Now, this was a happy football team.
And Friday morning? Well, around the Jaguars, this was one morning when a hundred or so otherwise serious men didn’t much mind getting fooled.
This was the scene at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Center Practice Fields adjacent to EverBank Field Friday – a gray, overcast morning on the first day of June:
Jaguars players and coaches gathered as normal for what was to be the final day of 10 organized team activities for the 2012 offseason. They gathered a half hour earlier than usual, starting practice at 10:30 a.m. rather than 11.
Other than that, all seemed normal.
They went through warm-ups.
Coaches had scripts and drills prepared.
After they stretched, they gathered at midfield for the start of practice.
As they did, a caravan of buses approached outside the fields, horns blaring. They blared for 10 seconds, then 30 seconds, then more. Over the din, came the words of Head Coach Mike Mularkey, who has earned the respect of the players in a huge way during the first six weeks of his first off-season with the team. Those words, essentially: *No practice today, fellas.*
Workouts? Meetings? A day off?
“They like me today,” Mularkey said with a smile.
Actually, Jaguars players already liked their new head coach. More importantly, they respect him, and have talked throughout the off-season and the OTAs that concluded with Friday’s team-building paint-ball exercise of his ability to communicate and his straightforward, honest style.
It’s not uncommon for a team to talk positively of a new head coach, of course, but there’s a realness in the words of the Jaguars players. They feel good about Mularkey, and the direction of a franchise that has struggled the past few seasons.
Mularkey has sensed that the players have responded.
There’s no arrogance to Mularkey when he talks about it. That’s not his way, but he talked throughout OTAs about how the team has responded to his message. His only real gauge, he has said, is how the team practices, and he said he has liked that from the start. From the beginning of OTAs, he has talked about liking the team’s work ethic, the tempo, the pace, how it has responded to coaching.
There was a lot for the team to get done during OTAs. A new offense to install. A new coaching staff with which to become familiar. A new way of doing things.
It was a big task, especially with a shortened off-season because of new labor rules.
Still, Mularkey said he never doubted it would get done.
“I knew we were going to get what we wanted done just based on the character of guys in the locker room,” he said.
Because mission was accomplished, Mularkey said a reward was in order. It was a reward with a motive, certainly, and he certainly liked the idea of camaraderie that could be built through an afternoon away from football, an afternoon together as a team.
His message to the team Friday reflected that, as his message throughout OTAs and the off-season has reflected that.
“I just told them when they do things the right way good things come to you,” Mularkey said. “So I felt like this was a good time for us to get away from football and go have a little fun together.”
So, Mularkey planned the paintball afternoon, and did so secretly. No players knew. Very few staff members knew. No coaches knew, and he joked afterward that a few coaches might be upset with him, having spent time preparing scripts and drills for a practice that nearly everyone believed was happening until the horns started blaring.
Shortly after that, after Mularkey told them the plan, a cheer let out from the players.
They ran from the field, and though he certainly was popular, Mularkey jokingly wondered just what good that popularity would do later in the afternoon.
“I’ll see how much they like me,” he said, smiling. “We will see how many times I get shot in this paintball thing.”
Mularkey had a bit of a hustler’s smile when he said later he actually was pretty good at paintball, but, of course, this wasn’t about paintball or who’s shooting who. It was about another good day in what has shaped up to be a positive, tone-setting off-season.
Players have talked throughout OTAs about how they have learned more and more about Mularkey as the weeks have gone on, how they have learned his sense of humor, about what’s important to him, about his vision for the team. It’s an ongoing process, a critical process, and one that Mularkey has taken seriously. On Friday, he took it seriously by not taking it seriously.
The result was more than a happy football team.
It was team that when it boarded the caravan of buses Friday morning knew its coach a little better, and one that continues to like what it sees.