Think back just two months, before the Browns let four of their better players exit via free agency and jump-started the “wait until next year” cries before even the first 2016 minicamp. When the Browns named Hue Jackson their eighth head coach since the franchise was resurrected in Cleveland in 1999, it appeared as if the snake-bitten organization had perhaps finally turned the corner and was on its way to winning the offseason.
Jackson is the third head coach hired by owner Jimmy Haslam since he bought the team in 2012, but it marked the first time Haslam landed his first choice. Jackson’s resume—and specifically his success as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator—made him a high-demand candidate, and the 49ers were reportedly in hot pursuit. Marvin Lewis, meanwhile, tried to come up with a plan to keep Jackson in Cincinnati as Lewis’ eventual successor.
Ultimately, the Browns new analytics-heavy front office wooed Jackson to Cleveland, where his knowledge of the AFC North should serve him well. Between his time in Baltimore, where he was quarterbacks coach for the first two seasons of Joe Flacco’s career, and his tenure in Cincinnati—as wide receivers coach from 2004-2006, then coaching the secondary and running backs before taking over as offensive coordinator in 2014—Jackson has spent nine seasons within the division.
Jackson’s NFL resume also includes three seasons in Washington, two of them as running backs coach before a promotion to offensive coordinator; a year in Atlanta as offensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino; and two seasons in Oakland—first as offensive coordinator, then for one year as head coach. That 2011 season saw the Raiders post an 8-8 record, their best in eight seasons prior and matching the best record in five seasons since. Jackson’s Raiders missed out on the playoffs in a tie-breaker despite losing starting quarterback Jason Campbell in Week 6.
Jackson’s ability to thrive amidst chaotic situations—Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino in Atlanta, the dysfunctional Raiders—should serve him well in Cleveland, but he brings plenty more to the table.
“Hue Jackson will be a tremendous leader for our football team,” head of football operations Sashi Brown said at Jackson’s introductory press conference. “He has vast knowledge and expertise, invaluable head coaching experience, and his players have thrived under his tutelage. His track record of relating to players as people off the field while also getting the most out of them on the field will help us establish a culture of accountability and the expectations of winning.”
Longtime Cincinnati sportswriter Paul Daugherty characterized Jackson as a natural leader whose players respected him. “You’re not just getting a coach,” Daugherty told ESPN. “You’re getting a guy who will be able to reach every player in that organization. I guarantee you he will get the most out of every player this season.”
Daughter added that Jackson was responsible for turning current Cincy quarterback “from a guy who thought he could play to a guy who knew he could play,” and that he taught Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson how to play better football and to “not be a knucklehead.”
While Jackson once told Daugherty that his best quality was being “a leader of men,” he’s also an exceptional offensive coach. Wherever he has gone, the unit he was responsible for has improved—from Washington’s running backs to Cincy’s wideouts to Baltimore’s quarterbacks to each of the offenses he’s called plays for.
Jackson’s defining characteristic is a power running game; the last four offenses under his charge have all ranked seventh or better in rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns, and all but last season’s Bengals have ranked seventh or better in the league in rushing yards.
Jackson favors the gap blocking scheme, with backside linemen frequently pulling on running plays. This will be a tweak from what the Browns have run previously; last year they tried to use both zone and gap schemes but were still predominantly a zone team. Jackson’s teams also tend to favor “bigger” formations—two-back sets that often include a fullback (or a tight end or extra offensive lineman lined up as a fullback), in-line tight ends—typically associated with running the football.
But that doesn’t mean Jackson won’t throw. In fact, his offense is much more vertical than the modified West Coast offense the Browns ran last year, and he loves for his passing game to make plays down the field. Last year, his Bengals ranked fourth in the league with 63 completions of 20 or more yards and fifth with 13 passing plays of 40 or more yards.
Jackson is also known for shifting his alignment presnap to help his quarterback identify the coverage and create matchup advantages with his formation, as well as for a deep bag of trick plays. For example, you may recall Andy Dalton catching a touchdown pass last season.
The roster Jackson inherits in Cleveland has several pieces that match up with the personnel he worked with in Cincinnati. On the heels of his breakout 2015 campaign Gary Barnidge could be in store for even bigger and better things as he takes on the Tyler Eifert role in Jackson’s offense. It wouldn’t be out of line to characterize the Browns’ current backfield of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson as a poor man’s version of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. And in converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor the Browns may give Jackson the versatile multipurpose tool he had in Mohamed Sanu—who lined up at quarterback and running back in addition to wide receiver and threw the touchdown pass to Dalton.
You could also make a case for Josh Gordon in the AJ Green role, but that assumes Gordon is allowed to return to action this season—then shakes off the rust and returns to his 2013 form.
Prior to free agency the Browns also had a quality offensive line that could have approximated the Bengals’ talented unit. The departures of Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz leave Cleveland 40 percent down up front, but perhaps Jackson felt they wouldn’t adjust well to the gap scheme and can find replacements in the draft.
And then there’s the question of a quarterback—a question the Browns have been largely unable to answer dating back to Otto Graham. Holding the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, the Browns are poised to go back to that well for the third time in five seasons—especially with Jackson noting, “This team needs a quarterback” during his first few minutes on the job.
Jackson was asked at the Senior Bowl what he was looking for in a quarterback. “I want to see if the guy’s talent is really what it is,” he said in a published report. “Does the guy have the arm talent? Is he a leader? Is he the guy everyone looks to out there? Can he handle the information from an NFL coach because sometimes it’s a little different. And is he able to take the things given to him and be able to do a good job as far as competing and as far as executing what they’re asking him to do.”
Sounds like Jackson has specific traits in mind, and it also sounds like many of those traits fit fast-rising Connor Wentz. The North Dakota State prospect has size, a big arm, played in a power style of offense—frequently operating under center—and has experience running play action and attacking down the field. It certainly doesn’t hurt that comparisons can be made to Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger, both big quarterbacks who played at less-than-major college programs and have excelled in the AFC North.
Like his fellow new hires, Jackson has indicated he will call the offensive plays. He has also said he won’t have an offensive coordinator, but he won’t be lacking for help; though that title remains vacant, Jackson has coaching veteran Al Saunders as his Senior Offensive Assistant and Pep Hamilton as his Associate Head Coach/Offense.
Unfortunately for Jackson and long-suffering Browns fans, Hue’s hiring has been the high point of the offseason. But if Jackson could find success with the Raiders it’s tough to bet against him failing to do so in Cleveland—once the Browns fill the existing and newly-created roster vacancies.