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'We’re not scared of anything:' Yes, it was always the Jags
Last season was an embarrassment. This year, at 3-7, the Jacksonville Jaguars were dead again. Now, they believe they can upset the Kansas City Chiefs. How in the hell did we get here?
There was no good reason for the Jacksonville Jaguars to harbor one iota of optimism when they reported back to work out of their bye week in late November. None. Thanksgiving was a few days away and this was clearly another miserable chapter in franchise history.
Three wins. Seven losses.
This is when rational players naturally begin to check out and view professional football as nothing more than a job. Not a passion. Not a source of happiness. And yet when head coach Doug Pederson first addressed his players, he told them he had a “crystal ball.” And when he gazed into this crystal ball, he saw the Jaguars going on a winning streak. They’d start winning, never stop winning, and have an opportunity to make the playoffs in the regular-season finale — at home — against the Tennessee Titans.
Nobody looked at Pederson like he had four heads. They believed him.
All the Jags have done since that meeting is win seven of eight games.
In the wild-card round, they pulled off the fifth-greatest comeback in NFL history.
Yeah, the Jaguars are now nine-point underdogs to the No. 1-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, a juggernaut powered by the surefire league MVP. They’ve also built up the sort of momentum that teams dream of this time of year, the raw belief that can be more powerful than any plays diagrammed on a whiteboard. This team usually doesn’t make the playoffs, but when it does? When the locals are roaring “Duuu-vahl!” in unison? Look out. This is the same franchise that upset Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown as seven-point underdogs in the 2017 divisional round. The same franchise that stunned the Denver Broncos as 12.5-point underdogs in the 1996 divisional round.
Pederson is building the same belief he did in Philadelphia when his Eagles won a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback.
The crystal ball speech still leaves players speechless.
“Unbelievable,” says safety Andrew “Dewey” Wingard. “The guy is a master manifester. He laid it out. He went week by week by week how it was going to happen. And he said, ‘When we do all this boys, it’s going to come down to Week 18.’ And that was exactly what happened. … It’s pretty crazy.”
Pederson talked “Super Bowl”… at 3-7. Initially, left tackle Walker Little remembers guys thinking “Wow, that’s far off.” They were only worrying about how they’d win one stinkin’ game. But then Pederson explained how extremely close this team was to being a contender. Six of those seven losses were by one score or less. He saw major progress.
“We thought we should’ve won every single one of them,” Little says. “We knew it’d only take a few corrections and we’d be able to turn things around. I think what played a big role in us keeping the belief up was knowing it wouldn’t take much. It wouldn’t take a miracle to turn this thing around. … He kept our sights on the fact that our goals were in front of us. The Super Bowl was still where our head was at. A lot of people on the outside might’ve thought we were crazy but we were able to use that energy and that hope that he kept feeding us.”
Get in and it’s a one-game season. That was the message.
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Of course, this kindling needed one more spark. The speech planted belief, but the players needed to bring his words to life.
The Jags’ run to the divisional round of the playoffs truly began when they smashed the Titans in Nashville. This 36-22 win improved their mark to 5-8, but whatever. The standings were irrelevant. Something special was building. Wingard could feel it in the team meeting the night before, when Pederson showed everyone video clips of Titans players and coaches — in so many words — referring to the Jags as their little brother over the years. The Jaguars hadn’t won in Nashville in nine years. “And,” Wingard added, “it pissed us off.” Such motivational ploys are dfficult to pull off. Speeches the eve of NFL games often fall flat with grown men.
Wingard assures this montage struck a nerve.
“That’s what I believe about Doug — his timing on everything,” Wingard says. “How he says things. When he says them. It’s always so perfect, and it really hits you. It’s not, ‘Oh, coach is saying something. I can tune him out now.’ When Doug gets up to talk, you listen. You know something meaningful is always going to be said. It’ll be worthwhile.”
Jacksonville took the Titans out to pasture that day. Their perennial AFC South bullies finished with seven straight losses that give the organization no choice but to completely rebuild.
And once the win was complete — surrounded by Titans fans — Wingard looked into a team camera to say five words everyone has been shouting since.
“It was always the Jags!”
This has been Wingard’s go-to line for a while. He traces the roots of “It was always…” to hanging out with his buddies during the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Ahead of the Round of 32, No. 9 Memphis was set to face No. 1 Gonzaga and the Zags weren’t playing well at the time. Wingard saw that Memphis’ first-half money line was +330 and immediately turned to his buddies. “Boys,” he said, “it was always Memphis plus-330 first half money line.” Memphis led 41-31 at half. The bet pulled through. Wingard started to begin every bold declaration in life with an emphatic “It was always…”
After this win? With emotions soaring? “There was zero thought,” he says, “zero hesitation.”
He started a movement. The wins piled up.
Everyone in Jacksonville has been shouting those words from the rooftops since.
“I really only said it because it’s what the team and what the city needed,” says Wingard, who originally signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted rookie out of Wyoming in 2019. “It’s work. Everyone feels it when anyone says it was always us. They kind of just know. It’s just knowing. It’s really cool to see it manifest itself to a berth in the divisional round, so we’ll take what we can get.”
All belief stems from their audacious head coach. Wingard calls Doug Pederson the best coach he’s had in his football life.
Which is… puzzling. Hmm. Wouldn’t he slot Urban Meyer No. 1?
Wingard laughs, assures “that’s definitely a no,” and quotes author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
“Anti-models do more for you than role models do,” Wingard says. “When you learn from someone who doesn’t do things the right way, it makes you want to do things the right way even more. I’m thankful for the guy because everything every guy on the team had to go through only made us stronger. Whatever you can imagine, it probably happened.”
It’s impossible to appreciate how far the Jaguars have come without acknowledging the ludicrous state of affairs last season. After a loss in Cincinnati dropped Jacksonville to 0-4 in 2021 — as everyone in possession of a cell phone knows — Meyer stayed in Ohio and was caught on video getting quite handsy with a woman who wasn’t his wife but was half his age. Wingard begins by saying that the craziest part of this story was that nobody on the team realized Meyer wasn’t even on their plane. Players typically get on without even seeing who’s in first class. (“That makes you love Doug even more,” he adds,” a year removed, because you see how a leader, a general, an NFL veteran coach with a Super Bowl runs things.”) But on second thought, the true “craziest part” of this particular saga was when players read the national reports that Meyer called a team meeting and apologized.
“There was never a team meeting,” Wingard says. “He went into every position room and kind of just went in and said, ‘Uh… uh… look guys. This, this and this happened. Is everything OK? Does anyone want to say anything?’ And obviously no one said anything. And then he left. It was over.”
Meyer, a man whose relationship with the truth is historically elastic, then held a press conference on Wednesday to say he “met with the team Monday individually and then today.” Meyer then added: “I had a very pointed conversation with them, owning the stupid mistake that I made.” But enough about this disease of a coach who somehow discovered new rock bottoms after this incident.
Meyer was finally fired. Pederson was hired. Everything here changed.
Players respected him from Day 1 because of his Super Bowl pedigree. And then in OTAs, his No. 1 point of emphasis was changing the team’s habits. As someone who had just read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, the safety Wingard loved it. Everything Pederson said about having faith in your day-to-day process made so much sense to him.
“A year ago, things were so… nothing was consistent,” Wingard says. “There was crazy stuff happening this week. Next week. It was like just… ugh. This year, we dialed in on the process. Whether it was in training camp or it was the practice we had today for a divisional playoff. Nothing has changed. We’re so consistent in our practice and our meetings and how it’s installed. There are so many levels to it. We all have a really good basis for our body of work. We get stuff done going into gameday to be confident.”
The Jaguars have become a chapter straight out of Clear’s book. This is a team that relies on a true system through the rigors of a relentless NFL schedule.
A system built on “no fear” and “not second-guessing” yourself, Wingard adds.
All of the coaches made a concerted effort to remind players how close those seven losses were to becoming wins. Specific plays were examined. A few tweaks and, heck yeah, they’d contend for a Super Bowl. First, the Jaguars upset the 7-3 Ravens in a last-second thriller. With 14 seconds, Pederson went for 2 to win. One week later, they were blown out by the Lions. “A huge disappointment,” Little recalls. But he remembers the team dusting off that defeat quickly.
So when a slew of turnovers sunk the Jaguars in a 27-0 hole at home to the Los Angeles Chargers, emotions weren’t out of control.
By then, the team had taken on the persona of its head coach. Pederson didn’t panic. A foolish trick play failed for the Chargers on third and 1 with 2:26 to go in the first half, and the Jags pounced. Lawrence swiftly led a TD drive to get Jacksonville on the board before halftime, 27-7, and Little could feel a load lifted off everyone’s shoulders. They settled in and found an all-time groove.
Brandon Staley’s Chargers played tight and afraid.
Pederson’s Jags played loose, yet deliberate.
Little specifically played a massive role in silencing the Chargers’ pass rush. On Jacksonville’s game-winning drive — all alone on an island — he shut down Khalil Mack. (“Don’t fall into the moment,” Little recalls. “When you start thinking about the moment, you start losing focus of what your job is.”) As former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz pointed out, Little would’ve been a top 10 pick in the 2021 draft if he was healthy out of Stanford. This front five has become more of a wall through the team’s winning streak.
And operating behind this Wall of Duvall, Lawrence is as good as any quarterback in the NFL.
He’s the one who gives players belief between the whistles.
“When he gets going,” Little says, “I don’t think a lot of teams want to go against him. … Obviously it’s not our plan to get in a hole but when you find yourself in that position, you take it one play at a time and just focus. A laser focus on your job, your assignment. When your back’s against the wall, it heightens your focus and when you have that kind of focus, collectively, it turns into a beautiful thing on offense.”
Each NFL game is its own entity, but we rarely ever see comebacks like this.
After the Buffalo Bills climbed out of a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in the 1992 wild card — with a backup quarterback, Frank Reich, who was Pederson’s OC in Philly — they went on the road to beat Pittsburgh (24-3) and Miami (29-10) to reach the Super Bowl. Following Pederson’s lead, Little believes players are sincerely interpreting their comeback vs. L.A. as another win. Nothing more.
Matt Patricia to Dan Campbell.
Mike Zimmer to Kevin O’Connell.
Joe Judge to Brian Daboll.
Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson.
Across the NFL, the move from drill sergeants to coaches who humanize this wild profession is clearly paying off. These Jaguars didn’t have a winning record in 13 of the previous 14 seasons — Pederson’s task was tall. But when he arrived, he told everyone they’d now go into games “expecting to win.”
Now, Wingard never senses Here we go again dread creeping into anyone’s mind.
“I call him The General,” Wingard says. “And he is. In moments of strife, moments of panic your leader has to be the one who’s calm. And that’s Doug Pederson. Even our rookie class last year, and the first-year guys, the only head coach they’ve ever seen is Urban Meyer. They’re like, ‘Is that really how the NFL works?’ To now, you look at Doug Pederson and go, ‘Yeah, that’s our guy.’ When you’re starting to get weary down the stretch and start questioning yourself and start questioning coaches, no. None of that happened in Jacksonville. We were all so locked in. There was so much faith and so much belief. There’s never panic. There’s never fear-mongering. It’s all, ‘We’re here on this journey of life and we all get this opportunity to play this beautiful game together at a high level. Why not leave every stone unturned? Why not dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and go get this thing.’”
“When Doug is trying to change our culture—but the outcomes aren’t there—he still manages to bring us back in. Bring us back in. Bring us back in. Show us. It’s really love. He shows us love. Love may not always be what you think. Love sometimes is telling us the truth. The truth sets us free, whether you like it or not.”
Wingard has even said he’d die for Doug Pederson.
Don’t get it twisted. He doesn’t coddle his players. Pederson was hard on his team after some of those losses, particularly the 13-6 defeat to the lowly Houston Texans.
Now, these Jaguars don’t intend to lose again any time soon. Nor will they tremble in their cleats on Saturday because they’ve already played hard at Arrowhead Stadium this season. The deafening atmosphere won’t paralyze this young team. And through the Jags’ winning streak, Lawrence has arguably been even better than Mahomes. Barring another interception spree, he can keep up in a shootout.
There’s no need to place the mighty Kansas City Chiefs up on a pedestal.
“They’re standing in our way,” Wingard says. “They get up and pray to the same God we do. They put their pants on the same way — one leg at a time. That’s how we’re approaching it. We’re not scared of anything.”
There is no need for anyone in this secondary to fear the worst.
“Does Patrick Mahomes deserve respect? Absolutely,” he continues. “He’s the best player in the league. He’s going to do great things. We believe in ourselves just as much as he believes in himself. We’re going to stick to our gameplan and do what we do. They’re great players, but they’re beatable.”
The New York Giants’ transformation is impressive, but it’s hard to top this turnaround. Calling a quarterback sneak on third and 9 is one thing. Your head coach allegedly kicking one of his own players is quite another. Now, the Jaguars are two wins from the Super Bowl.
Before signing off, Wingard is provided one more opportunity to stroll down memory lane.
Surely, he’d love to share one more bonkers story from the epic Urban Era.
“I would love to,” Wingard says, “but at the same time, I will plead the fifth and say it was always Jags.”
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