Perhaps more than anyone in the Jaguars building, new assistant general manager Ethan Waugh has an intimate view of what a successful rebuild looks like.
He watched it closely with the San Francisco 49ers. Not once, but twice under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, now at Michigan, and during Kyle Shanahan’s current five-year regime.
Whether as a scout or a front-office staff member, Waugh has a clear picture of how an NFL franchise works when it struggles to find a winning path and how it ultimately gets there.
What does this mean for the future of Jaguars? It’s probably hard to quantify, but it certainly can’t hurt to have a personnel manager who has first-hand knowledge of what it takes for a team to make that leap from the bottom to the Super Bowl. .
The previous three columns of Gene:
On the menu:Colin Kaepernick’s Essay, Despised Trevor Lawrence, Justin Thomas, More
Resurfaced :Florida State College of Jacksonville baseball ends two decades of anonymity
Still time:Has Tiger’s time as a major contender expired? Don’t bet against him
The first time was a seven-year climb. It started for Waugh as the 49ers’ personal assistant in 2005, at Midwest Region scout, and eventually as the senior player’s personal assistant under current Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke (2012-14) , including the season when San Francisco fell heartbreakingly to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII.
Coincidentally, this lengthy rebuild began with the 49ers taking a quarterback — Alex Smith — as their No. 1 pick. That move ultimately paid off once Smith overcame a host of injuries, although Colin Kaepernick replaced after suffering a concussion in the second half of that 2012 season, leading San Francisco on their Super Bowl run.
As the 49ers hit rock bottom again at the end of Baalke’s six-year run at GM, Waugh continued to climb the front office ranks to become director of college scouting and then vice president of player personnel before to accept the Jaguars gig last month.
Once Shanahan took over as head coach in 2017, Waugh had an insider’s view of the franchise rising to win another NFC championship, this time with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
“Having been around some really good teams and walked around the building, you know when that feeling is good,” Waugh told The Times-Union. “It is palpable in the building. You can tell when things are going well or not.
“During the first two years with Kyle [Shanahan], wins didn’t come as often, but the feeling in the building and dressing room was very consistent. Things never fell apart like you see in some losing teams. They knew they were going to get there. It was a question of when, not if.
Tackle another rebuild
Waugh, who has frequently shuttled between his home of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and San Francisco in recent years, was not considering an exit from the 49ers after 17 seasons. He didn’t have Jacksonville on his radar before or immediately after the 49ers routed the Jaguars 30-10 on Nov. 21, 2021.
There was only a quick handshake before the game between him and Baalke, although the two had worked together in various capacities with the 49ers for 12 seasons, both as scouts and in the front office.
“I wanted to do my homework [about the Jaguars]”, Waugh said. “I was in no rush to leave San Francisco. [Owner] Jed York, [GM] John Lynch and Shanahan have been great with me. I wasn’t looking to leave.
“I had to weigh where Jacksonville was at the time and where they might be. Also, when you have a family and four boys of different ages [16, 14, 11 and 9]that should be a consideration, too.
Clearly, the 49ers remain significantly ahead of the Jaguars as an NFL playoff contender. Although San Francisco is likely set to move from Garoppolo to second-year quarterback and 2021 third draft pick Trey Lance, the 49ers have established a winning culture under Shanahan.
Plus, going to the NFC Championship Game five times in the last 11 years is hard to dismiss for any employee considering a job change.
But just as coaches want to move up the professional ladder, so do front office people. Waugh was No. 3 in the 49ers’ personnel pecking order, behind Lynch and assistant general manager Adam Peters.
With Baalke offering a chance to be his top lieutenant and Waugh knowing what it was like to have him as his boss, it was hard to pass up one of the most important promotions of his career.
“It’s been a good working relationship and maybe the reason we worked well together is that we see the game in the same way,” Waugh said. “The structure of running a personnel department, the kind of information you’re going to collect, the way you research college and professional players.
“[Baalke] has a very detailed vision and I share it. My role is to help him implement this day after day.
By far, Waugh had cursory knowledge of the Jaguars’ disastrous 2021 season under Urban Meyer, and Baalke became the target of harsh criticism once Meyer was fired in mid-December. That played no part when it came time for the 47-year-old Illinois native to make a decision.
“I’m not aware of what was going on in that building at the time,” Waugh said. “But I think successful NFL franchises, you have to start with creating the right culture, getting the right people on board to compete for championships year after year. I don’t think you can do otherwise. »
“A very good building block”
It’s unlikely that Waugh took the job from the Jaguars to simply go ‘yes’ from Baalke, as that would be counterproductive to building a good culture and a winning organization.
There are bound to be disagreements about free agents, draft picks and things that happen in day-to-day operations. They will just have to find a way to resolve the conflicts.
But anyone who thinks this Baalke-Waugh reunion is some sort of convenient merger for the general manager to increase his front office power, that’s not how his former 49ers co-worker sees it.
Waugh didn’t come to Jacksonville for an in-person interview, but he and Baalke had several phone conversations about how their roles and dynamics worked. A former Division III multi-position player at Lake Forest College and Lawrence University, Waugh also has a positive impression of the relationship between Doug Pederson and Baalke, saying the Jaguars’ first-year head coach is “a force easy-going and stabilizing”. ”
He’s in Jacksonville for the same reason he spent all those years with the 49ers, chasing after a Super Bowl trophy: “Absolutely, to lift the first one for a franchise, that would be very special.”
To that end, the question is whether the Jaguars have the roster and makeup to become a consistent playoff contender like the 49ers. Waugh took the job after the Jaguars spent more than $150 million in guaranteed money to lure seven likely starters and relief thrower Arden Key into free agency, then bolstered his defense with first-round picks Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd.
“From my own observations so far and surveys of players who are here from the past, it’s a team of good players, good guys who are well wired,” Waugh said. “The heart of this list is a very good building block.
“You have a good number of players that you would like to have here for a long time.”
He has no doubt that the most obvious player, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, is in it for the long haul. Waugh watched a lot of tape on No. 16 because the 49ers were watching quarterbacks before last year’s draft, settling on Lance after Lawrence and Zach Wilson of the New York Jets went 1-2.
“I see a really talented player who, for this position, has unique athleticism and size,” Waugh said of Lawrence. “As long and tall as it is, it is a fluid and efficient mover. I think the world of him as a player. There is a high ceiling there.
“Trevor is well wired for this game. He’s someone to lean on.
Waugh was part of two successful rebuilding jobs with the 49ers, including one with Baalke leading personnel decisions.
If this team can make it work again with the Jaguars and lead them to lasting success, then Ethan Waugh may not stay in Jacksonville as long as he did in San Francisco. He could just run his own front office somewhere else.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
Gene Frenette Sports columnist at the Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette