When Hue Jackson stood at the podium for the first time as the Browns’ head coach, he said he understood it would be a process. To me, he looked like a savior during that first press conference. He advised everyone to be patient and talked about his excitement working with an innovative new front office lead by Sashi Brown. The Browns of 2015 looked like they were “rock bottom”. Kyle Shanahan had departed in the off-season after GM Ray Farmer pestered him via text message on the sideline, Josh Gordon was MIA once again, the defense was woefully slow, and the whole Johnny Manziel saga blew up in their face quite spectacularly. It’s not that Mike Pettine was a bad coach, he just didn’t know how to coach the team he had on the field. Time and time again, he tried to play Rex Ryan’s Cover 0 scheme, forgetting he didn’t have Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromarte anymore. Jackson, we were told, was not going to be like that. He was going to bring a level of professionalism the Browns sorely needed.
Not long after, I realized he was no savior. I, along with my fellow Browns’ fans, watched in anguish as the same drama that had plagued Farmer and Pettine popped up once more, this time fueled by the coach we were so certain would bring that nonsense to an end. We saw the real Hue Jackson. Instead of calm leadership, he provided panic. Where there was supposed to be cohesion, there was chaos. And the coach who was supposed to hold it all together, tore it all apart.
The Sashi Brown Plan: A Three to Five Year Process
I refuse to hold the 2016 Browns 1-15 record against Jackson. No coach could have won more than a game with the roster he was provided. After saying he would be more cautious, Robert Griffin III lowered his shoulder instead of going out of bounds and broke his collar bone in Week One. Flashy new receiver Corey Coleman broke his hand after Week Two. In Week Three project rookie quarterback Cody Kessler was forced into action. On defense, the players drafted, especially Emmanuel Ogbah, were absurdly out of position in a 3-4 defense. All of this happened after an off-season in which all four of the Browns top free agents were allowed to leave. And, in the case of Mitchell Schwartz, chased away when they tried to come back. Even though they denied it, the only explanation for all of this was that the new front office was trying to tank for a better draft slot in 2017. They wanted to change the culture and bring in as many young players as possible to grow together.
Going into the 2017 off-season and 2017 draft, this plan came more into focus. The Browns cleared all their dead money, opening up cap space for a run at free agents to augment their three first round picks. J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler were signed to anchor the interior offensive line and the Browns got the best player in the draft with Myles Garrett. A seemingly ludicrous trade for Brock Osweiler was touted for the second round pick the Texans were forced to give up. Now all the scheming started to make sense. By gutting the roster, the Browns were in prime position to clean up in 2018’s free agent frenzy and vaunted quarterback draft class. All they had to do was make some progress in 2017. And now, dear reader, is where my sympathy for Hue Jackson comes to an end. Because everything that happened in 2016 and 2017 was all about 2018. No one expected Jackson to win all that much. The pressure he felt was all imagined. He was not going to be made a scapegoat. All he had to do was wait.
He didn’t. Instead, he started 2017 by immediately souring on Cody Kessler. While Kessler did not have a great arm, he took care of the ball. By his own admission, Jackson had not called nearly enough running plays in 2016, he vowed to change that. Good, I remember thinking, the line is better, let Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson slowly move the ball up field and have Kessler throw when he has to or when the defense isn’t expecting it. It won’t be sexy, but it can scrape out a few wins. Then the rumors came that Jackson would be moving on from Kessler and was pondering starting Osweiler instead. Okay, I thought, maybe he’s back to being the guy from Denver. Then, nope sorry, Hue doesn’t trust Osweiler, he wants Deshone Kizer. For the first time I hesitated.
My favorite college football team ironically happens to be Notre Dame. During the draft coverage, I wholeheartedly supported the general theory that Kizer needed to stay another year. And, when he came out anyway, needed a few seasons to develop. He no business being on the field as a rookie. But, there he was in Week One. Once more I told myself it would be okay. There was no way Jackson was going to ask Kizer to carry the team. No way . . .
An 0-16 That Needn’t Have Been
As you may have guessed from the ominous ellipses, that’s exactly what Hue Jackson expected from Deshone Kizer. Game after game the Browns took to the air. Not just passing a lot, but trying to throw deep and into tight windows with sub-par receivers unable to get good separation. The solid running game with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson? Yeah, that never really happened. This past off-season when I was writing about the Browns, I was shocked to discover Crowell, despite being discussed as one of the NFL’s better backs, did not have a single game with 20 or more carries, despite averaging over 4 yards per carry. After Corey Coleman was injured once again and Kenny Britt flopped spectacularly, Jackson continued to call passing plays. I can still remember watching the game in London against the Vikings. At one point I was literally (I’m seriously not making this up) two feet from my TV screen screaming, “run the ball, Hue, run the ball!” Every time the Browns were in third and short, they threw it to blanketed receivers. When I watched highlights after the other games, it was more of the same. My favorite writers at the Cleveland Plain Dealer bemoaned the play calling as well.
It came to head in the one game it actually looked like the Browns would win against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in Week Fifteen. After the epic comeback that erased the Browns’ 21-7 lead, they somehow were lucky enough to get the ball at the start of overtime. After two solid runs by Crowell, they faced 3rd and 2. Instead of giving Crowell the ball again, or at least making it look like they would, the Browns came out with 4 receivers split to the left and Josh Gordon isolated on the right. The Packers immediately figured out what was about to happen and when Gordon wasn’t open on a slant, Kizer panicked, tried to force the action, and ended up throwing an interception. You can find it at the 4:14 mark in this extremely depressing video. If one play serves as the perfect microcosm for the 2017 Browns, it was that one. Take some time and watch the whole video, I’m still amazed how many of these interceptions were in the red zone or were first and second down throws forced downfield.
Look, I’m not saying the 2017 Browns were a playoff team, as they certainly were not. They were, however, not a team that should have gone 0-16. The front seven was drastically better than 2016 and they had a great running game. They just never used it and that is 100 percent on Hue Jackson. He refused to give up play-calling duties, then coached like a man desperate to save his job. He forced Kizer onto the field before he was ready and then seemed surprised Kizer wasn’t ready. He benched him a couple of times, then threw him back out there. Time will only tell the damage that did to Kizer’s confidence. What still drives me crazy, is there was no need for this. All they had to do was run the ball, set-up some bootlegs, and ask Kizer to throw 20 times a game, if only to keep the defense honest. This is a tried and true method in the NFL. It’s what the Steelers’ did with Big Ben and a method that somehow gave us back to back Mark Sanchez lead Jets teams in the AFC Championship Game. Heck even the great Tom Brady benefited from a power running, play-action heavy offense during his early seasons. But no, not for the Browns, for the Browns it was chaotic heaves downfield.
As I hope I was able to clearly show above, there was no reason for Jackson to panic. This was a team specifically designed to struggle as the young players gained valuable, if at times frustrating, experience. Everyone from Sashi Brown to Jimmy Haslam assured us the Browns would not fire Jackson. He was expected to lose. He never seemed to get that message. In public, he complained. In private, we now know, he put everything on Brown. As if Brown had told him, “Hue, take this team and pass, pass, and pass some more”. A mid-season trade for AJ McCarron fell apart and the power struggle became a never-ending story line as the losses piled up. In the end, Haslam fired Brown. Not even two seasons into what he had been perfectly clear would be a three to five year rebuild. Jackson went from savoir to Captain Ahab, ruthlessly forgetting everything and everyone in a pursuit of self-preservation.
Jackson vs. Haley: One Finger-Point Too Many
Somehow Jackson succeeded putting all the blame on Sashi Brown and Jimmy Haslam somehow convinced new GM John Dorsey to keep Jackson as his coach. As upset as I was, I could see the logic in the “let’s see what Hue Jackson can do with real players” mantra Haslam jammed down our throats. Then came the announcement the Browns would hire Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator. Outwardly I supported this move, telling people they needed a strong coordinator who understood the AFC North. Inside, however, I thought it was a huge mistake. Once I saw the now infamous clip from Hard Knocks, I knew it was only a matter of time before it became a huge problem.
The Browns have been much better in 2018. They could be even better, contenders even, if it weren’t for the offensive play-calling. Haley, like Jackson, seemed to forget running the football was a thing in key situations. In Week One, I was repulsed watching Tyrod Taylor try to throw 41 passes in the rain. Against the Raiders, I was disgusted to see a pass called with the Browns up 28-14 and with the ball deep in their own territory. The reverse against the Ravens in Week Four almost cost them their only overtime win in four tries. Instead of coming together, Jackson and Haley fought. Jackson, as head coach, could have called a meeting with the front office and Haley, explaining he had been here before and knew they needed to run more often. He could have set his ego aside, been the bigger man, and told Haley that while he respected him a play-caller, he needed some changes to be made. Did he? No.
No, instead he went to his default. He made ridiculous statements to the press after the loss in Tampa about taking the play-calling responsibility away from Haley. Internally, he started pointing fingers again. It was all Haley’s fault and he needed to go. For the life of me, I don’t know why Jackson thought he had to do this. If John Dorsey was going to fire him, he’d have done after the 2017 season. Or, again no idea how Jackson missed this, he wouldn’t have the taken the job knowing Jimmy Haslam insisted Jackson stay. There were plenty of other teams interested in Dorsey, if he wanted to hire his own coach, he would’ve somewhere else. At the very least, he could have been persuaded to fire Haley in the off season and replace him with coordinator with less of an ego. Instead of talking it over with Dorsey, he went to Haslam and tried to explain why he needed to take over the play-calling again.
That was the final straw for the Browns. I applaud Dorsey for finally just having enough of him and letting him go. Doing so prevents Baker Mayfield, who may finally be the answer for the Browns, from having his development stunted. It also takes care of the finger-pointing I’ve seen from the younger players recently. Young players learn from their coaches on and off the field, seeing Jackson pointing fingers whenever blame came his way was toxic.
Now he is gone. Replaced by the somehow more stable Greg Williams (let that one sink in a bit). In the off-season, Dorsey will hire his guy and hopefully the Baker Mayfield lead Browns can thrive. And we talk about the Browns, that’s all there is.