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When word spread Wednesday that Tom Coughlin was being fired as the vice president of football operations of the Jacksonville Jaguars, my ears and eyes perked up. Not just because Shad Khan, finally, held someone accountable in Jacksonville (by all means, don’t stop there Shad!) for the fastest, most inexplicable, premature fizzle out of a championship contender in years.
No. I was excited because I knew that the shade to come would be real. There would absolutely be some former Jaguars who couldn’t wait to take some subtweet-laden victory laps on social media.
I wasn’t disappointed. Jalen Ramsey, the NFL’s best young corner, forced his way out of town two months ago after a disagreement with Coughlin. He weighed in quickly.
— Jalen Ramsey (@jalenramsey) December 19, 2019
So did running back Leonard Fournette, who remains a member of the Jaguars (for now).
Neither Ramsey or Fournette elaborated on their tweets at the time, but they didn’t need to. A former teammate in Jacksonville, Dante Fowler Jr., did it for them a few days before, once the news initially broke that the Jaguars had fined excessively and unlawfully, it turns out by Coughlin from 2018-2019.
They literally hated me . I got it all back though! Thanks to the NFLPA https://t.co/vUIg5tsKvr
— Dante fowler (@dantefowler) December 16, 2019
According to the NFL Players Association, more than 25 percent of the grievances filed by players in the league over the past two years were filed against the Jaguars, and on Wednesday, the union announced that an arbitrator put a stop to the Jaguars’ “blatant overreach” and urged players to consider the ordeal when they have a chance to select their next team.
This was a monumental embarrassment for the Jaguars, who don’t need to give players additional reasons not to play for Jacksonville. The city is fine and the weather is warm, but the lack of team prestige doesn’t help recruitment efforts, and neither did the reputation the Jaguars earned for being a player unfriendly organization under Coughlin, thanks to his morale-disintegrating overzealousness with fines.
Following Coughlin’s firing, Fournette seemed happy and amused in the locker room Thursday, all too willing to elaborate on the time he got fined $99,000 for sitting on the bench while inactive during the 2018 season finale. Fournette eventually won a grievance to get the money back, and since Coughlin got fired, he can laugh about it now.
While the Jaguars players may be thrilled about the ruling — not to mention Coughlin’s firing — there’s nothing funny about what happened to the Jaguars over the past two years. In fact, it was essentially football malpractice.
Two years ago, the Jaguars led the New England Patriots by 10 points in the AFC championship game with less than nine minutes to go. And even though they ended up losing that game, the future was bright for the Jaguars, who boasted a collection of premium young defensive talent, as well as an offense with a run-first identity.
Now, they sit at 5-9, the dregs of the AFC South, still crippled by super mid-grade quarterback play. This story would have ended differently if they had the foresight to draft Lamar Jackson in 2018.
And while Coughlin isn’t the only reason for this — blame should also be placed at the feet of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell for their 10-20 record since then — it’s probably not a coincidence their on-field decline over the past two years coincides with the heavy number of grievances their players have filed with the NFLPA.
Coughlin’s impact on the Jaguars’ culture disintegration is sad. Don’t blame his players, many of whom are millennials, or his reputation for being old-school, either. The overwhelming majority of football players will tell you they want to be held accountable, they want to be made better; you can be tough on them, as long as you let them know you care about them, something Coughlin himself mentioned on the “America’s Game” episode of the 2008 New York Giants. That has not changed.
However, this is also 2019, and people in multiple walks of life are realizing their own power — athletes included. Thanks to the evolution of technology and social media, news travels faster than ever, and in turn, players are more aware of everything than ever, including when they’re being unjustly treated.
For years, the fastest ways to ruin the morale of a football locker room have been by being fake, or incompetent or unfair. Coughlin is definitely not fake, and he is definitely competent as his two Super Bowl rings as head coach of the Giants prove. But was his consistent overreach on fines unfair?
And while Coughlin has likely been fining players like this for two decades, the Super Bowl trophies — and the .531 winning percentage he accumulated along the way as a head coach — doesn’t mean it was fair back then either. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. The players have collectively bargained what they can and can’t be fined for, and Coughlin should have been adhering to that.
So don’t blame his players, nor the changing times, for his firing. For someone who is so big on following the rules, Coughlin should understand the consequences for breaking them in the NFL better than anyone. And for failing to do so, he paid for it with his job.
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