The Cleveland Browns have a new coach! Again! On Wednesday, former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson became the eighth full-time coach of the Browns since their return in 1999. The move seems to have been well-received across the league, especially by those Jackson left behind in Cinci. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said, “I’m very happy for Hue. He is an outstanding coach and even a better friend,” while Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth called Jackson “a leader of men.” Former Bengal Chad Johnson (né Johnson, changé à Ochocinco, then back to Johnson) even chimed in, tweeting that Jackson is a “GEM” — caps his.
Hue Jackson has experience as a head coach and a track record of success as a coordinator. He became the latest to win the introductory press conference Wednesday evening. It’s all peaches and cream — right now. But who is this guy? Where did he come from? What sort of stock is he made of? Are there any red flags? While he is still completely shiny and new, let us dive into the life and times of Jackson, Hue.
Has he been doing this coaching thing long?
Yes, sir. After graduating from University of the Pacific, where he played quarterback for two seasons,1 he immediately became a graduate assistant at his alma mater. After a one-year stop at Cal State Fullerton and another with the London Monarchs of the World League, he got his start in big-college ball. He spent four years coaching quarterbacks and running backs at Arizona State. Then he spent a year in Berkeley as Cal’s offensive coordinator. From there he went to USC for four years of offensive coordinating.
He jumped to the NFL in 2001, at age 36. After two years as running backs coach for the Washington Redskins — the first season under Marty Schottenheimer, the second under Steve Spurrier; it’s a wonder he didn’t get whiplash — he was promoted to offensive coordinator. It was in Washington that Jackson met Marvin Lewis, who was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator. When Spurrier was sent packing in 2004, Jackson joined Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati as receivers coach. He would have another year under an unsuccessful college coach masquerading in the NFL in 2007, when he was Bobby Petrino’s offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.
Jackson spent two years as John Harbaugh’s quarterbacks coach with the Baltimore Ravens (2008-09) before jumping to Oakland. (More on his Raiders tenure later.) He returned to Marvin Lewis and Cincinnati in 2012. Ol’ Hue has seen a little bit of everything.
So he came to Cleveland from Cincinnati. How’d he do there?
Pretty well. Jackson spent the last four years as an assistant coach with the Bengals, including the last two at offensive coordinator. He joined the team in 2012 as a defensive backs and special teams coach. He moved to running backs coach in 2013 before taking over as O-coordinator in 2014. It was his second tour with the Bengals, as he coached wide receivers there from 2004 to 2006.
There’s a lot to like in what Jackson did as coordinator in Cincinnati. The Bengals had one of the better offenses in the NFL this season despite losing starting quarterback Andy Dalton to a thumb injury in Week 13. They scored over 26 points per game, seventh-best in the league. Cinci won seven games by double-digits, and took care of those leads by running the hell out of the ball — Cincinnati ball carriers totaled over 1800 yards and 18 touchdowns on a whopping 467 carries (29 per game). The Bengals’ rushing game was even better last year, with over 2100 yards and 19 touchdowns on 492 carries.
When they did put the ball in the hands of Dalton, he looked for big chunks of yards. Dalton’s 8.4 average yards per attempt ranked second in the league behind only Carson Palmer, and his 12.7 yards per completion put him fourth in the NFL. The Red Rifle posted career lows in interceptions and interception percentage, and career highs in a heap of other stats (e.g. completion percentage, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating). How much of that success can be ascribed to Andy and how much is due to Hue — who knows? All I know is that Hue Jackson’s job title was offensive coordinator, and Cincinnati had a damn good offense.
If you prefer fancier stats, Cincinnati was the top-ranked offensive team by Football Outsiders’ proprietary DVOA.2 The Bengals’ passing game was rated best in the league, with the running game coming in at a healthy seventh. Cincinnati’s offense finished seventh overall in FO’s weighted DVOA, which puts less importance on early-season games. Considering that they were operating without their starting quarterback for the final quarter of the schedule, that’s still a heck of a year.
Does he have any head coaching experience?
You bet your bottom he does. Jackson took over the Oakland Raiders in 2011. The only bummer is that he was on the Rob Chudzinski plan: one year and out. He joined the Raiders as offensive coordinator in 2010, and was promoted to head coach the next year when Oakland let Tom Cable go. The Raiders went 8-8 with Jackson as O-coordinator and repeated the feat with him as head coach. They did not make the playoffs either year.
While his stint in Oakland was brief, Jackson became a powerful figure. When Raiders owner/GM Al Davis died in October 2011, it was Jackson who effectively took over player personnel duties.3 Among the deals he engineered was a trade with his buddy from Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis, to bring quarterback Carson Palmer to Oakland. Jackson and Palmer had history, as the coach had helped recruit the player to USC. While Oakland gave up one first- and one second-round pick to get him, Palmer wasn’t particularly successful with the Raiders. Given that he has since gone on to have a career renaissance with the Arizona Cardinals, perhaps Hue was on to something.
The Raiders entered 2011’s Week 17 with an 8-7 record and a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. A win would have put them in. Alas, they lost to the San Diego Chargers, 38-26, and the Denver Broncos went to the postseason.
He got fired just because the Raiders missed the playoffs? That seems pretty weak.
There’s a little more to it than that. For one, Jackson’s 2011 Raiders set NFL records for most penalties committed and most penalty yards in a single season. They committed a whopping 163 infractions for a total of 1,358 yards. That’s over three-quarters of a mile worth of no-no’s. As Joe Posnanski wrote, “To put it in simple terms, the Raiders AVERAGED 10 penalties for 85 yards.” Jackson took issue with the referees on at least one occasion. Suffice it to say that discipline was an issue.
But perhaps more significant is that Jackson did not take that last, playoff-preventing loss against the Chargers well. If his comments after the game didn’t ensure that he would be leaving Oakland, they certainly didn’t help his case to stay.
I’m pissed at my team. At some point in time, as a group of men … you can say whatever you want about coaches, but [players] win the game. Here’s your time. Here’s your time to make some plays. We didn’t get them stopped, and we didn’t make enough plays. So, yeah — I’m pissed at the team. Like I always tell them, I put it on me as well, but I am also pissed at my team. Because when you have those kinds of opportunities, you have to do it. And we didn’t do it.
Jackson also spoke of having a stronger hand in the organization. Some feared that he was looking to consolidate his power in the vacuum of Al Davis’ death, and he may have overstepped his bounds. In response, the Raiders brought in Reggie McKenzie to take over as general manager on January 5, 2012. Jackson was fired on January 10. In the four seasons since, Oakland has yet to best Jackson’s 8-8 record.
Should we be worried about the penalties and temper and stuff?
It’s fair to have a little concern. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals have certainly not been the most disciplined teams in the world. One could reasonably argue that similar problems might come with Jackson to Cleveland. Still, I would warn against letting the recent actions of Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, hardly Boy Scouts — or the postgame rant from Oakland — color your perception of Jackson too much.
It seems to me that, at least on the temper-controlling and public perception side of things, that Jackson has learned from his mistakes. He acknowledged shortly after being fired by the Raiders that opening a press conference with “I’m pissed at my team” may not have been the brightest idea. (Getting fired always makes for a teachable moment.) He took an assistant coaching gig with the Bengals and successfully set about rehabilitating his career. He helped Andy Dalton become a legitimate starting NFL quarterback.
Former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer led the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs — and nearly beat the Seattle Seahawks — within two years of taking over at head coach. Now Jackson has a chance to do the same.
Is he the guy? Could he last more than three years in Cleveland?
Now the questions are becoming unreasonable. Can Hue Jackson actually make it in Cleveland? Can he be the one to turn the Browns around? Can he bring stability to a franchise that in that regard more closely resembles the San Andreas Fault than the Pittsburgh Steelers? Anyone presuming to know the answers to these questions has a nose that doubles as a yardstick. The Browns have a nasty way of chewing up and spitting out head coaches.
I will say — and take this with a Morton factory’s worth of salt — that I have a good feeling about Hue. He has good signs on him. He’s put decades of work into football. He has served under all different types of coaches rather than being trained in the same system his entire career. He’s down with the Browns’ analytics approach. He’s spent nine years in the AFC North. He got his big head coaching break once before, only to have it taken away. He showed hubris and was appropriately humbled. He’s made mistakes. And now, at age 50, he takes the reins of the Cleveland Browns.
So is he the guy? No idea. But I at least feel good about him, and that’s something I haven’t felt about the Browns in quite some time.
- Before going to Pacific, Jackson got his associate’s degree and played quarterback at Glendale (CA) Community College. [↩]
- The ultra-short DVOA explanation: “DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.” Lengthier explanations are available on Football Outsiders’ website. [↩]
- Judy Battista wrote for the New York Times after Jackson took over as de facto GM: “There has been a morbid adage about the Raiders: that you wanted to be the coach when Davis died because you would step into a leadership vacuum.” [↩]