Coughlin established a leadership council of top players, including Jacobs. Soon after, Couglin began giving out warnings before fines. “He listened and then listened some more,” Jacobs said. “Players in turn started doing things like wearing the proper socks. I mean, it was just a pair of damn socks, right?”
Several players also began spending time with Coughlin off the field at events for his charity, the Jay Fund, which assist families of children who have cancer by providing financial, emotional and practical support throughout treatment and recovery. The fund is named after a player Coughlin coached at Boston College, Jay McGillis, who died of leukemia.
“I went on hospital visits and you saw another side of him,” Herzlich said. After one such visit in 2013, Coughlin, in a parking lot interview outside the medical complex, lamented his image as a tenacious taskmaster.
“I know what really matters in life, and it certainly isn’t a bunch of third-down plays I’ve drawn up,” he said in a soft voice. “But I am a football coach, and that means helping young men get the most out of their football careers and their lives. I will always take that very seriously.”
In Jacksonville the last few years, Coughlin was on the field at practices but, as an executive rather than a coach, he was on the outside looking in. Maybe that distance caused the disconnect Coughlin appears to have exhibited toward so many of his recent players.
Coughlin’s exit feels like a turning-of-the-page moment in pro football. As other sports have learned — at a far quicker pace — it is no longer a domain ruled by all-powerful, authoritarian coaches, or executives.
Kevin Draper contributed reporting for this article.