|Former owner Wayne Weaver left Shahid Khan (right) with plenty of issues in Jacksonville. (Getty Images)|
Shahid Khan made a dream come true by purchasing the Jacksonville Jaguars a few months back, fulfilling one of his loftiest professional desires and winning over an uneasy fan base with his vows to keep the team in Florida. But that honeymoon stage may be ending.
The Jaguars face a tumultuous period leading up to the start of Khan's first training camp. The harsh realities of business in the NFL have already manifested themselves, and though it has received little attention nationally -- as often is the case for this small-market franchise, good or bad -- the Jags may be dealing with more offseason challenges than any other team. Indeed, the next month or so could well serve as a referendum on Khan's brief tenure as an NFL owner, with these critical decisions resonating loud and long for his locker room and fan base.
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Khan is entirely likeable, a down-to-earth, hard-core football fan who embodies everything good about the American spirit. His rise -- literally from pennies to the empire he's built -- is a true American Dream story, and a reminder of what's great about this country. His work ethic, business acumen and engaging personality make him a coup for this league, and I have no doubt he will thrive over time. But the transition is difficult for any novice owner -- their historic early struggles are well documented -- and few have had as much as Khan to navigate.
Above all else, he must navigate a tricky situation with star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the face of the franchise, the one name on his roster who is known far and wide and is marketable and beloved in Jacksonville and beyond. Khan must find a solution to an impasse with talented kicker Josh Scobee as well.
All this must be done within an organizational framework that has undergone considerable change while also seeking new ways to connect with fans who seem to be increasingly concerned with the future of the franchise.
The standoff with Jones-Drew over a contract (two years left on a five-year deal worth $31 million) that does not quite reflect MJD's worth in the post-Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson-payday NFL could undermine an owner who is new to town. Make no mistake, the running back is the Jags' offense. He is wildly popular for his actions on and off the field and is coming off a season in which he led the NFL in rushing.
What portion of the scoring MJD does not account for falls to Scobee, who has not signed his franchise tag and is dismayed and disgruntled by the lack of progress on a long-term deal, according to sources. Scobee may be the best kicker in the league who also handles kickoffs, and he accounted for roughly 40 percent of Jacksonville's scoring output last season. He is a vitally important part of the organization, especially given the overall offensive decline and the well-documented struggles of quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Khan, who is focused on team matters and on a media hiatus (thus declining comment for this column), has a new coaching staff that was just put together, and we all know it often takes time to get everything in sync. And he inherits Gabbert, a first-round pick from 2011 already under fire. This year's first round pick, receiver Justin Blackmon, who the team traded up two spots to draft fifth overall, is facing trial on DUI charges after having already been arrested for the offense while in college. And Khan, a fan of Laurent Robinson dating to the receiver's college days, raised some eyebrows around the league with his hefty free-agent deal (drafting a punter in the third-round surprised many as well).
There was some dysfunction in the front office, too. Paul Vance, the team's longtime general counsel and senior vice president, was let go following a typo screw-up on coaching contracts in January; whether directly related to that snafu or not, it was certainly unusual. The fans, many critical of this franchise over the years for not spending as much as many other clubs, are watching closely.
This would be trying for someone with years of NFL experience ... much less weeks.
And many of these macro decisions will be defined by Khan. Much like the failed pursuit of hometown hero Tim Tebow via trade, when you're talking about playing a game of financial chicken with your best player (Jones-Drew) and one of league's best specialists (Scobee) these are ownership matters. Khan will set the direction through his budgeting and with how flexible he is in dealing with such fiscal matters, and the football decision-makers -- as with the Tebow chase -- must try to execute based on ownership's plan and budget.
General manager Gene Smith is an old-school football man, dedicated, a scout at heart, adept at finding small-school impact players with a strong background in player development. But the Tebow situation was foisted upon him, and much of this is well beyond his scope. Still, Smith was the one charged with delivering the public message to Jones-Drew -- whose deal from 2009 paid him $17 million to sign (under former owner Wayne Weaver) but with base salaries under $5 million each of the next two years -- that the ebullient and gregarious running back would not get a penny more. The Jags, you see, weren't going to adjust his deal this soon after signing it.
But MJD isn't your normal player. He is the franchise and unlike, say, Mike Wallace in his holdout with the Steelers, Jones-Drew has plenty of leverage. The new coach, and front office changes and concerns at quarterback and the nascent status of Khan's ownership and the problems drawing fans in recent years all work in the player's favor.
This scenario screams for a band-aid, and only Khan can provide it. The Jags need to beef up some incentives, dangle a financial carrot in front of MJD, throw him a $1.5 million bone. Make him earn it through escalators, but if MJD is the kind of back in 2012 as he was in 2011, and he has been throughout his career, give him the chance to earn a little more.
The extra million or so will be worth it in terms of goodwill with players and fans alike, in terms of setting a tone for organization. Make the investment in your best talent. Khan is assuming the contract already below market value, so don't worry about the next player asking for the same treatment; in this case you are reserving the revised deal for your best possible player. He's the exception, not the rule.
Likewise, what do you think Scobee, who like Jones-Drew has been a loyal and solid employee, would think if Blackmon, a problem child only weeks into his career, gets big bucks while he waits? And history would show franchising a kicker, a position as mental as it is physical, can be for the worse: a little security goes a long way. You need look only to Shayne Graham for a recent example of how a kicker playing out the franchise tag resulted in problems for both player and team.
Scobee has done enough to merit a long-term deal, or at the very least some meaningful dialogue to that end. He's not trying to beat Sebastian Janikowski's deal or be the game's highest-paid kicker. This is another area where a little owner intervention could go a long way. The relative rewards for locking up an elite kicker in relation to the expense are more than sufficient.
If I'm spending money on this roster, I start with MJD and Scobee. I address these concerns head-on and get in front of them before falling any more behind. I don't let the under-the-radar crisis continue. I don't risk this dragging into camp.
This is a difficult time, but also a unique opportunity. I don't want two of my most important players carrying grudges. I don't want my fans wondering and worrying about a commitment to spend anymore, and I don't want these scenarios overshadowing the heavy funds I'm redirecting into the out-of-date stadium I inherited and the game-day experience I'm trying to improve. I don't want my football people unsure of where we're heading, or taking the public hits.
Khan is so charismatic and so real and his story of personal success and triumph is a beacon for us all. His heart is so squarely in the right place. I believe he will become a local treasure for the Jacksonville area. He's already pumped $750 million into the right to run this franchise, and a few more million, directed to the right individuals, would mean so much more.
Now is the time to chart a new path for the Jags and send a new signal to the agent and player community. In these dormant weeks of late June and early July, all the better for Khan to chart the course for this franchise and squash these differences and put his stamp on this franchise. It won't be cheap -- though it won't break the bank either -- and it just might be some of the best money he's ever spent.