Tom Coughlin changed Jaguars' approach, won the draft and reached the playoffs

"What the hell would you be doing this for if you're not going to win games?" Tom Coughlin asked during his introductory news conference. "We're trying to win today." Logan Bowles/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody, not even Tom Coughlin himself, had any idea if it was going to work.

He was returning to an NFL team after one year working in the league office, not as a coach but a football executive. After a 46-year career as a coach in college and the NFL, would he be able to avoid meddling? Could he refrain from jumping into drills on the practice field, calling out players for mistakes or teaching technique?

Could he not interfere once it was time for actual football to begin?

As he completes the first year as the Jacksonville Jaguars' executive vice president of football operations, the answer is clear: absolutely.

Coughlin didn't interfere with head coach Doug Marrone or general manager Dave Caldwell. The trio worked remarkably well together, and each deserves a share of the credit for the team's success in 2017. Coughlin's impact may just not be as visible as the others' influence.

It began with a bang, though. Almost 30 minutes into his introductory news conference, he was asked if there would now be more of a focus on winning. The question was rooted in former coach Gus Bradley's belief that focusing on the process of getting players to be their best would lead to victories instead of just emphasizing winning above all else.

Coughlin was incredulous.

"Is that going to be the focus?" he asked that day. "What else is there? What the hell would you be doing this for if you're not going to win games? We're trying to win today. Who's going to get the better lunch?

"Let's not make any misunderstandings about why we're here. This is all nice and dandy, but winning is what this thing is all about."

So, yes, the first -- and most significant -- thing Coughlin did was change the entire approach of the football side of the organization. That cannot be overstated, because it was just what the players wanted, and needed, to hear. Clearly the previous approach didn't work: The Jaguars won just 15 games from 2013 to 2016.

Coughlin's next task was to make the Jaguars tougher. While he stopped short of calling the Jaguars soft over the past several seasons, he did say that toughness was missing from the franchise, whether it was players not fighting through injuries, breaking down mentally at crucial parts of the game or failing to finish games.

The word he used was grit, and it has made it onto walls in the hallways of EverBank Field. He talks about it during games on a prerecorded piece played on the video boards, too.

The Jaguars are tougher and have more grit. They led the NFL in rushing -- you can't be a soft team and do that -- and finished second in the NFL in total defense, scoring defense, takeaways and sacks.

Owner Shad Khan gave Coughlin final say over all football matters, but for the most, part Caldwell handled free agency, which landed, among others, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church. Coughlin was in charge of the draft, and his first class was pretty darn good. Running back Leonard Fournette (fourth overall) became just the second rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards. Second-round pick Cam Robinson started 15 games at left tackle and already is as good as former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel ever was.

The Jaguars also have gotten contributions from third-round pick Dawuane Smoot, fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook, fifth-round pick Blair Brown and sixth-round pick Jalen Myrick.

Coughlin, who is not doing interviews, also has been a vital sounding board and reference for Marrone, who embraced the idea that a former two-time Super Bowl-winning coach would essentially be looking over his shoulder every day. Coughlin is on the practice field and in the meetings, and Marrone is glad.

"I have learned a lot -- in practice, scheduling, dealing with players, dealing with issues," Marrone said. "A to Z really. I wouldn't even have enough time to really talk about it. It didn't just start when he was here. It started back when I was at Syracuse and meeting with him. It has continually grown. It grows every single day.

"There is not a day where I might just say, 'Hey, Coach, can you take a look at this and tell me what you think of it? Or how do you feel about this?' Our communication level -- I talk to him more than I talk to my wife right now during the season. The offseason, I hope that doesn't happen."

Jokes aside, the Coughlin-Marrone-Caldwell relationship has worked better than many believed. Of course, it has helped that the Jaguars have been successful: 10-6 and their first division title since 1999. And they've been successful in large part because of Coughlin's influence.

"All we want to do is win football games," Marrone said. "It doesn't matter who gets the credit or what happens. However it comes about, we just want to win. I think that's the one thing. I know that's how I feel. It helps me that whatever input or whatever discussions we have, there's only one goal in mind: that's to win games. Whereas maybe people thought on the outside it might have been something different than that.

"I think if you would have been something different, I think that does create issues, but that hasn't been an issue at all. Like I said, it's been great."