Gene Frenette: Can Urban Meyer replicate Jimmy Johnson's winning college-to-NFL jump?
Jaguars’ coach Urban Meyer is a stickler for detail and preparation, so it’s no surprise he would bend the ear of a coach who made that college-to-NFL transition better than anyone in the history of football.
When Meyer left Ohio State two years ago to work as a FOX Sports college football analyst, he rarely passed up the opportunity to lean on FOX NFL analyst Jimmy Johnson for advice about television work and a variety of subjects. He especially soaked up all the information he could about why the former University of Miami boss succeeded at making the jump from national championship coach to a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys.
So when Meyer started to explore the idea of taking the NFL plunge in recent months, and knowing a relationship had been established with Jaguars’ owner Shad Khan at last year’s Super Bowl, those conversations with Johnson became even more valuable.
“I had a few phone calls with [Johnson] recently,” said Meyer. “He will be a resource for me. He will be a guy I speak to quite frequently. He told me you have to be much different than you are in college than you have to be in professional football, but he made it clear that players want to win.
“They understand their value, their brand and their lifestyle improves if you win. They want to be around winners.”
Johnson, 77, is a member of one of football’s most exclusive clubs. Only two other coaches, Barry Switzer (Oklahoma, Dallas Cowboys) and Pete Carroll (USC, Seattle Seahawks), have won a national title and Super Bowl since Johnson first pulled off the feat with the Miami Hurricanes (1987) and the Cowboys (1992, ’93).
Meyer and Jaguars’ fans would like nothing better than for the three-time national championship coach, who won two titles at Florida and one at Ohio State, to join that fraternity.
Whether it happens or not, what makes any parallel connection with the former Cowboys’ coach so intriguing is Meyer will begin his Jaguars’ tenure the same way Johnson did in 1989 – armed with the No. 1 pick in the draft and likely to be used on a quarterback.
Johnson chose future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who went on to lead Dallas to three Super Bowls, under slightly different circumstances. While Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is considered the consensus top selection for the Jaguars in the 2021 draft, that wasn’t the case with UCLA’s Aikman.
“Troy wasn’t even first-team, All-Pac 10, that was Rodney Peete [from USC],” Johnson said in a Wednesday phone interview. “People look at it now and say it was a slam dunk to take Aikman. No, it wasn’t. Scouts told me I’d be crazy not to take [Michigan State offensive tackle] Tony Mandarich.”
Gene Frenette:Meyer wins PR game, tells Jaguars' fans they "deserve a winner"
And:For Jaguars' fans, an Urban-Trevor combo makes franchise relevant
Trading into a dynasty
The Cowboys’ rise from 1-15 (sound familiar?) in Johnson’s first season to a dynasty was made possible by his acumen as a talent evaluator and wheeler-dealer. He made 51 trades during his five-year Cowboys’ run, none bigger than the blockbuster Herschel Walker deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
It led to Dallas acquiring all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith, No. 1 draft pick Russell Maryland and defensive backs Darren Woodson and Kevin Smith. Johnson also later traded for Hall of Fame pass-rusher Charles Haley.
Meyer, expected to have personnel control similar to Johnson, also has plenty of ammunition at his disposal. The Jaguars have 11 draft picks in 2021, including an extra selection in each of the first two rounds from the Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue trades.
The big difference between the Cowboys’ climb out of the NFL abyss and the Jaguars attempting the same thing is Dallas accomplished it before unfettered free agency began in 1993. The only impact Cowboys on the roster when Johnson took over for legendary coach Tom Landry were receivers Michael Irvin and Kelvin Martin (Ribault High), along with guard Nate Newton. Nearly all of the starters that won back-to-back Super Bowls were acquired via trade or draft on Johnson’s watch.
“The turnaround came from a combination of things,” said Johnson. “We eventually got great talent. It’s one thing to have [draft] picks. Teams forever have accumulated a lot of picks. The key isn’t accumulating picks, it’s picking the right players.”
More:Urban Meyer eager to get started rebuilding Jaguars into a winning franchise
Next:With Urban Meyer on board, attention turns to general manager, assistants
Johnson did that not just with his top picks, but also by developing less-heralded players. He put together what many consider the NFL’s greatest offensive line: Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Kevin Gogan and Mark Stepnoski. Two were third-round picks, one an eighth-rounder and two undrafted.
Meyer and whoever the next Jaguars’ GM is must fare a lot better than previous drafts, plus get a lot more mileage out of the current roster. But unlike Johnson’s Cowboys, they also have the luxury of a league-best $80 million-plus in salary cap space.
“I think the way the league is now with free agency, I think any team can turn it around,” said Johnson. “We’ve seen teams go from four or five wins to winning a Super Bowl or at least getting to the playoffs. With the ammunition [the Jaguars] got, no question they can turn it around.”
But first, there’s the matter of navigating the college-to-NFL leap that Johnson found daunting in his first season. He was “shocked” by the Cowboys’ lack of talent, especially in comparison to what he had with the Hurricanes, where a dozen of his players were drafted in the top two rounds.
Johnson says Meyer must be prepared for a transition that can be a rude awakening, even with a generational talent like Lawrence available at the top of the draft.
“If you say college and the NFL is a different world, you’re not strong enough [in the comparison],” Johnson said. “It is a completely different world. My wife could coach some of these college teams. Nick Saban could have stayed at home this season and won a national championship [at Alabama]. In college, you’re more of a father figure and counselor. It’s all business in pro football.
“When Butch Davis left Miami [as head coach] for the Cleveland Browns, I told him don’t expect things to happen perfectly. In college, he’s got a life. In the NFL, if you’re coaching and doing personnel, it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, almost 365 days a year.”
Franchise QB not enough
Meyer, who has struggled with stress-related problems that caused him to step down from two elite college programs at Florida and Ohio State, believes he’s in a better place now. But getting the Jaguars turned around will require a lot more than Lawrence living up to all his hype.
“Trevor is a very, very talented player, but any quarterback is going to be dependent on who you’re surrounding him with,” Johnson said. “I’m not good at comparing [with past quarterbacks]. If he gets the right players and coaches around him and stays healthy, I think he can be very successful. Notice that’s a lot of ifs I threw in there.”
Johnson added the Detroit Lions have one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks in former No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford, but he has yet to win a playoff game in 12 seasons.
If Meyer is going to turn the Jaguars around, he’s going to have to push a lot of right buttons beyond simply drafting Lawrence.
“It’s a combination of having great talent and great coaching,” said Johnson. “You’re not going to win championships without both. Urban is a very smart coach who has had a lot of success. It’s just hard for me to predict on how somebody is going to do [in the NFL].”
With no previous NFL experience, Johnson beat the odds. He developed a blueprint for success with the Cowboys that exceeded any other college coach making a similar jump.
Urban Meyer is doing the right thing to use Jimmy Johnson as a resource. Whether he can follow in his footsteps and lead the Jaguars to NFL prominence, that’s another matter.
email@example.com: (904) 359-4540