“Round and round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows.”
That catchphrase was made famous by the "Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour" in the 1960s, but it could just as easily be applied to the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff in 2009.
The Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff has seen an alarmingly high level of turnover during Jack Del Rio’s tenure.
Normally, the type of churning on coaching staffs has more to do with success, as teams try to cherry pick the quality coordinators on other coaching staffs to help improve their situation. For this group of coaches, that has only been a small contributor to the revolving door policy. Since 2003, Jack Del Rio has fired or replaced more coaches and coordinators than any other head coach in the league, including three offensive coordinators, three defensive coordinators, five special teams coordinators, and an alarming number of position coaches that just did not fit with what Del Rio wanted to accomplish.
Entering 2009, the Jaguars will see some stability on the offensive side of the ball with the majority of the staff still in place, but on the other side of the ball, Mel Tucker steps into the defensive coordinator role vacated by Gregg Williams, and Russ Purnell assumes the special teams coordinator spot previously occupied by Joe DeCamillis.
The struggles of the Jaguars defense were well documented last year. When Gregg Williams was hired, it was expected to be a short term move because the defensive coordinator was considered a hot prospect to land a head coaching position. However, after the Jaguars defense completely fell apart in 2008, Williams’ star fell, and he wound up making a lateral move, taking the same position with the New Orleans Saints. His departure from Jacksonville was widely anticipated.
Jack Del Rio takes a great deal of pride in the hard nosed style of play that became his trademark in Baltimore, Carolina, and here in Jacksonville. So, it would seem that this position would require a good deal of thought with a focus on getting the right guy to come in and get things back on track.
Enter Mel Tucker.
Under the tutelage of Romeo Crennel, Tucker coached the Cleveland Browns defensive backs for three seasons, taking over as the defensive coordinator at the start of the 2008 season. While he ran a defense with a base 3-4 scheme, the Jaguars base package is a more traditional 4-3 defense.
What does that tell us about this hire?
No, the Jaguars are not going to switch to a new scheme. They simply do not have the personnel to make the transition smoothly, and the head coach is not inclined to make major changes to the basic defensive philosophy.
What the Tucker hiring tells fans is that Jack Del Rio is going to be putting the majority of his focus into making sure that the defense gets back on track, and that focus is going to require a lot more hands-on attention from the head coach. It also shows that Del Rio understands where his defense is struggling, and with a coordinator on board who has a solid track record in coaching defensive backs at both the college and NFL level, Tucker is going to be tasked with fixing the secondary.
Sure, Jack has indicated that there will be a few 3-4 wrinkles inserted into the current scheme, but fans should not read that to mean any sort of major shift in what they see on the field. The Jaguars have always had a wrinkle or two in their defensive playbook that incorporated some aspect of the 3-4 defense.
In a recent interview, Del Rio gave some insight into what can be expected, touching on the fact that the team has always used some sort of 3-4 in substitution packages, but that there may be some incorporation into the base defense as well.
Tucker will certainly have input into the play calling, but make no mistake about it. The Jaguars defense is going to be crafted in the mold that Jack wants. If they can return to the more aggressive, attacking style of defense that pounded opposing teams up through 2006, then things should turn around quickly for the unit.
On the offensive side of the ball, Dirk Koetter returns for his third season as the coordinator.
Any expectations that Koetter had of opening up the playbook in 2008 went down the drain by the first week of the season when he lost his two starting guards to season-ending injuries after losing their starting center in training camp. Losing the entire interior of the offensive line to injuries forced Koetter to dial back the playbook and focus on trying to protect his quarterback.
The end result was a sub-par running attack, and a passing game that could never get any sort of rhythm because the quarterback was unable to settle into the pocket. When he was able to find time, his receivers were struggling to find space to work with.
With a completely rebuilt offensive line, a new look running attack that no longer centers on Fred Taylor, and an entire receiving corps that returns only two players that had catches last season for the Jaguars, Koetter is working with a clean slate.
It was reported last year that there were conflicts in the play calling. While Koetter was the guy with the headset, he was receiving input from tight ends coach and assistant head coach, Mike Tice, and the running back coach, Kennedy Pola. When they were not providing their feedback, Jack Del Rio was inserting himself into the mix.
That should all change this year.
Koetter was brought in to provide a more vertical look to the offense three years ago, but that has never materialized, mostly because of personnel issues. The team simply did not have the receivers to stretch the field, the quarterback to get the ball down the field, or the offensive line to provide the time.
The hope is that with one free agent acquisition and two high draft picks targeting the offensive line, the Jaguars will allow David Garrard adequate time to get more looks downfield.
Now, if Koetter is allowed to call his offense without too many fingers getting into the pie, he should be able to give the scheme enough of a boost to give Jack Del Rio the type of balance and production that he expects from his skill players.
On special teams, Russ Purnell takes over for a unit that was inconsistent in 2008. Purnell and Del Rio have a history going back to 2000 when both served on the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Their more recent history was spent opposing each other twice a year as Purnell ran the special teams unit for the Indianapolis Colts. In his previous positions, the one constant was consistency from his units.
During his time as the special teams coordinator in Baltimore and Indianapolis, Purnell has had the distinction of coaching six different players who earned spots in the Pro Bowl as a result of their special teams play. He also won two Super Bowl rings (2000, 2006). That pedigree is going to be called upon to bring some level of stability to the special teams unit where the punting unit was a major obstacle for the team, and the return game was unable to generate big plays in 2008.
It has become an annual ritual for the coaching staff in Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio has tossed a fresh mix of coaches into his special brew with the hope that this mix will be the one that gets things back on track for the Jaguars. If it does not work this time around, the head coach will find himself sitting on a very hot seat.