As the Jacksonville Jaguars savor their rare postseason appearance, and even rarer playoff win, there is finally something positive to say about Urban Meyer’s time with the franchise.
At least it didn’t last long enough to wreck Trevor Lawrence.
Some of Lawrence’s bad habits that went unaddressed under Meyer still linger, as evidenced by that four-interception performance in the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night. But more and more we see the progress, and the potential, of the overall No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, and there’s little doubt who’s responsible for that.
It sure isn’t Meyer!
Doug Pederson has worked a minor miracle in his first season in Jacksonville, eliminating the dysfunction – last we checked, no kickers got kicked this season and Travis Etienne is still a running back – and transforming a three-win team into an AFC South champion.
Granted, the bar is low given the weakness of the division and Tennessee’s season-ending implosion. Still, give the man his due. The Jaguars tripled their wins from last year, from three to nine, and went from the bottom or near bottom of the league in both offense and defense to the upper third. They’re also the first team in NFL history to go from the league’s worst record to winning a playoff game in one season.
But Pederson’s biggest influence has been in the development of Lawrence.
“I think what you’re seeing is just him learning from mistakes that were made previously in the season, opportunities that we’ve missed,” Pederson said earlier this year. ‘That’s a good player that’s just taking correction and coaching, and understanding what we’re asking him to do, and just being better as a player.’
Lawrence came out of Clemson as the surest bet for success as a No. 1 pick since perhaps Andrew Luck in 2012. He’d won a national championship as a freshman, and his 34-2 record at Clemson was the third-best winning percentage for a college quarterback since 1978. He also was mature beyond his years, unlikely to be flustered by the larger, hotter spotlight of the NFL or rattled by its stepped-up level of competition.
And had Lawrence had a competent coach, that might have been the case. Instead, he got the almighty Urban, who couldn’t fathom that his success in college was partly because of the environment and never could accept that the NFL’s was completely different.
Meyer thought he could operate the way he had at Florida and Ohio State, and it was apparent almost immediately that wasn’t going to work. But as Meyer floundered, so did Lawrence.
The QB who could conjure up touchdowns seemingly at will at Clemson had an eight-game stretch in which he threw a grand total of one. The Jaguars weren’t getting a whole lot of TDs from other people, either, scoring eight during that span, one of which was by the defense.
What Lawrence was throwing was interceptions. A lot of them. Seventeen in total – tied for the league lead in 2021 and as many as he’d thrown in three years at Clemson.
While Lawrence was too classy to criticize Meyer outright – the closest he came was stating the obvious, that running back James Robinson needed to be on the field rather than in Meyer’s doghouse – the strides he’s made this season damn his old coach by comparison.
It helps that Lawrence is getting better protection from a reconstructed offensive line. A healthy Etienne and playmakers Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram, who arrived as part of Jacksonville’s $260 million spending spree last offseason, don’t hurt, either.
But it’s obvious Lawrence is thriving under Pederson, a former quarterback himself who spent most of his 10-year NFL career as a backup to Brett Favre.
‘He’s a really, really smart offensive mind, and he played the position, great play-caller, all those things,’ Lawrence said of Pederson last month.
‘One thing we really needed was someone that’s stable, comes in every day, he’s always the same no matter what,’ Lawrence added. ‘… He never panics, and I think that just shows the confidence he has in us, and that’s reciprocated in the way we practice, the way that we prepare, all that.”
Lawrence doubled his number of touchdowns, from 12 last year to 25, while cutting his interceptions in half, to eight. His completion rate this year was 67%, up from 60% last year, and his QB rating jumped more than 20 points.
One thing Pederson said has helped Lawrence’s progress is repeating play calls. It allows Lawrence to get different looks, depending on the situation and the opponent, giving him a deeper knowledge of the play and why it works. Or doesn’t.
That, in turn, has allowed him to see the field better and play faster, neither of which he did particularly well last year.
It’s all translated into wins, five in a row to close the regular season and clinch the AFC South title over the Titans.
Even after his abysmal first half against the Chargers, Lawrence regrouped and was then dazzling. Beginning with Jacksonville’s final possession of the first half, he went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, game-winning field goal to lead the improbable 31-30 victory. He was 23 of 29 in those drives.
The Jaguars now play Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday.
‘I’m just so happy for Trevor because he had to deal with Urban Meyer last year as a rookie. I don’t even know if he had a rookie year,’ safety Andrew Wingard told Action Sports Jax after the Jaguars upset the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 27.
‘And to see the growth he’s made, not just on the field, but his preparation, his demeanor, all that … I’m so happy for him.’
And it never would have happened under Meyer.
Meyer cost the Jaguars, and Lawrence, last season. They’re just lucky the price of his ineptitude wasn’t higher or longer lasting.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.