JACKSONVILLE – The Jaguars’ course is set, the path laid out before them.
That was the theme of a memorable, ceremonial afternoon at EverBank Field Thursday – that a year and five days into Shad Khan’s tenure as owner, the foundation is laid; the direction, clear.
David Caldwell now is the base of the foundation, the decision-maker, the direction-setter.
That was clear when he was hired as general manager Tuesday, and if it wasn’t, it certainly was clear Thursday morning, when the team announced that Caldwell had met with and dismissed Mike Mularkey, ending the latter’s tenure as head coach after one season.
Two and 14?
The worst season in franchise history?
That’s over. Khan is moving forward; Caldwell is looking ahead, not back. The Jaguars are now about 2013 and beyond.
The future was in the building Thursday, and Caldwell embodies it.
“I thought we were going to be better (in his first season as owner),” Khan said after a 4 p.m. press conference that introduced Caldwell – the former director of player personnel for the Atlanta Falcons – as the team’s general manager.
“The rest is history. I think it’s time for me to set a different course.”
Caldwell, a 38-year-old, 17-year NFL veteran with Carolina, Indianapolis and Atlanta, said while meeting the last week and a half with Khan – who made his billions manufacturing auto parts – he learned something as significant as it is symbolic.
“Of the thousands of parts he makes, he doesn’t make rearview mirrors,” Caldwell said. “We’re not looking to the past. We’re looking forward.”
That was why a day that ended on the lower West Club level at EverBank Field began with the dismissal of Mularkey, who was hired as head coach less than a year ago.
Caldwell called his 10 a.m. conversation with Mularkey “difficult.”
“I have a personal relationship over the last five years with Mike,” said Caldwell, who worked with Mularkey four years in Atlanta – 2008 through 2012 – when the latter was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator.
Caldwell said when looking for a head coach, he’s looking for not only a culture change on the football side of the Jaguars, but an “atmospheric” change.
“I felt like we needed a fresh start here,” he said.
“If you look at the team over the last several years, the team has really gotten worse,” Khan said. “A year ago, when I came here, the organizational judgment of itself was we were a pretty good team, just a few players and a draft away from really competing for a playoff spot. As the year progressed, it was pretty obvious that was not the case and we would need really a fresh start and a rebuild from the ground up.”
The next step, and Caldwell’s first priority, is a new head coach. He said there are names, that the “wheels” are turning, but he declined to offer specifics. The new head coach will decide the fate of the assistants, who are allowed to seek other opportunities, but must clear the process through Caldwell.
So, as of Thursday afternoon, the head coach remained a topic for a later day, and that was OK, because the other story – just who is now running the Jaguars and how he got here – was just as important, perhaps more so.
We learned about him in snippets in recent weeks, how he was the first candidate interviewed by Khan the day after the 2012 regular season ended, how he emerged as the favorite, how he was hired Tuesday after also considering the Jets.
Caldwell called the week and a half “surreal and overwhelming.”
The ride began on New Year’s Eve, hours after Khan dismissed former General Manager Gene Smith. Caldwell was at the Falcons’ facility that day when General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, who had brought him to Atlanta from the Colts five years earlier, entered the room.
“Are you ready to interview?” Dimitroff asked him. “You have an opportunity to interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Caldwell at the time was working on evaluations for Falcons Owner Arthur Blank.
“Yeah, I’ll be ready – just let me know when,” Caldwell replied.
Answered Dimitroff, “Shad will be here at four.”
Khan said he knew immediately in that meeting he wanted to hire Caldwell, and Caldwell said he had a good feeling about the Jaguars. But Caldwell also told Khan he wanted his next job to be his last job, and Khan said if that was the case he needed to be sure. Caldwell had a chance to interview with the New York Jets, and Caldwell said Khan encouraged – even mandated – that he interview there.
“Shad made me go to New York to visit the Jets,” Caldwell said. “He wanted to make sure for me and my family, and to be quite honest with you, that had a major role in me selecting the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Caldwell added, “This is where I want to be.”
The early reports on Caldwell are that he is right for the job. He has the pedigree, having worked for the Colts and Falcons during each team’s extended run of success. He has the support of Bill Polian and Dimitroff, two of the most respected football minds. He is respected in the football community, he was coveted by far more than just one team, and on Thursday – his first day in the building – he moved quickly, decisively, meeting with those who needed to be met with, establishing a tone within the building.
The dismissal of Mularkey; his quick, matter-of-fact, mid-press conference dismissal of Tim Tebow as a possibility for the Jaguars . . .
All spoke to a person willing to lead, willing to make decisive decisions.
“The guy’s a stud,” one person who met with Caldwell said Thursday.
How the day eventually is seen, of course, we are years from knowing. There was a giddiness about the Mularkey hiring a year ago, and the confidence and optimism that was talked about all off-season that was real. That giddiness, in the end, meant nothing once the games began, and that was why we were watching a press conference at 4 p.m. and talking about a seismic organizational change. Caldwell and Khan know well Thursday’s giddiness means nothing if not followed by weeks, months, years of correct decisions, desired outcomes, and even good fortune and fate.
Only time will tell if what began Thursday ends in glory or heartbreak. What we do know today is a year into Khan’s tenure, the course is now set, and there is a new, decisive leader who will determine the direction.
That leader is David Caldwell.
And where his path leads the Jaguars, we’ll all wait to find out.