Jacksonville, Fla. — Jacksonville’s locker room was abuzz late last season. Four guys played table tennis while others crowded around a small table for dominoes. Two 80-inch televisions were tuned to a sports highlight show, and music blared from one corner of the room.
Doug Marrone, the team’s offensive line coach at the time, walked through and shook his head.
“Can you believe this?” Marrone whispered.
The Jaguars were in the middle of a nine-game losing streak that would ultimately cost coach Gus Bradley his job. Marrone had watched from afar for two years, witnessing an atmosphere he felt was too loose, too laid-back and too lenient amid losing.
So when Marrone was hired to replace Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3).
The ping pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed. The locker room stalls were overhauled, too, with Marrone mixing and matching position groups and putting certain players next to veteran leaders and/or NFL role models.
“We definitely threw a tantrum,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “Went in there and talked to him about it. Definitely wasn’t happy. I learned just to be quiet, you know, and go with the flow. He’s been at it longer than I have, and I’m just the football player. He says do this and I go do it. Just learn to follow him, and I’m glad I did.”
Marrone saved the most significant changes for the practice fields.
Marrone, top executive Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell wanted a much tougher and more physical team. They drafted bruising running back Leonard Fournette and fiery left tackle Cam Robinson to complement a defense that was significantly beefed up in free agency with the addition of All-Pro pass-rusher Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and veteran safety Barry Church.
They also designed an offseason program that was more grueling than most players had experienced. Marrone’s message was clear: Go hard or go home.
“You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty funny just to see us now. I guess he does know what he’s doing.”
The Jaguars were in full pads nearly every day during training camp, a tortuous stretch in draining heat and humidity that left rookies and veterans questioning the process and wondering if it would pay off. It was the NFL’s version of boot camp. Break them down, then build them up.
It ultimately brought players closer, making them accountable to each other and causing them to care more for each other. Winning was the final piece, and thumping Houston 29-7 in the season opener was all the proof players needed.
Tomlin cagey on Haley
Todd Haley’s contract as the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers is up, and coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t sound as if he’s in a rush to decide whether Haley will be back next season.
Tomlin sidestepped several attempts to endorse Haley’s return on Tuesday as the AFC North champions continued to dissect what went wrong in an upset home playoff loss to Jacksonville . Asked if he anticipated any changes to his staff, Tomlin demurred.
“I don’t know where these roads are going to lead,” Tomlin said. “Some contracts are up. Some aren’t. I’m not ready to discuss that.”
Fournette escaped injury after what authorities say was a minor, three-car crash. The Jaguars said its star running back’s car was rear-ended about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, and that he was not hurt.
... The Blake Bortles Foundation says more than 100 Bengals fans have combined to contribute nearly $5,000 since Jacksonville beat Cincinnati’s biggest rival, the Steelers, 45-42 last Sunday.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Jaguars at Patriots
Kickoff: 3:05 p.m. Sunday, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Line: Patriots by 9