Whenever personnel changes are made within the Jaguars organization, there tends to be a need to frame them as an improvement over the previous situation, just because a change was finally made. When Tom Coughlin was removed from his position a decade ago, for example, enthusiasm rang throughout the local media as Jack Del Rio appeared, pledging to end the era of “three yards and a cloud of dust” (ironic, given the offenses Del Rio brought to the viewing public).
A similar burst of enthusiasm occurred when James “Shack” Harris resigned from his front office position as vice president of player personnel two days before Christmas 2008. Harris was the closest thing the front office had to a general manager. A troika — Harris, Del Rio and Gene Smith — collaborated to make decisions on players, an approach that illustrated the old cliché “too many cooks in the kitchen,” as ultimate accountability proved elusive, like a deep run in the playoffs. The troika approach was a reaction to the absolute power Coughlin wielded here and was designed to ensure that just one man wouldn’t hold that kind of control again. It was too much work for a single person, the geniuses said at the time.
Harris was pilloried all over the media for questionable draft picks. Some of the criticism was merited. It wasn’t difficult to build a case then that some of the hate Harris elicited might have been based on his race, but by the time he’d finished six years here, some felt the team was ready for something new – an alternative to the process that brought in questionable picks, like Byron Leftwich, and players with questionable character, including Glimmer Twins Matt Jones and Reggie Williams.
That something new was “Clean” Gene Smith, a “Jaguars original,” referring to his days as a college scout for the franchise in 1994. Smith worked his way up through the ranks, building a reputation as a keen observer of talent. Former owner Wayne Weaver rewarded that kind of loyalty and commitment, and there was positive reaction to Smith’s hiring. Seems folks expected him to put fewer “character risks” on the roster and be able to, somehow, return the team to its place during Coughlin’s glory days.
That didn’t quite work out. Smith, fired on his 49th birthday, went 22-42 in four years, and there were those who’d been calling for his ouster (especially me) since the end of the 2010 season. Maybe he would have been gone last year, if Weaver hadn’t insisted that Smith be retained when he sold the team to Shad Khan. Smith got a fourth chance to improve the roster, but tangible evidence of any improvement wasn’t seen on the field this year — the Jaguars were smacked around more weeks than not.
Smith is a nice guy, but as a general manager, he made a number of dubious decisions that defy explanation even years later. Picking defensive tackle Tyson Alualu over local hero Tim Tebow was one. Not ensuring that Tebow came in from Denver last year was another. Picking a punter in the third round, when blue chip talent like current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was still on the board, was another iffy move.
It wasn’t all bad for Smith. Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon appear to be emergent stars at wide receiver. But there’s a reason the Jaguars are picking second in April — and that comes down to the lack of talent on the field, a constant theme this decade.
As of this writing, it is impossible to predict who the Jags might pick as their next GM, though strong rumors suggest David Caldwell from the Atlanta organization will get the job and shape the franchise in his image. Whether or not Caldwell is the pick, however, it is evident that this is a great opportunity for a forward-thinking NFL manager.
The second pick in the upcoming draft (even if it is one of the weaker drafts in memory), coupled with plenty of money in the free agent market, mean that for some lucky executive, the Jaguars are as much a blank slate as an expansion franchise. There are no sacred cows left. They’ve all been turned into Bubba Burgers.
Perhaps Smith couldn’t get the job done. That’s OK. Khan can pick his own guy, a new face who won’t be beholden to the Weaver legacy, which had a lot more philanthropic achievements than pigskin victories. Nothing wrong with philanthropy, of course, but it isn’t a spectator sport. Khan’s pick will demonstrate his ownership vision, and it will give us real insight into his thought process.