How Tom Coughlin Built and Dismantled the NFL’s Best Young Defense
Just two years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars pushed the New England Patriots to the brink in the AFC Championship. But thanks to Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars’ Super Bowl window closed before it truly began.
The former New York Giants head coach brought a winning pedigree to Jacksonville. Unfortunately, he also brought the same old-school attitude that eventually led to his demise in New York.
That abrasive approach led to early exits for many of Jacksonville’s best players. As the 2020 offseason gets underway, the Jaguars suddenly have to re-tool a defense that looked poised to take control of the AFC. And there’s nobody to blame more than the two-time Super Bowl winner who finally wore out his welcome in Florida.
Coughlin found three defensive stars in 2016 draft
In the aftermath of the Gus Bradley era, the Jaguars bet heavily on Coughlin’s experience and no-nonsense management style to provide stability. As the executive vice president of football operations, Coughlin had final say over all football decisions. The early results certainly seemed promising.
Coughlin’s first draft class ranks as one of the best not only in Jaguars’ history but of all time. Jalen Ramsey arrived with a ton of hype as the fifth-overall selection and he more than lived up to expectations.
The former Florida State star quickly asserted himself as the alpha dog on defense. By the conclusion of his second season, Ramsey was one of the top players at his position.
The rest of the class included home-run value picks in Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue. After falling to the second round due to a possible long-term knee injury, Jack has gone on to start 53 games and develop into one of the league’s brightest young ‘backers. Ngakoue went from a virtual unknown to a game-wrecking pass-rusher, totaling 37.5 sacks while missing just one game.
That trio, along with homegrown holdovers Telvin Smith and Dante Fowler, formed the nucleus of the NFL’s most talented defense.
Contract issues led to early exits for Jalen Ramsey and others
The youth movement arrived almost as soon as it departed.
Since that fateful loss to the Patriots in the playoffs, the Jaguars have gone 11-21 and lost so many key pieces that it appears they are heading for a rebuilding phase. The problems began with Ramsey, who wanted to be paid like the league’s elite after earning three straight Pro Bowl selections to start his career.
Things got bitter between Ramsey and Coughlin and it only escalated throughout the 2019 season. Ramsey felt disrespected by the organization, requested a trade, sat out with an innocuous back injury and essentially quit on his team. Ultimately, the Jags dealt one of the league’s best defensive players to the Los Angeles Rams for a pair of first-round picks and some change.
Coughlin also alienated Fowler, the team’s top draft pick in 2015. According to Fowler, Coughlin fined him more than $700,000 for missing treatment that he deemed mandatory. Fortunately for Fowler—who was traded in the middle of the 2018 season—the fines were finally overruled.
Things even got so bad that Smith—a key cog in Jacksonville’s speedy defense—sat out the entire 2019 season.
More departures expected for a rebuilding Jaguars team
With Fowler and Ramsey shipped out of town and Smith out of the picture, Coughlin’s latest blunder centered on Ngakoue. Like Ramsey, the defensive stalwart spoke openly about his desire for a long-term contract.
Coughlin closed that door quickly. And by the beginning of the 2019 season, Ngakoue acknowledged that he wouldn’t sign a deal to stay in Jacksonville.
While Coughlin ultimately lost his job, it appears the damage is already done. Ngakoue could be subject to a tag-and-trade scenario where the Jaguars attempt to recoup some value.
However, the real issue is that the Jaguars will once again be moving on from a foundational defensive piece due largely in part to Coughlin’s pessimistic presence. Instead of having the NFL’s best young defense to compete against Deshaun Watson and the rest of the AFC South, Jacksonville will have to devote precious resources toward rebuilding.
He may not be around anymore, but Coughlin’s draining effect on the Jaguars franchise will be felt for years to come as Ramsey, Fowler and Ngakoue star for other teams.