Hue Jackson has the Browns thinking about winning big-time
Joke if you want, but the new coach in Cleveland isn’t doing this for you
Whenever Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson gets “the look,” which he does often, he knows exactly what you’re thinking: that his new gig could be a career-killer. And after a long day in training camp recently, Jackson tackled the notion that he’s in a no-win situation. “Look, I get it. A lot of people want to talk about what went on in the past, the [team’s] record and things like that, but that stuff doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’m interested in right now. We get to dictate what we’re going to be. And my mentality is always to win.”
One of only five African-American head coaches in the NFL, the 50-year-old Jackson is determined to rebuild the long-struggling Browns, a task whose difficulty ranks somewhere along the lines of renovating Pompeii. Lacking stability from the front office to the field for years, the Browns have entrusted a detail-oriented leader with their latest reboot. As if he didn’t have enough to do, Jackson is also attempting to both open more doors for black assistant coaches and resuscitate Robert Griffin III’s career. Talk about a full agenda.
To be sure, Jackson – who quickly expended some capital by leading the Browns’ charge to sign Griffin following the former star quarterback’s stunning fall in Washington – has shouldered a lot, but he welcomes it all. In his second opportunity as a head coach, he also wants to prove he deserved better in his first one.
“I always tell our players to be very mindful and careful about what we let go into our ears and where we choose to focus our energy,” Jackson said. “We need to keeping looking ahead, not backward.”
For the Browns, there’s no reason to check the rearview mirror.
The Browns have missed the playoffs the past 13 seasons. Hired in January, Jackson becomes the team’s eighth head coach since 2003. And with three major front-office makeovers since 2013, the franchise has been in what could best be described as a perpetual rebuild.
To break the depressing cycle, Jackson must change the Browns’ culture, which starts with “erasing all the ‘tape’ and starting over,” Jackson said. “Some of our players come from tremendous [college] programs and backgrounds. Some of them are used to winning. But some of them may not have won as much and don’t have those experiences here [in the NFL].
“What we have to do is pull together all of our collective experiences, the best things we all do, to focus on one thing: winning. It’s about creating an environment where everyone understands where we want to go, and everyone works to get the most out of their ability. I know it can happen because I’ve seen it happen before.”
In April 2010, quarterback Jason Campbell was at one of the lowest points of his career. After four disappointing seasons with the Washington Redskins, the former first-round draft pick was traded to the Oakland Raiders. At the time, a change like that was akin to moving from Siberia to Chernobyl.
The Raiders hadn’t reached the playoffs in eight seasons. Moreover, the organization had become a laughingstock late in the life of iconic owner Al Davis, who died in 2011. Shortly after arriving in Oakland, California, Campbell had no idea what to expect in his first meeting with the Raiders’ new offensive play-caller, Jackson. To his excitement, however, Campbell quickly learned he would be working with a top-notch football man.
“He knows the Xs and Os of the game, he’s really good with that, but what’s great about Hue is he practices to win,” Campbell said. “With some coaches, you know you don’t have a chance [to win] because you’re not looking at the right things in practice, not bringing the right energy. With Hue, you know you’ve done everything all week in practice to give yourself the best chance. That makes a big difference.”
In his first year with Jackson, Campbell had one of the best seasons of his career and the Raiders made strides: They finished 8-8 – their first non-losing record since the 2002 season. Promoted to head coach after the season, Jackson led the Raiders to a 4-2 start in 2011. Finally, there was some buzz around the Raiders again. Jackson created it.
“Guys in Oakland didn’t believe they could win because they hadn’t won in so long. Hue made them understand everything had to change,” Campbell said. “He would get in guys’ faces to try to motivate them. He definitely wanted to see where your heart was as far as playing the game. And he definitely got guys to give more than they did before. He got results.”
But as is often the case in professional sports’ most dangerous league, the Raiders were derailed that season by Campbell’s collarbone injury. Oakland again finished 8-8, the team missed the playoffs and Jackson was fired amid regime change in upper management. Under the circumstances, Jackson deserved more than one season in charge.
Think about it: With a roster widely considered to be among the worst in the league, a rookie head coach finished with a .500 record despite losing the team’s starting passer. Not surprisingly, African-American players and coaches were angered by Jackson’s firing.
“As far as being a black man in the game, yeah, a lot of us were upset about that,” Campbell said. “You look at the job Hue did … that doesn’t get you at least another year?
“But the thing about Hue is, he’s not going to give up. He won’t get down. He knew he did a good job, so he’ll always keep coaching and keep working his way back up again.”
A few weeks ago, Brian Stewart made the trip from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Berea, Ohio, to visit with an old friend. Stewart, the secondary coach at the University of Nebraska, and Jackson played youth football together in Los Angeles. During their long coaching careers, Jackson and Stewart have grown close.
Stewart admires how Jackson rebounded after leaving Oakland. As the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator last season, Jackson played a big part in quarterback Andy Dalton’s continued development. Stewart had no doubts that Jackson would put himself in position to be an NFL head coach again because “he’s very detailed in everything he does,” said Stewart, the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator in 2007 and ’08.
“Hue has coached for a long time. He’s been on both sides of the ball. He knows what he wants it to look like everywhere. He believes in his preparation and himself.
“And to go from being fired, when you know you did a good job, and still keeping the same intensity and coaching vigor in a smaller job, says a lot about your character. He knows who he is, he believes in what he does and he gets results. You can’t deny that.”
That’s a fact, Campbell said. Dalton’s backup with the Bengals in 2014, Campbell learned a lot about how to manage people by watching Jackson work.
“A lot of times, you have coaches who won’t hold some of the top guys accountable. They don’t make them put in the same work [in practice] like everyone else,” Campbell said. “But Hue always knew the right thing to say and do with everyone.
“Guys like Andy Dalton and [star wide receiver] A.J. Green … Hue never let them get comfortable. He always pushed them to help them get the most out of their ability. If you know Hue, you know he believes in the right way in doing things. And Hue sticks to his beliefs no matter what.”
Here’s what you have to understand about the new-look Browns: They have the blackest football operation in the NFL. Besides Jackson, the Browns have African-Americans occupying the general manager position and both offensive and defensive coordinator jobs. No head coach is more woke than Jackson.
In the NFL these days, the path to becoming a head coach starts on offense, as my colleague Mike Sando explained masterfully. The problem is, of the league’s current 85 offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches and offensive quality control coaches, 80 are white, including all 37 with the word “quarterback” in their titles.
Not only has Jackson spoken out about the deplorable numbers (“I’ve talked about it because it is a problem,” Jackson said), he has walked the walk. On his Browns staff, Jackson put African-Americans in the most important positions. He hired former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to be his associate head coach for offense and quarterbacks coach. Hamilton will be the only African-American quarterbacks coach in the NFL this season. Former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be the Browns’ defensive play-caller. Also, Kirby Wilson, a veteran running backs coach, will coordinate Cleveland’s running game.
Jackson is paying it forward, providing Hamilton, Horton and Wilson with opportunities to advance their careers, which is what others did for him. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who is also black, turned over his offense to Jackson, helping Jackson re-climb the coaching ladder. Jackson also received a boost from Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, among others, who once hired him as a quarterbacks coach. Everyone needs that person who puts you in the position to succeed.
“There are people who helped mold me to become who I am, and you take bits and pieces of who they are,” Jackson said. “I’ve always known, being in the position I’m in, I had to be the most prepared to have an opportunity to get where I am today. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I also believe you should help others if you’re in a position to do it.
“But the men who are on my staff now are here because they’re the best at what they do. Pep, Ray and Kirby … they’re the best in their field. Kirby has coached some of the best running backs in this league. Pep has coached [Colts Pro Bowl quarterback] Andrew Luck. Ray has orchestrated some of the better defenses. I didn’t hand them jobs. I gave them opportunities because I want the best around me. And they’re going to elevate their careers as we go along.”
Who are the next African-American coaches in the pipeline on offense? Where are the young rising stars on defense who will help change the game? Sadly, Jackson doesn’t know.
“I know that somewhere out there, there’s the next person who deserves that opportunity. I just don’t think they’re in our league, and that’s really hard for me to say that,” Jackson said. “You really don’t know who the people are out there in college. For a lot of different reasons, a lot of them don’t get to come here to be in the minority internship program. I wish I knew where they are.”
No move will define Jackson’s first year in Cleveland more than his decision to go all in on Griffin. Once Griffin signed with the Browns after being released by the Redskins in March, Jackson cleared the path for the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year to start.
Now comes the hard part: Griffin must reward Jackson for his faith in him. Although it’s only a matter of time before Griffin fails spectacularly again, his former coaches say, Jackson isn’t trying to hear that talk.
“I know what I know. He can play,” Jackson said. “He needed an opportunity and to be in the right place. This is it.”
Perhaps for Jackson as well. You get the sense that Jackson could inspire the Browns to exceed expectations, which, with their history and overall roster, won’t be high again.
“This may not be the best way to say it, but they’ll steal some games this year,” Stewart said. “They’re going to win some games that people won’t expect them to win. Hue always has his guys ready to play. They’ll definitely surprise some people.”
Browns fans hope so. They’ve been down for so long, they’re hungry for something to smile about. And if Jackson provides it, that would be a great look.