Is Tom Coughlin the next Pat Riley or Glen Sather, championship-winning coaches who became astute team builders?
Is he the next Bill Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach who orchestrated a quick Miami Dolphins turnaround but was a short-timer with the club?
Or is he, gulp, the next Phil Jackson, an 11-time NBA champion who ran the New York Knicks into the sewer and was fired?
Coughlin’s second tour with the Jaguars will be compared to his first with the team (1995-2002), but also those who made championship magic on the sideline or bench and then attempted to do the same in a front office-only role.
Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s latest Grand Plan – his third since buying the team in December 2011 – is his biggest gamble: Hope Coughlin’s touch is pliable.
If this works, the Jaguars will finally play interesting games in December.
If it doesn’t, the Jaguars’ nine-year playoff drought will stretch well into a second decade.
No pressure, Tom.
“He’s going to help them get things going, no doubt,” former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said earlier this year.
But things have been slow to get going.
His hand-picked left tackle (Branden Albert) retired after three training camp practices.
His first-round draft pick (Leonard Fournette) missed the final three preseason games with a foot injury.
His $26 million cornerback (A.J. Bouye) did not play in the preseason.
And his quarterback situation was momentarily turned upside down last month before Blake Bortles remained the starter.
The most difficult transition for Coughlin is he can’t solve the above problems from the head coach’s office. Nearly all of his heavy-lifting – hiring coach Doug Marrone, signing the expensive free agents, drafting eight players – is complete. When the Jaguars play at Houston next Sunday at 1 p.m., there is nothing Coughlin can do but watch. Now that’s a change.
“I don’t think it will be a difficult transition at all,” said Jimmy Johnson, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the Dallas Cowboys. “Tom will do a great job. He’s been around a lot of winning football teams. He’ll be able to give great advice on which direction to go.”
Riley and Sather should be the models for Coughlin.
Riley won four championships as an NBA coach in Los Angeles. In Miami, he was an executive for three title teams, returning to the bench to win the first crown.
Sather won four Stanley Cup titles as the Edmonton Oilers’ coach and then one as an executive before joining the New York Rangers for 14 years as general manager, winning 556 games and reaching one Cup final.
Their coaching careers propelled by Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Riley) and Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier (Sather), Riley and Sather added to their legacies by becoming forward-thinking executives. Riley drafted Dwyane Wade and convinced LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join the Heat. Sather drafted franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the seventh round and acquired his future captain (Ryan McDonagh) in a trade.
But Riley and Sather both returned to the bench after initially leaving coaching. That remains unlikely in Coughlin’s situation despite the perception nationally that he is waiting for the Jaguars’ first slump to take over.
Coughlin is closely associated with Parcells. Coughlin was on Parcells’ staff with the Giants and then matched his two Super Bowl wins as the team’s coach.
Parcells was hired as director of football operations by the Dolphins in December 2007. He inherited a one-win team and turned them into a division-winning 11-5 club, but an ownership change hastened his return to retirement. He drafted left tackle Jake Long first overall instead of quarterback Matt Ryan.
Parcells was age 69 in 2010 when he decided he liked evaluating the horses at Saratoga better than the draft prospects at the Combine.
Jackson was 68 in 2014 when he was hired to rescue the Knicks. It was a disaster except for drafting Kristaps Porzingis. Jackson was fired in June after a three-year run of mistakes and miscalculations – the Knicks went 80-166.
Coughlin turned 70 on Aug. 31.
The NFL is different than the NBA and NHL. On game days, the Jaguars will dress 45 players compared to 12 active in the NBA and 20 in the NHL.
Basketball is all about the stars, ideally one in the draft and one in free agency-trade. Four of the top 10 scorers last year had changed teams in their career.
Hockey is a draft-and-develop game (16 of the top 20 scorers last year were home-grown).
What Coughlin must unlock is how to mix the draft and free agency to build a quick and sustainable product. The Jaguars spent big money on Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and strong safety Barry Church in free agency. They used their first two picks on Fournette and left tackle Cam Robinson. And the Jaguars emphasized special teams throughout the acquisition process.
If their plan of running Fournette, playing elite defense and flipping the field on special teams is effective, then maybe Coughlin can have a winning return to the Jaguars.
His coaching colleagues and former players predict success.
“Tom understands he’s not there to coach, he’s not there to call the plays and he’s not a big second-guess guy,” former Giants center Shaun O’Hara said. “Not a lot of guys could handle that. But I think Tom can.”