It’s tough to survive a 2-14 record.
Future Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian couldn’t do it in Indianapolis in 2011. It says here his replacement, Colts GM Ryan Grigson, is the NFL’s Executive of the Year for the miraculous job he has done completely reconstructing the Colts and returning them to prominence in only one season.
If Polian couldn’t survive the Colts’ wreckage, exactly no one should be surprised by the reports (as of this writing) that Jaguars GM Gene Smith is out in Jacksonville.
Owner Shahid Khan didn’t just make the correct decision by relieving Smith, he made the only decision.
Granted, it’s a pretty raw deal for first-year head coach Mike Mularkey, who, much like former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, is likely to share Smith’s fate once Khan hires a new GM, who will likely want his own head coach. Mularkey was set up for failure from the moment he assumed responsibility of Smith’s flawed team, but it’s a harsh reality in a harsh business.
Most will look directly at the QB position when writing Smith’s Jaguars obituary, and they will be partially correct in doing so. There is really no way to sugarcoat the unmitigated disaster that marked QB Blaine Gabbert’s first two seasons as a pro. Yet, Smith’s troubles began well before Gabbert’s did.
His preferred method of roster building — finding core pieces through the draft and supplementing those pieces in free agency — sounds good. It’s the same way the NFL’s most successful clubs, such as the Steelers and Packers, go about their business. But problems started to arise when draft misses forced Smith to stray from the original plan.
Other than his first pick as the team’s GM, 2009 first-round OLT Eugene Monroe, how many other cornerstone pieces has Smith stockpiled for a rebuilding organization in his four years at the helm?
Maybe Justin Blackmon and/or Cecil Shorts (hopefully for Jaguars fans).
By contrast, how many key building blocks did Grigson net in his first draft alone? Andrew Luck is obvious, but TE Dwayne Allen and WR T.Y. Hilton are also home runs. What’s more, Grigson unearthed a gem in free agency in ex-CFL star ILB Jerrell Freeman. CBs Cassius Vaughn and Vontae Davis, both acquired in trades, also have been instrumental to the Colts’ success.
Smith’s first big foray into free agency was in the 2010 offseason, after the club had swung and missed on pass rushers in his first two drafts, when he took a “calculated risk” by signing veteran DE Aaron Kampman, coming off season-ending knee surgery. Kampman collected more money in two seasons in Jacksonville (more than $13 million) than starts (eight) and sacks (four) combined.
Unfortunately, it was just one example of more bad things to come for Smith in free agency.
In the 2011 offseason, he signed LB Clint Session away from the division-rival Colts. Session pocketed $11.5 million in his one season in Jacksonville while making just six starts because of concussions.
In the 2012 preseason, Smith gave WR Laurent Robinson $14 million guaranteed to help bolster the league’s worst passing offense one season earlier. Coming off a career-best 11 TD receptions in ’11, Robinson didn’t find the endzone in his four starts before being placed on injured reserve because of concussions.
Smith had rotten luck with some of these signings, to be sure, but he also acted out of desperation because of repeated failures through the draft. To wit: Robinson was claimed off waivers by the Cowboys before the ’11 season. Why didn’t the Jaguars make that claim and get that career-best production for the veteran’s minimum?
By all accounts, Smith is one of the hardest working GMs in the business, and one with great courage in his convictions. Watching him reach for a player like DT Tyson Alualu or repeatedly trade up to nab lesser-known players became a regular occurrence on draft weekend.
However, when the worst season in franchise history comes in Year Four of the rebuilding project, while elsewhere in the division, the Colts are rewriting the rule book on how quickly a team can rebuild, Khan was left no choice but to put Smith out of his misery. Khan also deserves blame for allowing ex-owner Wayne Weaver to talk him into keeping Smith. Jaguars fans must hope their owner makes a more well-informed decision this time.