Doug Marrone has graduated.
Or, maybe he’s at least received the football equivalent of his GED seeing how a lack of certainty has characteristically defined the first two weeks of the 2018 NFL season.
Three teams considered Super Bowl favorites already have ties to their names, and a Harvard graduate is the leading candidate for league MVP. Things are so unpredictable that players are actually holding retirement announcements at halftime, though in Vontae Davis’s defense, he’s probably not the only guy who wants to escape putrid Buffalo as quickly as possible.
But what Marrone pulled off in leading the Jacksonville Jaguars to a 31-20 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday might have been an appropriate step in helping the annual also-rans finally be considered a legitimate threat in the NFL.
Unlike Marrone’s wishy-washy decision to put the motor in neutral during last season’s AFC Championship game in Foxborough, the Jacksonville coach went at New England Sunday the only way anybody has proven to beat a Bill Belichick-led team. Offensively, the Jaguars were aggressive, putting the ball in Blake Bortles’s hands to the tune of 377 yards and four touchdown passes. Defensively, Jacksonville’s schemes frustrated Tom Brady for the majority of the afternoon, limiting the quarterback’s time to read his open receivers — if there were, indeed, any — and corralled any serious running game the Patriots languidly attempted with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
Bortles ended up throwing the ball 45 times, a relentless showing that was a far cry from the panicked approach that had Marrone’s unit taking a knee with a 14-10 lead, two timeouts, and nearly a minute left before halftime in the AFC title game. Of course that game, all too predictably, resulted in another Patriots comeback over a team that came in too intimidated to seriously consider victory. This is now generally referred to as the Atlanta Syndrome.
After all, if you coach startled against the Patriots, Belichick will find a way to exploit your weakness, turning your pangs of hope into yet another collapse, all just part of the dynasty he has helped build just south of the Automile.
Speaking of, anyone seen that guy lately?
In Super Bowl LII, otherwise known widely as “The Game Bill Blew,” it was Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson forcibly closing down on the Patriots’ windpipe rather than brushing its surface with reasonable intent to injure. That bravado came on the heels of Marrone’s tentativeness in the AFC title game against New England and a matter for which Pederson criticized Marrone in a book released in August and possibly devoured by dozens.
“It made me mad because Jacksonville had New England right where they wanted them,” the Eagles coach wrote. “I was screaming at the TV in my office. When they knelt right before halftime, inside I was like, ‘I’ll never do that.’ It fueled me.”
Marrone may have shrugged off the criticism, but Sunday’s game might show that he also took note.
If you’re keeping track, that’s two out of the last three games during which The Greatest Head Coach of All Time has been out-coached.
No situation illustrated this better than the fourth-and-one the Patriots faced in the fourth quarter after a review (erroneously) determined that Patriots running back James White was short of the first down marker. The Patriots trailed, 24-13 with just over eight minutes remaining in the game, significant time for Brady to work another clinic for the highlight reel. You could almost see the Jaguars melting in real time as the Patriots marched back into threatening the game’s uncertainty. Falcons. Jaguars. Same difference.
But Belichick, the same man who once scripted hours of bar arguments and screaming segments on TV with his aggressive decision to go for it on fourth-and-two in Indianapolis so many years ago, didn’t attempt to secure the extra yard, even though he has a quarterback who is successful at the sneak something like 104 percent of the time.
Instead, Ryan Allen kicked the ball away. Three plays later, the Jaguars had dashed down the field and scored a touchdown to pull ahead 31-13.
Was there any thought at all about going for it, especially considering the juncture of the game and the knowledge that these Jags weren’t the same ones to lie down so easily as they did in January?
“We decided to punt,” Belichick said.
If you think of the game in terms of just how badly the Patriots started out both offensively and defensively, yet still managed to pose a threat in the final 10 minutes of play, it still speaks to some things going right under the surface of the stink. As bad as they were Sunday, the Patriots remarkably still had a chance in the final minutes. It’s a characteristic we’ve greedily come to expect.
But their coach managed to turn opportunity into something safer, backfiring for all the reasons why the timid don’t stand a chance vying against Belichick in the first place. It was the textbook sort of move that a rookie coach like Pat Shurmur might make. (In fact, it was the sort of textbook move Shurmur would make only some hours later in a loss at Dallas.)
As a result, Marrone has elevated himself to the upper echelon of coaches, distancing himself from the revolving door of bozos that populate much of the landscape in the NFL. Bring an aggressive approach to the table, and you too can top the master.
That’s a mindset that used to define Belichick. But Sunday further proved that more coaches than only he now possess that gung-ho ability, all while quietly posing concern as it pertains to the Patriots head coach.