Yesterday, our own Evan Winter laid out his concerns regarding the signing of Leonard Fournette and the potential character concerns that come with him. As I promised on Twitter, I am here to respond with the opposite take.
Look, every free agent signing comes with some level of risk. I mean, come on - the Bucs have pinned your hopes and dreams on the arm of a 43-year old quarterback. It doesn’t matter that he’s the greatest to ever do it, that’s a big risk. But that isn’t the kind of risk Evan was concerned about. His was character issues - suspension, arrest, alleged locker room animosity. These are things that can torpedo a team for sure.
That said, I don’t believe that’s a side of Leonard Fournette we are going to see. Not only that, I believe some of these concerns aren’t really as big of a deal as some believe. Let’s start with the suspension;
Fournette was suspended in 2018 for “violations of unsportsmanlike conduce and unnecessary roughness rules” in a game against the Buffalo Bills. That violation was Fournette getting into a fight with Bills’ linebacker Shaq Lawson during a skirmish with the two teams following a reception by Donte Moncrief. Fournette told reporters after the game;
“Your brothers are getting attacked, they’re fighting out there, you’re going to have to go there and also protect your own, but at the same time, professional now, I mean, you can’t have that. I apologize to all those kids out there who look up to me and all of our fans. The biggest thing is this whole loss, totally on me. I take full responsibility.”
You know who else got suspended for getting in a fight sticking up for his teammate? Mike Evans when he laid out Marshon Lattimore.
Fournette was also arrested in 2019 for driving with a suspended license. Not a smart idea by any means. I don’t have any reasoning or justification behind that one. It was stupid and he flat out shouldn’t have done it.
But let’s move on to Tom Coughlin. The disciplinarian and old school guy Evan brought up that was with the Jags during Fournette’s tenure. Yeah - Coughlin had a rough go.
Coughlin was fired in 2019 and he was far from well liked - or respected - within that organization. Prior to his firing, the NFLPA sent out a letter citing Coughlin’s ineptitude in dealing with the players under his watch;
“It should be noted that Jaguars players continue to be at odds with Jaguars management over their rights under the CBA far more than players on other clubs. In the last two years, more than 25% of the grievances filed by players in the entire league have been filed against the Jaguars. You as players may want to consider this when you have a chance to select your next club.”
One of the biggest grievances against Coughlin was from pass rusher Dante Fowler who was fined over $700k by the organization for skipping mandatory treatments that actually aren’t allowed to be mandatory according to the NFLPA.
With run-ins between Coughlin and Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, it’s no surprise he had a run in with Fournette. Fournette actually won a grievance to recoup the $99k he was fined by Coughlin for sitting on the bench while inactive.
Quite simply, Coughlin is the biggest reason the players on the Jaguars were disgruntled, angry, and trying desperately to get out of town. This is just a snapshot of the dysfunction that ran rampant through Jacksonville's organization that would leave anyone frustrated with the direction the franchise was headed.
Let’s keep things rolling along, shall we? I reached out to some Jaguars media members to see what they thought of Fournette’s “character concerns” and whether or not it was something Bucs fans should keep an eye on. Tony Wiggins of Locked On Jaguars told me, “He cleaned up the immaturity issues like being tardy. The last two years have been model. Always good in community on terms of charity. If anything he’s really playful and funny. Think John Riggins in terms of playful personality.”
I followed that up by reaching out to John Reid - Jaguars beat reporter for the Florida Times Union. John told me, “He had maturity issues during his second season in 2018 along with having injury problems. , He showed up late a few times for meetings. He admitted that along with getting into better shape, he needed to mature. But since last year, I saw strides of improvement, taking a more serious, professional approach. Coming to camp in shape, no off the field issues. Basically everything was similar to last season for this camp, showing maturity and reporting in shape and RBs coach Terry Robiskie said this week Fournette was attentive and wasn’t late to any of his meetings.”
From what I gathered there, yes - there were some maturity and personality traits that were less than favorable, but Fournette has since turned it around - including this year where the Jags tried to unload him during the draft - but he showed up in shape and on time to do his job.
That tells me this is a guy that has grown and learned from a string of issues in his past that he’s put behind him to look to the future.
Finally, let’s discuss the leadership inside the Advent Health Training Center. There is a head coach with absolutely zero issues taking on a “troubled” player and helping them become a better man. I’ve brought this up before, and I’ll probably bring it up again, but we’re talking about the guy that took “a risk” by drafting Tyrann Mathieu. In his autobiography, Bruce Arians said;
“When I met Ty before the draft, I could tell he was a good kid. It absolutely crushed him to lose the thing he loved most in life - football. He politely asked me for an opportunity and if I gave him one he said he wouldn’t disappoint me.
There are too many times in the NFL where coaches and general managers are too worried about public opinion. We forget about the person and what the person is going through. The NFL is too quick to cast some players out of the league because they have a bad image. We’re ruining lives. Instead, we need to try and fix the players. Is the problem drugs? Alcohol? Let’s fix it. Let’s try to address the problem rather than kick players to the curb because they have a tainted reputation. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with the NFL.”
Let’s take it one step further, shall we? Because the leadership in the building extends beyond BA. It now has Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in the spotlight. Two guys that aren’t just used to guys with “character concerns” joining their locker room, but winning championships with them.
Do we need to delve into how Randy Moss was a lost cause until he was traded to New England for pennies? No, let’s hit closer to home.
As a rookie with the Buccaneers, Talib got into a fight with teammate Cory Boyd, missed a flight to a mandatory rookie event in Canton, missed team meetings during OTA’s and training camp. All that in just his rookie year.
Then we get into him being suspended for week one of the 2010 season for his fight with a cab driver where Talib was arrested for battery and charged for resisting arrest. In 2011, Talib had a felony warrant issued in Texas for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon where he was accused of shooting a gun at his sister’s boyfriend.
I’d say that’s a pretty serious history or pattern of bad decisions, wouldn’t you? Far worse than defending a teammate in a fight, driving with a suspended license, or cursing out a fan. Regardless, Talib was traded to the Patriots in 2012 following a four game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy having tested positive for Adderall. In 2013, Talib would sign a one year deal to stay in New England where he would go on to be named to the Pro Bowl, be named second team All-Pro, and appear in his second consecutive AFC Championship.
When all was said and done, Talib ended up with five Pro Bowl nods, a first team All-Pro, a second team All-Pro, and a Lombardi trophy. Every single one of those after he left the Buccaneers.
Talib is just one of many “troubled” teammates that joined the Patriots and turned things around. LeGarrette Blount, anyone?
All this is to say that Fournette is certainly talented. He’s certainly an upgrade with the running back group. And he certainly was trapped in a position with a franchise that was one of the worst run in the NFL, AFC Championship appearance or not. There’s a reason guys were trying to force their way out. A change of scenery, a change in leadership, and an opportunity to play with the greatest quarterback to ever play is more than enough for Fournette to keep his head on straight and play his butt off.
Fournette is entering his prime, is motivated to perform in a contract year, is motivated to prove himself, and motivated to win. Running the ball isn’t the problem - despite what some may believe. When I reached out to ESPN’s Michael DiRocco, he spoke about some misplaced blame in the Jags’ run game saying, “Fournette gets blamed too much for the on-field issues in the run game. The OL deserves a significant amount of blame. He’s still a productive player when healthy, great in pass protection, and not happy that the team wasn’t winning.”
Winning shouldn’t be an issue in Tampa Bay this season - and Fournette has the opportunity to be a big reason why. And for a team that hasn’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since 2014, fans should be thrilled they just signed a running back that has two such seasons in his first three years in the league.