BACK to the Future

“The past isn’t prologue. Hell, it isn’t even past.”

That William Faulkner line applies to Jacksonville bigly. The city has a cottage industry of people who look back on Jacksonville history and say where things went wrong.

Did things go wrong 100 years ago when the Bible-thumpers drove out the filmmakers? Did things go wrong 50 years ago with consolidation? Or 40 years ago, as Downtown retail started to winnow down? Or 30 years ago, when Jacksonville got rid of the tolls? Or almost 20 years ago, when the Better Jacksonville Plan was passed?

Opinions diverge on those questions. But one question on which opinions don’t seem to diverge, at least not anymore, is the one of where things went bad with the Big Cats.

Many observers trace that back to the day Tom Coughlin was fired as coach, replaced by Jack Del Rio.

Enthusiasm rang throughout local media as Del Rio appeared, pledging to end the era of “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

There had been some lean years after the end of the Jags’ run of four straight playoff appearances.

The roster Coughlin built ended up putting the team in cap hell; the meteoric rise to respectability was followed by an equally rapid decline and prolonged fall, with a random playoff appearance in
there somewhere.

The 21st century, in terms of Jaguars football, has been nothing short of an NFL penance, an extended 16-year Ash Wednesday, in part because of the few good years Coughlin brought to town.

Let’s remember the end. Let’s remember the quarterback controversy between Jamie Martin and Mark Brunell. Let’s remember the limos being sent to pick up R. Jay Soward the morning before training camp.

Soward was a first-round bust wide receiver — the first in what would turn out to be an impressive series of them over the next 15 years. He didn’t work out. And the Jags had no cap room, so as the Coughlin era closed, the Jags’ wide-out corps looked like something out of the Canadian Football League.

I bring these obscure names out from the gloaming of the now-distant past because the Jaguars, in what has to be seen as Jacksonville tradition, reached into the memory hole and plucked Tom Coughlin out to come in and serve as the chief operating officer on the football side.

It’s great symbolism. It allows Shad Khan to position himself as restoring the tradition of the franchise. Building good will and buzz ahead of the opening of the amphitheater, the new practice field, and the renovated club seats — all of which set the city back only $45 million, on the heels of a decision just a few years ago to put $43 million of city funds into new scoreboards.

That’s $88 million, for those counting at home. With the city’s operating budget of just over a billion dollars, that kind of money would fund a month, give or take, of city functions.

No big deal, the money men said. We’ll borrow the money, the money men said. The bed tax will cover it, the money men said.

The bed tax brings in about $6 million a year … roughly equivalent to the debt service cost on this $88 million of borrowed money.

The Jaguars were supposed to have turned the corner in 2016, creating a synergistic buzz for a young and hungry team with revamped facilities. Instead, they won a few times and got Gus Bradley canned.

So there had to be a backup plan. And the backup plan was bringing Coughlin out of retirement, to run the shop where he worked 15 years ago.

How does that work out? The closest corollary, in terms of legend returns to his old stomping grounds, was Joe Gibbs returning to Washington to coach the local NFL team. Gibbs coached for four years, getting them to the playoffs twice, though never to the Super Bowl.

So it was, in terms of on-field performance, a mixed bag. He did make the team relevant again. And in touch with tradition: recall that just before Gibbs came back, the team moved from a stadium inside D.C. to one in suburban Maryland.

Coughlin is for Shad Khan what Gibbs was for Dan Snyder: a chance to get in touch with tradition, to market it to a restive fanbase.

Even if the second Coughlin era is as ultimately mediocre, and ends as inauspiciously, as the first one was and did, his return allows for what truly is the greatest local pastime of One City One Jacksonville, the Bold New City of the South Where Florida Begins. Strategic rebranding.

Will that help Bortles throw downfield? Will that help the line hold a block?

Time will tell.

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