Jacksonville's locker room was abuzz late last season. Four guys played table tennis while others crowded around a small table for dominoes. Two 80-inch televisions were tuned to a sports highlight show, and music blared from one corner of the room.
Doug Marrone, the team's offensive line coach at the time, walked through and shook his head.
"Can you believe this?" Marrone whispered.
The Jaguars were in the middle of a nine-game losing streak that would ultimately cost coach Gus Bradley his job. Marrone had watched from afar for two years, witnessing an atmosphere he felt was too loose, too laid-back and too lenient amid losing.
So when Marrone was hired to replace Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3).
The ping pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed. The locker room stalls were overhauled, too, with Marrone mixing and matching position groups and putting certain players next to veteran leaders and/or NFL role models.
"We definitely threw a tantrum," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "Went in there and talked to him about it. Definitely wasn't happy. I learned just to be quiet, you know, and go with the flow. He's been at it longer than I have, and I'm just the football player. He says do this and I go do it. Just learn to follow him, and I'm glad I did."
Marrone saved the most significant changes for the practice fields.
Marrone, top executive Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell wanted a much tougher and more physical team. They drafted bruising running back Leonard Fournette and fiery left tackle Cam Robinson to complement a defense that was significantly beefed up in free agency with the addition of All-Pro pass-rusher Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and veteran safety Barry Church.
They also designed an offseason program that was more grueling than most players had experienced. Marrone's message was clear: Go hard or go home.
"You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives," Jackson said. "It's pretty funny just to see us now. I guess he does know what he's doing."
The Jaguars were in full pads nearly every day during training camp, a tortuous stretch in draining heat and humidity that left rookies and veterans questioning the process and wondering if it would pay off. It was the NFL's version of boot camp. Break them down, then build them up.
It ultimately brought players closer, making them accountable to each other and causing them to care more for each other. Winning was the final piece, and thumping Houston 29-7 in the season opener was all the proof players needed.
"It was the toughest training camp I've ever been a part of," said linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his 11th season. "Coach Marrone would talk to us and say, 'Listen, I have a plan and you have to trust me.' With that, guys were able to say, 'OK, we haven't gotten what we wanted in years past doing things a certain way, so we have to buy in, trust the head man and know that that'll bring us success when it's time.'
"It was difficult just because of so many changes from what we were used to. I think the most important thing is we always said, 'Well, if it helps us win, then it's all good.'"
Jacksonville had lost 63 of 80 games over the previous five seasons — the worst record in the NFL during that span — and had been through two coaching changes.
Coughlin's return was a key part of the team's revival, and although the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the New York Giants gets much of the outside credit for the team's turnaround, the reality is Marrone was the one pushing all the right buttons.
Marrone has been other places where players resisted, prompting personnel moves that would slow progress. That wasn't the case in Jacksonville, and he credited his players for being open to change.
"They gave our staff the opportunity to say, 'This is what we want to do. This is what we believe in as coaches or as an organization. This is how we want to handle ourselves,'" Marrone said. "We are still working toward that. It is not perfect by any means."
It's clearly working, though. The Jaguars are in the title game for the third time in franchise history, one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance.
"They say (stuff) rolls downhill," Jackson said. "Well, the good stuff rolls downhill, too. … It's all worth it when you win."