After interviewing a number of offensive coordinators over the past couple weeks, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and GM Gene Smith identified new Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey as the right guy to develop QB Blaine Gabbert and jump-start the worst passing offense in the league.
Mularkey, 50, spent the previous four seasons in Atlanta, where he worked closely with Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft. The Falcons twice had a top-10 offensive ranking during Mularkey's stint with the club.
The obvious difference between Mularkey and the other candidates the Jaguars interviewed, including Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and former Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, is that Mularkey has been a head coach before. In 2004-05, Mularkey compiled a 14-18 record with the Bills before resigning following the '05 season. He was the last head coach to earn a winning record in Buffalo (9-7 in 2004).
Mularkey replaces former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who spent nine seasons in Jacksonville. Del Rio was fired after Week 12, with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker replacing him in the interim. Tucker's "D" was strong, finishing sixth overall, but the offense, led by Gabbert, struggled mightily to score points or move the ball effectively through the air. Jacksonville ranked dead last in the league in total yards per game, passing yards per game, average gain per pass play, first downs per game and average gain per offensive play. It tied for 28th in points per game.
The PFW Spin
Smith is no longer just all in on Gabbert. He is also going to sink or swim with Mularkey, with whom he has a close relationship and was the most comfortable hiring. Selling Mularkey, whose last few stints as both a head coach and coordinator ended poorly, to Jaguars fans won't be easy. Not only does he carry the "retread" label, his Falcons offense generated zero points in a wild-card playoff defeat to the Giants last weekend. Moreover, reports indicate the Falcons were getting ready to move on from their former coordinator. That probably makes it safe to assume Jags fans might have been more excited about a guy like Chudzinski, viewed as an up-and-comer who did such a tremendous job turning the Panthers into one of the more explosive offenses in football last season.
Of course, Smith's job isn't to sell Mularkey to Jaguars fans. He isn't interested in winning any popularity contests. If that were the case, Tim Tebow would be a Jaguar.
This decision was all about finding the most comfortable fit, who was affordable, and who Smith thinks can turn the offense around quickly. Smith is entering Year Four of his rebuilding project and time is running out for him to improve upon his 20-28 record as GM before he is out of chances. Rather than worrying about a first-time head coach having to assemble a staff — among so many other tasks a head coach is responsible for learning on the fly the first time around — Smith thought Mularkey would be in the best position because of his two years in Buffalo.
But part of Mularkey's problem in Buffalo was not being able to control his staff, so it might be unreasonable to expect that to change this time around. He is likely to lose Tucker, who was passed over and is scheduled to interview for the Vikings' vacant coordinator job. If Tucker doesn't return, Mularkey will have to hire a competent defensive coordinator who can avoid a drop-off with the unit next season.
The point of drafting Gabbert and hiring Mularkey was to become a more vertical offense. Simply put: that isn't going to happen until the young QB is surrounded with better weapons. Mularkey did a fine job with the Falcons, but the Jaguars don't exactly have Roddy White, Julio Jones or Tony Gonzalez stashed away and ready to be unleashed. It is imperative that the Jaguars add several capable receivers this offseason. Smith might have to maneuver in the draft — the Jaguars hold the No. 7 pick — to match talent with value in order to do so. There also appears to be a wealth of WR talent in this year's free-agent crop. Several of the top guys available come with baggage, though. Would Smith, a guy who values character above everything, roll the dice on a star wideout with some diva qualities? He might have no choice.
At the end of the day, though, turning Gabbert into a confident pocket passer is going to make or break both Smith and Mularkey. It was a rookie season to forget for the No. 10 pick in 2011 draft, but he did, at times, show the big NFL arm and athleticism that teams crave at the position. Now, Mularkey will have to work with Gabbert on feeling pressure and making those throws much more consistently. Otherwise, the Jaguars could be blowing up things completely in a few years.