesn’t seem to be there yet, but the rest of the mess around him suggests a breaking point or burnout is a possibility.
For those who weren’t around for that Falcons fiasco, the best summary of the Bobby Petrino implosion is this: He was a successful college coach (and brief NFL assistant) whose style never adapted to the league’s power model at the head coach level; he was poor at managing relationships and quickly alienated himself from his staff, players and surrounding employees; and his offensive scheme was never successful enough to make up for a mediocre quarterback or negate the totality of his shortfalls. He also struggled leading in the face of adversity and criticism, which is one of the most fundamental skills of successful NFL head coaches.
Given the recent reports, it’s fair to wonder how much overlap there is between Petrino and Meyer when it comes to the NFL. Of course, a few months ago the thought of comparing Petrino’s first 13 NFL games against Meyer’s would have been unfathomable. Not only is it very fair now, it’s also arguable that Meyer is off to a worse start. After all, Petrino managed to win three of his 13 games (versus Meyer’s two) and did it despite his presumed starting quarterback, Michael Vick, being cut from the team in the face of federal prosecution for dogfighting.
Petrino didn’t create that problem. He tried to move on from it. Conversely, Meyer has created seemingly all of his problems since taking over, running a season of promise and development into the ground by being oblivious to the fact that he can’t replicate his successful collegiate model to the NFL.
In the process, he has created a program that looks nearly as bad as the one that went 1-15 a year ago, but now owns a culture where someone is airing out dirty laundry from behind the scenes. It's a dysfunction that probably seems familiar to Jacksonville general manager Trent Baalke, who just happened to be in the middle of a very recent San Francisco 49ers dumpster fire that featured a war with head coach Jim Harbaugh and then an incomprehensible pair of one-and-done seasons from Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. Now Baalke is riding shotgun for this whole mess and it’s all starting to feel very familiar.
There’s no telling where this all ends up. There’s also no denying that Meyer’s grand entrance into the NFL is protecting him right now. Khan wanted a program builder and he announced Meyer's hiring with great fanfare and a salary that one informed NFL agent pegged in the $9 million per-season range. If Meyer also landed the new standard of a six-year contract, that leaves Khan staring at a lot of years and a lot of unpaid salary.
That’s the kind of thing that buys patience. But the wrong kind of patience can set a franchise back even further than where it started. And that may be what is going to happen in Jacksonville by the time this plays itself out.