To build virtual chemistry, Jaguars get cooking with weekly themes

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone is, like all NFL head coaches, worried about how the virtual offseason will impact his team when the players are eventually allowed to return for training camp.

How well will the offensive players, without the benefit of full team on-field work, be able to pick up new coordinator Jay Gruden’s system? How well will the defensive players adjust at first to coordinator Todd Wash implementing more 3-4 looks? How much growth will quarterback Gardner Minshew show in his first offseason as the team’s unquestioned starter?

There’s another area that worries Marrone just as much: building team chemistry. Marrone believes the foundation for each season is laid during the voluntary offseason program and organized team activities.

“It’s never been done [like this],” Marrone said. “How do you work on chemistry in a virtual world when you’re not in that locker room?”

Marrone, after doing some research and consulting with the staff, came up with a plan: weekly themes and activities.

Up first was a cooking contest, judged not by taste, but by presentation. Players and coaches had to provide photos of the ingredients they used or pictures of them making the meal. Then they had to show the final dish. Mindy Black, the Jaguars’ director of performance nutrition, was among the judges.

The cooking contest wasn’t exactly greeted warmly at first, however, especially in Marrone’s home.

“At the dinner table the other night, [it] was brought up: ‘How smart are you to have a cooking contest when no one can taste the food?’” Marrone said. “I’m like, ‘I’m just talking about presentation.’ So this is the crap I’ve got to deal with at home.

“Then it’s like, ‘Was that your idea? Because that’s pretty stupid.’”

Actually, it wasn’t all his idea. It was a collaboration between Marrone, Tad Dickman (director of public relations), Marcus Pollard (director of player development and youth football) and Tyler Wolf (director of team administration). But Marrone really liked it, and it turns out a lot of the players and assistant coaches did, too, because there were close to 40 entries.

Marrone, a former offensive lineman, figured the winner would be either an offensive or defensive lineman. Maybe center Brandon Linder, whose Instagram account is full of photos of him hunting and fishing.

“When it comes to food you’re always going to go with the biggest guys, so it’s going to be the O-line and D-line,” Marrone said. “Some of these other guys it’ll be like, kale salad, something like that. But I’m not judging it. I’m not the judge of it. I took myself out of it. For me, it’s going to be easy. You do a brisket or something like that I’m all in. Prime rib maybe.

“But it’ll be interesting because I’m sure Linder might have taken pictures of him catching his food, or shooting his food, whatever it may be, hunting or fishing, and then preparing it.”

Marrone was both wrong and right in his pregame assessment.

A lineman didn’t win. It was second-year receiver C.J. Board. And it wasn’t a salad, either: It was buffalo lemon-pepper chicken, grilled potatoes, roasted garlic broccoli and rice.

As for the coaches, offensive research/assistant receivers coach Eric Price won with a meal more to Marrone’s liking: a ribeye, bacon-wrapped jalapenos and BBQ shrimp.

Recently signed veteran running back Chris Thompson didn’t participate in the cooking contest -- “That is not my thing whatsoever,” he joked -- but he is on board with the virtual team building. It’s especially helpful for him because he’s still living in Virginia and isn’t sure when he’ll be able to meet his teammates in person.

“This time from April to June is very vital for us, especially for new guys,” Thompson said. “This is a super important time right now to be able to get to know those guys. It’s hard. It’s super tough right now because everything we’ve got to do through video calls. For the meetings that we were having with the running backs for an hour-and-a-half, two hours and whatever, it’s not the same when you’re not actually there with those guys. Being on the calls for 30 minutes twice a week with Gardner and all the other skill players, it’s different.

“For a guy like me that’s going into this thing and not knowing absolutely anybody on the team, I feel like I need this time but once we open up, I’m going to just have to make the best of it and try to get a good feel for all the guys.”

The weekly themes will continue for the next four or five weeks, but the Jaguars didn’t want to release a list of upcoming contests because they didn’t want anybody to get a head start. This week’s theme, however, involves the 1990s because a lot of players and coaches watched ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary "The Last Dance."

Teams across the league are trying to foster team chemistry despite not being together, though it appears the Jaguars’ approach is unique. New York Giants coach Joe Judge, for example, has encouraged players to get together to play video games as a way to get to know their teammates. Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy has brought in guest speakers to address the team on Zoom meetings.

“I think the challenge was to make sure that we have some fun with this,” Marrone said. “I mean, it’s not all just X's and O's and all of that. I think, when you challenge the coaches and you challenge the players that way, I think that can open it up. You’re still missing a little bit of the body language, the spark in maybe someone’s eyes, things that I know as a teacher, or any of us that have ever taught, when you’re in front of that classroom you get a feel for that.

“I think it’s a little bit more difficult to do here, but I think we’re all learning. For us, this is all something that’s new. It’s been challenging but it’s also been fun. We’re doing somethings with our players where … my goals is that you want to see [their] personality come out.”