Mel Tucker beat Romeo Crennel and Todd Bowles to the party, but they're mired in the uncomfortable-yet-desirable limbo of being interim head coaches. Odds are long that any of them will get the full-time jobs in Jacksonville, Kansas City and Miami, respectively -- Crennel is a likely fall-back option -- but they're getting a few weeks to experience their ambition of running a team instead of one side of the ball.
It's more of a tease, especially since none of them were really candidates-in-waiting like Leslie Frazier in Minnesota and Jason Garrett in Dallas. The timing of their temporary promotions also comes when labor and economic stability has returned after the lockout and teams will be willing to spend for big-name coaches, unlike last offseason.
Of the three, Tucker is the least known publicly although he's gained some underground traction as someone who should at least get head coaching interviews after turning the Jaguars' abysmal defense into one of the NFL's better units this season. He had the total autonomy over the defense this season that former head coach Jack Del Rio used to have. Nearly every week, the defense gave the Jaguars some legs to stand on despite an offense that was one of the most anemic in the NFL.
He got his first victory in two games last Sunday when Jacksonville obliterated reeling Tampa Bay. Jacksonville travels to Atlanta on Thursday to try to play spoiler against the Falcons, who are fighting to get into the playoffs. Tucker's not projecting false hope about his situation or the Jags' realistic expectations, but he is hoping to leave a mark.
"This has reinforced to me how important leadership is, how important it is to have a plan, and how important it is to empower people to do their jobs," said Tucker, who served as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in 2008 before being hired to the same position with the Jags in 2009. "You have to provide the vision and leadership, and you've got to set the example."
To that point, one of the first things he did when he was anointed to step in for Del Rio was meet with inconsistent rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
"I let him know he was our quarterback and there is no need to look over his shoulder," said Tucker, who's witnessed interim coaches switch quarterbacks -- Crennel is expected to in Kansas City -- but didn't want Gabbert to feel uneasy. "He's going to be in there. Period. I told him I have confidence in him as a player, and I thought he was the right guy for the job and we could win with him.
"The next thing I laid out with Blaine was that he has to aspire to be our team's No. 1 competitor. The teams that we play with elite quarterbacks, you look at those teams' quarterbacks. They're the No. 1 competitor on the football team -- and it's obvious. It's hard to do with guys like Maurice Jones-Drew, Daryl Smith and Paul Posluszny. That's what you have to be as a quarterback. That's what's required.
"That being said we have to get better around him and he doesn't have to take this on alone."
That is the bigger issue. What happens with the Jaguars in terms of wins and losses over the final three games is irrelevant for the most part. They could click off a four-game winning streak and Tucker and the staff could still get replaced.
Change is certain with Shahid Khan being approved to take over ownership of the team from Wayne Weaver on Wednesday. A new coach is very possible, unless Kahn sees something in Tucker, who said he's yet to meet Khan but expects to no later than this weekend.
Tucker is a realist. In fact, his goal is to leave the Jaguars in better shape than they were in this season, whether or not he's the one who gets a chance to take over.
"You learn over the years you can only control what you can," Tucker said. "This is easy because my defined role is to coach this football team. What happens next are hypotheticals that are outside of my defined role. I told these guys the first time we met that we have to establish a culture. That starts with doing what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it the way you're supposed to do it.
"I'm the one who has to set that example."