Tom Coughlin has never been able to control himself.
In his world, five minutes early has always been 10 minutes too late. And that obsession, that stick-to-itiveness to the strict rules and regulations that governed the game decades ago, eventually led to the disenchantment of players and his downfall in every place he’s worked as an NFL coach and executive.
History repeated itself on Thursday. For the second time in his career, the Jaguars fired him, this time from his role as executive vice president of football operations.
Whether he respected him or not, Jaguars owner Shad Khan really had no choice. Earlier this week, the NFL Players Association sent out a memo advising potential free agents to avoid Jacksonville because of excessive fines and resulting player grievances emanating from the organization Coughlin ran with his iron fist.
The missive announced the NFLPA had won a grievance against the club which had fined former player Dante Fowler approximately $700,000 for not keeping appointments with club doctors and rehabilitation staff during the offseason.
The letter also stated more than 25% of the grievances filed by NFL players were against Jacksonville.
“I determined earlier this fall that making this move at the conclusion of the 2019 season would be in everyone’s best interests but, in recent days, I reconsidered and decided to make this change immediately,” Khan said in a statement. “I thank Tom for his efforts, not only over the past three years but for all he did from our very first season, 25 years ago, to put the Jacksonville Jaguars on the map.”
On the surface, Coughlin appeared to take the news well. In a statement to ESPN, he thanked Khan and the organization.
“As head of football operations for the Jaguars for the last three years I was responsible for all things related to football,” he said. “I take great pride in our accomplishments, especially in 2017. I’d like to thank Shad Khan for the opportunity to come back to Jacksonville, all the players and staff for their efforts, and the great fans here for their support. I was the first coach of this franchise and I will always be supportive of the Jaguars.”
Boiling below the surface certainly must be a high-degree of resentment and anger. Coughlin has always believed football teams be run like military units. His players needed to respect and conform to whatever rules he set up. And when they didn’t, a price needed to be paid.
Perhaps it worked in the past. After some early problems with veterans like Michael Strahan, the teams Coughlin coached with the New York Giants eventually buttoned-up and won two Super Bowls for him.
But Coughlin is now 73 years old and his way is no longer the NFL way. While there must be discipline and respect for rules, there also needs to be an understanding about what the players, especially the younger ones, need to be successful.
And Coughlin, who has been on the job since January 2017, has always been too stubborn to realize and accept that.
Things might have been different if Coughlin was successful. But the Jaguars have struggled for the last two seasons under general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone. Jacksonville is 5-9 after last weekend’s come-from-behind win in Oakland.
With respect to Coughlin’s experience, Kahn pretty much let him do whatever he needed to and things went pretty smoothly at first. They signed guys like safety Barry Church and defensive end Calais Campbell as free agents and both developed into studs.
The 2017 draft brought them Leonard Fournette, although Coughlin passed on quarterback Deshaun Watson to get him, something that would come back to haunt him time and time again in the AFC South. But the 2017 team went 10-6 and reached the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.
In his enthusiasm after the season, Coughlin gave the inconsistent Bortles a three-year, $54 million extension in 2018, only to cut him after the season to the tune of a $16.5 million salary cap hit.
He then compounded the mistake by signing Nick Foles to a record four-year, $88 million deal that is now an albatross after Foles lost his starting job to rookie Gardner Minshew.
If you remember, Coughlin had another chance to bolster the team at quarterback in the 2018 draft. But instead of taking a chance on Lamar Jackson, he took defensive tackle Taven Bryan. And what has he done?
Still, it seems his biggest problem was the way his relationship with cornerback Jalen Ramsey evaporated this season.
In April, Coughlin took his Pro Bowl corner and linebacker Telvin Smith to task for skipping voluntary workouts.
“Championship teams are dominated by selfless individuals who recognize that the welfare of the team must always be paramount to any other consideration,” Coughlin said.
Upset with a number of free agent signings and contract extensions Coughlin authorized, Ramsey, one of Khan’s favorites, asked for his deal to be renegotiated. When the Jaguars dragged their feet, Ramsey asked to be traded and you began to hear for the first time about how angry he was with the way he and some of his friends were being treated.
Eventually, Ramsey, using the excuses of injury and family emergencies, stopped going to practice. And then Jacksonville dealt him to the Rams on Oct. 15 for two first-round draft picks.
With the tension building, Coughlin held a press conference on Nov. 27. He hadn’t spoken to the media since the day the 2019 draft concluded. He stonewalled all questions about his job security, the status of coach Doug Marrone or the nature of his relationships with players.
Still, it’s been clear that something has been wrong for a long time and that much of it was connected to Coughlin’s temperament and decision-making ability.
The letter from the NFLPA put Khan in an untenable situation. Here was the players union telling its membership to avoid signing with his team because of repeated conflicts with management. The future of the franchise was at stake.
For example, Fournette told the Associated Press this week he’d won a grievance to rescind a $99,000 fine for sitting on the bench while inactive during Jacksonville’s 2018 season finale.
In the end, Coughlin’s nature, best suited for an NFL dominated by guys like Vince Lomdardi and George Halas, betrayed him. Whether he ever works again in the league is anyone’s guess.