Perhaps more than anybody in the Jaguars’ building, newly-hired assistant general manager Ethan Waugh has an intimate perspective on what a successful rebuild looks like.
I’ve watched it up close with the San Francisco 49ers. Not once, but twice under former head coach Jim Harbaugh, now at Michigan, and during the current five-year regime of Kyle Shanahan.
Whether as a scout or in front-office personnel, Waugh has a clear picture of how an NFL franchise operates when it’s struggling to find a winning path and how it finally gets there.
What does that mean for the Jaguars’ future? It’s probably hard to quantify, but it surely can’t hurt having a personnel executive who has first-hand knowledge of what it takes for a team to make that leap from rock bottom to the Super Bowl.
Gene’s previous three columns:
On the menu:Colin Kaepernick’s tryout, Trevor Lawrence slighted, Justin Thomas, more
Resurfaced:Florida State College of Jacksonville baseball sheds two decades of anonymity
still-time:Has Tiger’s time as a major contender expired? Don’t bet against him
The first time, it was a seven-year climb. It began for Waugh as a 49ers’ personnel assistant in 2005, to Midwest area scout, and eventually serving as senior player personnel assistant under present Jaguars GM Trent Baalke (2012-14), including the season where San Francisco fell in heartbreaking fashion to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII.
Coincidentally, that lengthy rebuild began with the 49ers taking a quarterback — Alex Smith — as their No. 1 pick. That move eventually paid off once Smith overcame a slew of injuries, albeit Colin Kaepernick replaced him after he suffered a concussion during the second half of that ’12 season, taking San Francisco on its Super Bowl run.
As the 49ers bottomed out again at the end of Baalke’s six-year GM run, Waugh kept moving up the front office ranks to college scouting director and then VP of player personnel before accepting the Jaguars’ gig last month.
Once Shanahan took over as head coach in 2017, Waugh got an insider view of the franchise rising up again to win another NFC Championship, this time with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
“Having been around some really good teams and walking around the building, you know when that feeling is right,” Waugh told the Times-Union. “It’s palpable in the building. You can tell when things are going right or not.
“During the first couple years with Kyle [Shanahan], the wins weren’t coming as often, but the feeling in the building and the locker 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 matter of when, not if.”
Tackling another rebuild
Waugh, who commuted frequently from his home in Spartanburg, SC, to San Francisco the past few years, wasn’t eyeing a 49ers exit after 17 seasons. He didn’t have Jacksonville on his radar before or immediately after the 49ers routed the Jaguars 30-10 back on Nov. 21, 2021.
There was only a quick pregame handshake between him and Baalke, though the two 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 hurry to leave San Francisco. [Owner] Jed York, [GM] John Lynch and Shanahan have been great to me. I wasn’t looking to leave.
“I had to weigh where Jacksonville was at the time and where they could be. Plus, when you have a family and four boys of varying ages [16, 14, 11 and 9]that to be considered, too.”
Clearly, the 49ers remain significantly ahead of the Jaguars as an NFL postseason contender. Despite San Francisco likely being close to moving on from Garoppolo to second-year quarterback and 2021 No. 3 overall 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 tough to dismiss for any employee contemplating 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 GM Adam Peters.
With Baalke offering a chance to be his top lieutenant, and Waugh knowing what it was like to have him as a boss, it was tough to pass up one of the most significant promotions of his career.
“It’s been a good working relationship and maybe the reason we worked well together is we see the game the same way,” said Waugh. “The structure of how to run a personnel department, what kind of information you’re going to gather, how you scout college and pro players.
“[Baalke] has a very detailed vision and I share that. My role is to help him get that implemented day in and day out.”
From afar, Waugh had cursory knowledge of the Jaguars’ disastrous 2021 season under Urban Meyer, plus Baalke becoming a target of vociferous criticism once Meyer was fired in mid-December. It played no factor when it was time for the 47-year-old Illinois native to make a decision.
“I’m not privy to what was going on in this building at that time,” Waugh said. “But I think the successful NFL franchises, you have to start with building the right culture, getting the right people in to compete for championships year in and year out. I don’t think you can do it any other way.”
“A really good building block”
It’s doubtful Waugh took the Jaguars’ job to simply become a Baalke “yes man” because that would be counterproductive to building a good culture and a winning organization.
There are bound to be disagreements on free agents, draft picks and things that come up in day-to-day operations. They’ll just have to figure out a way to resolve any conflicts.
But anyone thinking this Baalke-Waugh reunion is some sort of convenient merger for the GM to augment his front office power, that’s not how his former 49ers working colleague views it.
Waugh didn’t come to Jacksonville for an in-person interview, but he and Baalke had multiple phone conversations about how their roles and dynamics would work. A former Division III multi-position player at Lake Forest College and Lawrence University, Waugh also gets a positive vibe about the relationship between Doug Pederson and Baalke, saying the Jaguars’ first-year head coach is “an easy-going, stabilizing force. ”
He’s in Jacksonville for the same reason he spent all those years with the 49ers, chasing a Super Bowl trophy: “Absolutely, to raise the first one for a franchise, that would be extra special.”
Toward that end, the question becomes whether the Jaguars have the roster and makeup to become a consistent postseason contender like the 49ers. Waugh took the job after the Jaguars spent over $150 million in guaranteed money to lure seven likely starters and backup pass-rusher Arden Key in free agency, then beefed up its defense with first-round draft picks Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd.
“From my own observations so far, and investigations of the players that are here from the past, this is a team of good players, of good guys that are wired right,” Waugh said. “The core of this roster is a really good building block.
“You got a good number of players that you’d like to have here for a long time.”
He has no doubt about the most obvious player, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, being here for the long haul. Waugh watched a lot of tape on No. 16 because the 49ers were looking at quarterbacks prior to last year’s draft, settling on Lance after Lawrence and the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson went 1-2.
“I see a really talented player that, for that position, has unique athleticism and size,” Waugh said of Lawrence. “For as long and tall as he is, he’s a smooth and efficient move. I think the world of him as a player. There’s a high ceiling there.
“Trevor is wired right for this game. He’s one to build on.”
Waugh was part of two successful reconstruction jobs with the 49ers, including one with Baalke driving the personnel decisions.
If this tag team can make it work again with the Jaguars and lead them to sustained success, then Ethan Waugh may not have as long a stay in Jacksonville as he did in San Francisco. He just might be running his own front office somewhere else.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette