There is one undeniable NFL coaching commandment: You cannot hide from your own shortcomings.
You can deny them. You can ignore them. You can redirect them toward others or even lie about them. But eventually, the on-field product and the culture off it get chiseled into the epitaph hanging above your permanent record. And whatever you personally did to facilitate both will ultimately define your reputation.
Urban Meyer might come to see that someday. That day is not today.
That’s what resonated in his first expansive remarks after his firing, which were made to the NFL Network, the same outlet that dropped a significant bombshell on him and that he claims reported inaccuracies about his tenure. Apparently Meyer doesn’t hold big media grudges, which makes sense considering his next job is most likely back in media.
But Meyer is surely carrying other grievances. That much came through in his talk with the NFL Network, both in what Meyer said and what he avoided saying.
Among the important takeaways:
Meyer isn’t heaping a lot of blame on himself for the Jacksonville failure
It’s always interesting to hear what a highly celebrated college football coach will say about himself when he gets rejected at the game’s highest level, particularly when it comes to their own responsibility. Meyer’s exit is ultimately going to fall into the territory of Lou Holtz, who spent 13 games with the New York Jets in 1976, going 3-10.
Inside that collapse, Holtz painfully learned two things: You can’t run a veer offense in pro football; and that you can’t carry over the college pom-pom routine to grown men, punctuated by Holtz writing a fight song for the Jets that remains a wince-inducing track of NFL failure.
History largely remembers Holtz copping to his shortcomings because of one oft-repeated quote from his resignation: “God did not put Lou Holtz on this Earth to coach pro football.”
There was another statement from Holtz’s end with the Jets that is far less repeated. And although it was uttered almost 45 years ago, it illustrates that galaxy brain thinking of elite college coaches hasn’t changed all that much over the years.
“Winning and losing means more in college,” Holtz said. “When you lose in the pros, the professional athlete still has his salary and his outside endorsements.”
This is the quote that popped into my head when I read what Meyer told the NFL Network after his firing. It smacks of a similar message that sloughs off the responsibility of failure. Something along the lines of “Losing matters to me. Money matters to these other guys.
In one breath, Meyer told the NFL Network: “I can’t take losing. I try to accept it, it just eats away at my soul. And I believe our players deserve better.”
Versus another breath: “Just society has changed. You think how hard you pushed. … I believe there is greatness in everybody and it’s the coach’s job to find that greatness however you do that. Positive encouragement. Pushing them to be greater, making them work harder, identifying flaws and trying to fix [them]. I think everything is so fragile right now. And that includes coaching staffs. When I got into coaching, coaches weren’t making this kind of money and they didn’t have agents. Everything is so fragile where it used to be team, team, team.”
Intended or not, that sounds an awful lot like Meyer saying he cares so much and losing hurts him, but hey, he tried to get the best out of these other guys but everyone else around him is seemingly from a different era. It’s a message of, “If you hate losing, you’re with me,” pressed against, “If you’re fragile and worried about money and not all about the team, you’re with them.”
That isn’t subtle messaging. It seems like someone blaming the guys around him. There’s no message about needing to adapt. There’s no suggestion that the blueprint needs updating, or that the man himself needs a software upgrade to cope on a higher plateau. It’s the same practice of pointing outward that defined Meyer’s tenure in Jacksonville. It would have been very notable if at any point Meyer said this failure is on him and he’s the one ultimately responsible for getting it done. Instead, it’s a violin-inducing lament how how hard it is for him to lose games.
And the whole “fragility” jab is a bit of a lie-by-suggestion. Like some of his NFL assistant coaches, Meyer has made a ton of money for a long time and also had an agent for decades, which apparently didn’t undermine his ability to be successful. And losing sucks for highly paid players in the NFL, too, and that didn’t stop other purported “culture creator” head coaches from getting the job done at the highest level. (Pete Carroll says hello.)
The Meyer vs. his assistant coaches rift points straight at the offensive staff
This one was about as predictable as could be, given that the biggest concern in Meyer’s firing from a personnel standpoint was the seeming regression of rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Meyer’s nonsensical attempt to disconnect himself from the James Robinson shutdown already put the onus on the offensive staff, not to mention his total lack of confronting a reporter in a news conference who openly disparaged the offensive line as getting “its ass kicked.”
Meyer being upset at the defensive staff would make no sense, since that side of the ball has gutted out the majority of the 2021 season. So it was of no surprise that when he spoke to the NFL Network, he heaped praise on that unit and apparently said nothing about the offensive coaches.
The report said Meyer described defensive coordinator Joe Cullen’s unit as “really good”, but then Meyer turned into the offense with an elbow: “But we were really struggling on offense. If we just find a way to play a little better on offense, I think we could win some games. … We won that sucker in London, it was like we won the Super Bowl for those guys. Then we come back [after a 31-7 loss to Seattle] and beat the Bills [9-6] and it was like, ‘OK, here we go.’ The defense was hanging in there and offense was making strides. And then after that, we couldn’t score. I mean, couldn’t score.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the CBS team working the Jaguars game against the Houston Texans said that while Lawrence had gotten a call from Meyer since the firing, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell hadn’t gotten any communication. The same Bevell who, despite leading that offense that Meyer wasn’t thrilled with, was kept on board after Meyer’s firing and named the interim head coach for the rest of the season. There’s little wonder that when Bevell was asked about Meyer’s firing, he chose to steer around it.
Meyer doesn’t sound like he’s done
At only 57 years old, it was never likely that Meyer would take this one on the chin and just walk away. It was interesting for him to decline to talk about the financial end of his firing, which is indicative that despite being reportedly fired for cause, he’s going to extract (or at least attempt to extract) some kind of contract settlement for his remaining four years.
But his response to “what’s next?” was met with “to be determined.” The NFL Network report also said Meyer hadn’t heard from anyone in the coaching world about a possible job. It’s fair to think that if another football job was off the table for him, he would have said something about it at this stage. That he didn’t seems to lean into what we likely all assumed when he was fired — that the NFL might be done with Urban Meyer, but it’s unlikely that Meyer is done with football.
He doesn’t seem the type to leave this ending as the final bullet point in his resume. Not when denying, ignoring or redirecting shortcomings can last only so long. Meyer is the only one who can rewrite his football coaching epitaph now. And he knows something about his legacy that he didn’t before. Losing hurts, but winning the ending matters far more than he might have thought.