“A lot of people were wondering how that was going to work, and will Tom let Doug be Doug,” said Jeff Lageman, who was one of the first free agents Coughlin signed in Jacksonville, and who is now an analyst for Jaguars Radio. “That’s the thing that has impressed me most. Tom has stayed in the background and let him Doug do what he needs to do.”
Coughlin’s penchant for precision and discipline are everywhere, including the focus on getting to meetings early and the way uniforms are worn. For a team that has had a reputation as one of the league’s most undisciplined organizations, little things like that matter.
Although Coughlin remains intense, he has also softened, particularly when it comes to trying to understand his players.
This was evident during the most crucial weekend of the 2017 N.F.L. season in late September. The crisis began on a Friday night, when President Donald J. Trump urged owners to fire players who refused to stand for the national anthem. The Jaguars were in London to play their annual game there. Waking up to the news overseas on Saturday, many players were aghast and eager to protest. Because of the time difference, the Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens were going to be the first teams to play that weekend.
Shahid Khan, the Jacksonville owner, and his staff spent Saturday night discussing what to do but reached no conclusion. When they arrived at Wembley Stadium before the game, Khan met with Marrone and Coughlin. Coughlin, a big supporter of the military, might have had his own feelings on the matter, but he knew that whatever was decided, the players had to be on board.
“He said that you have to understand where these players came from, their upbringing, and if you don’t, the team will fall apart,” Khan said of Coughlin.
Coughlin wanted to go with Marrone to the locker room to meet with the players. But Marrone realized that would be unwieldy, so they invited the captains to speak with them in a small meeting room at the stadium. They ultimately decided that the entire team should lock arms on the sideline, and Khan joined them, a sight that set the tone for the rest of the league.
Coughlin and Marrone were too busy preparing for the Steelers to be interviewed for this article. But friends describe Coughlin’s return to the city and the team that he built and, in some ways, never left — as a happy one. He never sold his house in Jacksonville, and continued to run his local charity, the Jay Fund, which helps families of cancer patients. (It is named for the former Boston College safety Jay McGillis, who played for Coughlin there and died of leukemia.)
When Coughlin left Jacksonville after the 2002 season, supporters said he was a scapegoat, and critics said he had worn out his welcome.
So it was after the 2015 season with his rocky exit from the Giants, with whom he won two titles but posted losing seasons the last three of his dozen years there. Nearing 70, he was eager to keep coaching, and his name surfaced as a candidate for some jobs. But he ended up spending the 2016 season behind a desk at N.F.L. headquarters working as an adviser, with an eye toward returning to a club.
“It was more than an itch,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said before the Jaguars’ game against the Bills. “I always knew he wanted to get back and help build a team and help build a championship team.”
By the end of the 2016 season, Khan knew changes were needed in Jacksonville. During the five full seasons after he bought the team for $760 million in 2011, the Jaguars won just 17 games, three fewer than the lowly Cleveland Browns. He fired Coach Gus Bradley in the final month of the season and wanted to keep Marrone, the interim coach. But Khan felt the team needed what he called “a veteran presence” to guide both the coach and general manager to lift the franchise out of the doldrums.
“It couldn’t be someone random, but someone who had the passion and had the Jaguars blood that went through their veins,” Khan said. “Tom Coughlin was the ideal candidate, and he was available and he was looking for a position.”
Coughlin, he said, wanted to coach, so he took his time considering the offer before taking it. Although one can imagine that Coughlin wanted to prove to the Giants that he could still win, friends of his say that he was not driven by spite.
“He left the Giants reluctantly; I don’t think that’s a secret,” said Ernie Bono Sr., a close friend who helped Coughlin establish the Jay Fund. “But he’s not the retiring type. He doesn’t care about showing anyone up. He told me he felt for the Giants when they were losing.”
Still, having a former coach oversee a current coach and general manager can be tricky. If he takes too heavy a hand and creates tension, an insecure coach may feel the boss is trying to undermine him and take over. Some recent examples — Mike Holmgren in Cleveland and Bill Parcells in Miami — did not last long.
Khan was aware of these potential pitfalls, so he asked Coughlin which coaches he would want to work with. Coughlin named two, the first being Marrone. Khan, who did not tell Coughlin beforehand that he intended to keep Marrone, had his man.
Coughlin and Marrone have a long history that centers on Syracuse, where they each played and coached
. Nearly 20 years younger than his boss, Marrone sees Coughlin as a mentor, not a threat. He shares his game plans with Coughlin, who attends practices and will pull players aside to deliver instruction.
Commenting on Coughlin after the regular-season finale, Marrone said he had learned more in the past year from his boss than ever, on topics including running a practice, scheduling and dealing with players.
“I talk to him more than I talk to my wife,” he said.
“You can see his fingerprints all over the team,” said Jay Feely, a former kicker for Coughlin’s Giants and who is now an analyst for CBS Sports. “He deflects all credit from himself. But if you’re truthful, you’d say he deserves a lot of credit” for turning the team around.
In Week 5, the Jaguars beat the Steelers, 30-9, in Pittsburgh. They intercepted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times, returning two of the picks for touchdowns. The rookie running back Leonard Fournette, a big, physical presence, ran for 181 yards and two scores. Fournette has become an emblem of Jacksonville’s bruising offense, a Coughlin trademark.
The temperature will be a lot colder this Sunday, something that could favor the home team. But if the Jaguars upset the Steelers, Coughlin will no doubt celebrate, but quietly — again.
For at least another weekend, the Jaguars, too.