JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars targeted Mike Mularkey early in their coaching search.
The Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator has a relationship with general manager Gene Smith. He has a son working for the team as a scouting assistant. And maybe most important, he has had recent success mentoring a young quarterback.
The Jaguars hired Mularkey on Tuesday night, making him the franchise’s third head coach in 18 years and tasking him with turning around the league’s worst offense.
“Everybody was ready for it to be done,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “For me, personally as an offensive guy, I feel like it’s a good hire. We’re going to get new schemes, a new offense and a fresh start. We were anxious to know what direction we were going to go in, ready to move on and start our new quest for a championship.”
The team plans to introduce Mularkey at a news conference Wednesday.
“Mike recognizes the challenge and opportunity before all of us, and that’s to make the Jacksonville Jaguars one of the premier franchises in the National Football League, bar none,” new owner Shahid Khan said in a statement. “In simple terms, Mike is aiming high.”
It’s unclear whether Mularkey will call plays in Jacksonville. He had mixed results as a play caller in his previous head-coaching stint in Buffalo. The Bills were seventh in the league in total offense in 2004, but faded to 24th the following year. Mularkey went 14-18 before being fired following the 2005 season.
He resume also includes stops in Tampa Bay (1994-95), Pittsburgh (1996-2003), Miami (2006-07) and Atlanta (2008-11). He served as offensive coordinator for the Steelers (2001-03), the Dolphins (2006) and the last four years with the Falcons.
Atlanta went 43-21 with Mularkey calling plays, and he helped develop Matt Ryan into one of the league’s top young talents. The Jaguars hope he can do the same with Blaine Gabbert, who struggled in his rookie season.
Gabbert completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 2,214 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was sacked 40 times and lost five of his 12 fumbles. His most troubling trait was pocket presence. The 10th overall pick often seemed scared under the slightest pressure and struggled all season with his accuracy, especially on short throws.
Gabbert’s problems prompted many to call Jacksonville the least-desirable destination of the open NFL jobs.
“Where we were last year, we can only go up,” Lewis said.
Even though the Jaguars had the worst offense in the league, Smith and Khan believe they are close to piecing together a playoff-caliber roster that features running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Lewis and a defense that ranked sixth in the NFL despite several key injuries down the stretch.
Mularkey will be tasked with getting it done.
His first job will be locking down a defensive coordinator. The Jaguars would like to bring back Mel Tucker, who interviewed for the defensive coordinator position in Minnesota, and maybe several of his assistants.
Tucker was the interim coach for the final five games of this season, but it became evident early in the coaching search that the Jaguars wanted an offensive-minded leader to change the direction of a franchise that has missed the playoffs 10 times in the last 12 years.
“This is a passing league. This is a quarterback league,” Khan said last month. “If you are not doing those, you’re not going to be successful. I care about playing winning football. What is winning football today? It’s a quarterback, it’s a passing game.”
The Jaguars went 5-11 this season, one of the most tumultuous years in franchise history.
Jacksonville released starting quarterback David Garrard five days before the opener, switched QBs again two weeks later and matched the worst start in franchise history (1-5). Then-owner Wayne Weaver fired coach Jack Del Rio on the same late November day that he announced he was selling the team to Khan for $770 million.
The Jaguars went 2-3 under Tucker, not enough for him to get the full-time job.
Nonetheless, Tucker was among the candidates interviewed. Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer also were considered. Denver’s Mike McCoy also was expected to be interviewed, but Mularkey took the job Tuesday.
Mularkey has some building blocks in place.
Jones-Drew bounced back from a knee injury in 2010 to break the franchise’s single-season rushing record with 1,606 yards, which also led the league. Only three others since 1978 — New Orleans’ George Rogers in 1981, Los Angeles’ Eric Dickerson in 1986 and Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis in 2003 — won the rushing title on a team ranked last in passing.
Jones-Drew finished with 1,980 yards from scrimmage, second in the league behind Baltimore’s Ray Rice, and accounted for 47.7 percent of Jacksonville’s offense.
But in a passing league, the Jaguars realize they need to have Gabbert better prepared to handle the most important position in football. They’ll also have to get Lewis back to Pro Bowl form.
A first-round pick in 2006, Lewis had 58 catches for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 and was rewarded with a five-year, $35 million contract that included $17 million guaranteed. But he had 39 receptions for a team-high 460 yards this season, including just two catches in the red zone and no scores.