As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” takes us to Berea in a time when things were much, much more exciting.
The Cleveland Browns got a man other teams coveted for their respective organizations when they hired Hue Jackson away from his post as offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s a novel concept in Berea, and there’s no telling who all wanted Jackson, but the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers were on him. Regardless, when the Browns hired Jackson to become their next head coach, they finally hired a coach who was in demand.
The list of head coaches since 1999 might be almost as infamous as the QB list if it made sense to put their names on a jersey: Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and Hue Jackson. Out of that list, how many of those guys were hot names in coaching searches before being hired by the Browns? Butch Davis had a name and a reputation from being a head coach with a successful track record in college. Back before we realized the Belichick tree has a bunch of fake branches, there was some case to be made that Romeo Crennel qualified as a “hot” name. None of the rest qualifies, however.
Eric Mangini was fresh off of a firing. Pat Shurmur made most fans and media cock their head to the side like a confused dog even before he stepped to a microphone. Rob Chudzinski — while fine in my book — wasn’t exactly skyrocketing through the rumor mill like Adam Gase did for two years before graduating from coordinator to head coach in Miami. Chud was the guy the Browns landed after flirting with Chip Kelly for what felt like the entire winter. Hue Jackson was different.
Jackson was well-received by everyone around the NFL. Browns fans were almost confused to see this much praise from the gilded NFL media on Twitter.
The news was so positive for the Browns that even Sashi Brown got some praise.
Jackson continually proved to be an engaging and credible football man for the entire off-season as well. He went to the combine and spoke to the media like a human. When asked him directly if Jared Goff had “blown” his combine interview, Jackson had an answer from the Cleveland Auto Show, of all places.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Jackson said Thursday at the Cleveland Auto Show in his first public appearance. “All the young men that we talked to did a great job and again I’m going to get an opportunity to see them more, talk to them more and spend time with them. Again, 15 minutes is not enough time to really get a feel for a quarterback. That was the process and I thought they all did a great job.”
It’s a “whatever” kind of answer in most NFL cities, but it shouldn’t be sold short in Cleveland. Hue Jackson was asked a direct question, and without being a big mess of cloak-and-dagger disaster, he gave an answer that neither indicted the player or the team. In Jackson, the Browns got both the coach and also a credible football person who could speak for them in the media. After decades of weird answers and scrunched up faces—like Shurmer’s “you can throw it, or you can pass it” rhetoric—it was refreshing and important.
You can’t undersell the importance of the Browns landing Jackson for the perception of the team in the moment. Jimmy Haslam had cleaned house once again, ultimately including Ray Farmer, Pettine, and team president Alec Scheiner among others. They elevated Sashi Brown to the head of football operations, and everyone instinctively said, “The lawyer?” They hired Paul DePodesta to work in the front office, and everyone instinctively said, “The baseball guy?” Fair or not, those were very real and natural conclusions. Hue Jackson was the guy who changed the story and made people stop and wonder if maybe the Cleveland Browns knew what they’re doing.
Hue Jackson’s importance likely doesn’t end there. As the Browns are embroiled in a season where that front office built a team that has flirtations with 0-16 while simultaneously keeping all 14 of their draft picks, they’ll need all the cover they can get. Given the lack of results on the field and considering the front office decided to give their first-year head coach a team with enough cap room — about $50 million — to field the entire New England Patriots defense in addition to their own, Jackson isn’t going to be the one feeling the heat in Berea this offseason. He can help provide cover because he is the only one that gave fans and media something to believe in.
Even as the Browns’ season was a disaster, Hue Jackson was one of the most important stories in Cleveland sports in 2016. Of all the things that happened in Berea this year including more dismissals, more draft picks, and a whole lot more losing, Jackson is about the only thing in Berea fans can envision being a part of the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a sense that he can give some hope to the hopeless because in an organization that has lacked credibility from top to bottom and from left to right for the better part of 20 years. It’s his mission to keep the Browns from burning through it like they’ve burned through their fans’ patience.