Discussing the Browns coaching quandry

The 2018 Cleveland Browns appear to have hit an inflection point. The excitement from the early season competitiveness of overtime games has waned as the frustration from only being able to win two of the first seven contests builds. The furor was loud coming out of Week 7 with several local media establishments setting about a “red alert” that hinted at a possible coaching change, but wound up being nothing more than another strained media session with the embattled head coach.

It has been a while since Michael Bode and I have had one of our email conversation articles and, well, the current kerfuffle over whether or not Hue Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff should be retained in-season seems an appropriate launching point for one. While we agree on most of it, there are some key differences of perspective.

Lyndall: The Hue Jackson debate has been a strange one. I’m a believer in stability and I think it’s something the Browns have lacked for a long time as we all know. I know it’s not sexy, but I’ve been pretty consistent on this front. When the Browns drafted Brandon Weeden, I felt like Colt McCoy should have been the starter to begin that season anyway. Let the experience win the day, at least at the beginning. I felt that firing Chud after just one season was a travesty and it’s been a Haslam horror show ever since.

I was anti-Sashi because, in the end, I couldn’t get past the fact that even if he had a good idea overall, he was horribly unqualified for the duties that had been assigned to him regarding the execution of said plan. No other NFL team would have ever hired Sashi Brown and given him roster control, I don’t believe. In our current “climate” where the political divide was Sashi Brown versus Hue Jackson, I found myself defending the idea of Hue Jackson, if not Hue himself.

I don’t think the team was designed to win any games over the past two seasons. I believe the quarterback room and wide receivers were borderline malpractice by Sashi and company, so I actually felt bad for Hue Jackson. Yes, he has massive flaws, including throwing people under the bus in media availability and running back-channel media campaigns to his friends, but he’s had a lifetime of experience in football. He’s had the position he was hired to be in Cleveland before in Oakland. That doesn’t make him good, of course, but it makes him somewhat qualified, which are two different things. The Browns were such a woeful mess and the past two years have been such a disaster that it’s easy to forget that the team was, in fact, almost indisputably, lucky to get Hue Jackson to be their coach. The Browns had to fight to be able to hire someone qualified with previous experience.

ALL of that said, I currently agree with the detractors that Hue Jackson has or will become a ceiling on this team. He’ll never become a competitive advantage, and in a league that’s known for its arms races and unlimited budgets, you can’t allow Hue Jackson to stand in the way of hiring the next big difference-maker as head coach. Additionally, with John Dorsey and Baker Mayfield in the building, this job is maybe as hot as it has ever been. So, I’m done making any cases for Hue. I’m happy he got a third season because I don’t know that it was a great time to replace him before John Dorsey’s first class of talent had a chance to show themselves. Now? It’s time to think about the next coach.

You could talk me into replacing Hue Jackson whenever it becomes essential to replacing him. If that means with a few weeks left to go in this season so they can get a jump on the latest crop of college coaches and coordinators, fine by me. That said, going back to my larger philosophies, I generally don’t think it makes any sense to fire a guy in the middle of the season. I’d keep Hue Jackson in place as long as humanly possible this season and let him and the coordinators try to win as many games as possible with the young talent on the roster.

Bode: I believe both Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson had run their course by the end of 2017. The winless campaign was certainly the most glaring marker, but each had done enough to undercut the organization to endanger their employment. Brown’s philosophy guided the franchise to the current injection of youthful talent the team enjoys today, and, yes, part of that philosophy was losing enough games in order to be in a position to grab the Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield talents in the NFL Draft. However, his 2016 draft coupled alongside his penchant for undervaluing the emotional drain from not having competent quarterback play had him attempting to navigate a narrow cliff-side trail that collapsed once a more seasoned talent-acquirer could be hired. Jackson was the player’s coach required to even believe a full NBA/MLB style tank path could be attempted in the NFL without losing every single player on the 53-man roster. Just imagine how much worse those years would have been under a disciplinarian such as Eric Mangini or Tom Coughlin. However, an inability to out-coach his opponents in gameplan or in-game adjustments left the team wanting– or really needing– more moving forward especially given the moves to spread-offense concepts across the NFL.

I agree with you the Browns were fortunate to acquire Jackson to be their head coach. Bringing him back for 2018 was not helpful for stability because the current path of a few more wins but the same frustrating play was the one that seemed to be the most likely. For the stability of this season, I am more ambivalent as I do not suspect a repeat of Mangini’s four-win closure to the 2009 season to set up his lame duck 2010 under Mike Holmgren. If the coaches are not a detriment to the players’ development, then Jimmy Haslam can decide to let the coaches finish out the season. Or, he could perhaps promote Al Saunders to take the helm to keep the other coordinators in their current roles. Regardless, my hope is that an ultimatum on the upcoming Pittsburgh Steeler game was not made because Haslam should know more from the past 39 games than he will learn on Sunday; a change later in the season after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs makes more sense.

So, we both seem to be pointing towards an inevitability of Hue Jackson being gone at least by January 2019. If such becomes the case, then what type of coach (or specific coach if you have a few favorites) would you want to target? Are there any of the existing coaches on staff that you would hope to be considered to be kept on?

Lyndall: I know about as much about the head coaching prospects around the league as I do about draft prospects. It’s largely above my pay grade. I just know that with John Dorsey in place and Baker Mayfield as a QB prospect, I think this is the real opportunity. I still disagree with the idea that it wasn’t worth bringing Hue Jackson back. I think Jimmy Haslam has this timing correct. Haslam’s track record made it almost as important for Hue Jackson to return than any other reason. Haslam had to prove that he could stick with a guy without going full Haslam the way he did with Shurmur, Chud, Pettine, Lombardi, Banner, Farmer, Scheiner, etc.

This idea that the job was desirable and the Browns would have gotten the best possible coach with a new GM and front office after going 0-16 and in a scenario where they unloaded yet another coach after just two seasons — albeit miserable ones — is a fallacy of epic proportions. I know it feels silly to play this year out with Hue Jackson and the coordinators, but it’s exactly what the Browns should do and should continue to do.

The real question. If Jabrill Peppers doesn’t fumble that ball and the Browns win with an overtime field goal, are we having this conversation? Hue Jackson didn’t really do anything specifically to win or lose that game by the time it was in overtime. He didn’t instruct Jabrill Peppers to fumble it or cause the team to go three and out twice in overtime. The Browns were really close to winning that game and here we are hitting the fast-forward button on this conversation. It’s surreal how reactionary we are.

Bode: NFL narratives are born through an outcome-focused lens. When you are 3-35-1, a close loss is still a loss especially when it took quite a bit of effort on the side of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to put the Browns into a position they could conceivably steal a win. One bad play didn’t decide the game as much as the continued replayed mistakes through penalties, unimaginative playbooks, and talent gaps at key positions leading to critical failures at inopportune moments. I reject the idea that the responsibility is not on the coaches when such structural components continue to poke through as issues each week.

Names are often difficult to surface when so much is unknown about their Monday through Saturday process. Bringing in an established head coach who had moderate success such as Mike Mularkey is appealing to some though it certainly did not work out with Hue Jackson thus far and risks repeating another franchise’s mistake. Hiring one of the upcoming assistants who are implementing the more imaginative offenses across the NFL such as Matt LaFleur or Sean Ryan is fun to think about but impossible to know if they can handle the management responsibilities. The big-name college coach such as Lincoln Riley or even Matt Campbell is a similar level of mystery about how their knowledge will translate to a vastly different league.

If Haslam’s history is any guide though, then he will want to hire someone outside the box with a penchant for advancing whatever sect of organizational philosophy he is current on. It is instructive to see only Sashi Brown was relieved of his position among the analytic-bent employees after the 2017 season. The others remain on staff though their inputs to each process are mostly unknown to the public. Could Haslam be looking for a coach willing to implement more advanced mathematic-model decision-making into game management as the Philadelphia Eagles have done? Could he want a coach willing to accept the biometric analysis of his players to help determine development and training regimens? Something else entirely?

While I do not think that Haslam has found his NFL path quite yet, I do appreciate he is willing to attempt to think outside the conventional box. Now, if he can just manage to do so with an appropriate and thought-out workflow to better ensure success, then the confidence he can obtain the correct coach would rise.

Any closing thoughts?

Lyndall: This is the perfect place to end, but I can’t now. I find myself getting defensive when you spout Hue’s record as if it’s meaningful. It’s almost like pitcher wins, which we’ve thrown out as a meaningful stat. I reject any argument that includes Hue Jackson’s record in total. I know it’s not totally unfair, and I’m not aiming my anger at you. But, it’s silly. Hue Jackson has his own problems, but the best-case argument for Hue Jackson last year is that he maybe should have won three games. With Deshone Kizer as your starting quarterback to go along with Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt and cutting veterans just before the end of camp, you take the margin of error for a coach and make it so slim that your best argument is that he should have been able to win three. Sorry, but that’s not something I’m willing to blame on the coach.

It’s almost under protest that I find myself admitting Hue Jackson must go because I don’t think he had much of a chance. It’s something I’ve come to independent of record now that he’s showing his warts in his third year under much improved conditions. I would have given him a clean slate from that awful record, and I don’t find it to be as relevant except as a snarky rallying cry for a bunch of people who wanted Hue Jackson gone from the beginning. So even as we agree that Hue must go, you know, eventually, I can’t abide using his record as a reason. His record is not the reason. It’s too easy and doesn’t encapsulate all the qualities that it takes to be good at the job. You could be phenomenal at your job as head coach and never win a football game if someone else has roster control just like a baseball pitcher might never win a game if runs are never scored. Over time, it must happen as a trailing indicator of everything working, but Hue Jackson is may be the only coach in the history of the game who had a front office selling out for the future to such an extreme level for two straight years.

So, I think Hue Jackson must go because this is how he continues to act and carry on in an environment with a good QB prospect, two experienced coordinators and a front office that seems capable and creative; even if I have some qualms about some of their moves. Wins isn’t the thing and you shouldn’t use it either. Wins is what keeps an organization from firing Eric Wedge or Mike Brown.

It’s picking nits, but consider it a philosophical point on the rules of engagement.

Bode: That is fair and the analogy to the baseball pitcher is a good one. Coach wins are not always the best metric and the overall failure of that record is not indicative to the ability of the coach. However, I do firmly believe a better coach wins five or more games over the past two seasons rather than one, which is along the nit-picking lines. The issues, many of which you note, have been too consistent throughout his tenure.

At this point, I just hope Haslam makes the correct choice to lead the franchise with his next coaching hire.

Lyndall: One alteration. I hope John Dorsey makes the correct choice because if you want to talk about whether or not records can speak for a person, the Browns’ record under the Haslam ownership speaks loudly and meaningfully. And that’s (for real this time) where I’d like to finish.1

  1. Whether or not Hue Jackson should have won five or six more games in his first two seasons, Jimmy Haslam should have won more than 5, 4, 7, 3, 1, 0, and 2 games thus far in his own career for a ghastly 22-80-1. The record isn’t the primary case against Haslam, but it’s a meaningful trailing indicator for all the indicators and anecdotes that define his reign of terror in Berea thus far. []