What makes a hero? The acts of first responders, military, and those depicted on movie screens by protagonists are often of courage and determination without regard to personal well-being. But can a deed be considered heroic without knowledge of the sacrifices being made? Do altruistic actions being undertaken ignorantly rather than voluntarily undermine the results? Or do the ends justify whatever means were necessary to arrive at the desired destination?
How one answers those questions will determine whether or not a fan of the Cleveland Browns sees Hue Jackson as a hero. Regardless, there is little doubt he was the perfect coach to guide the franchise through the most extensive rebuild in NFL history.
The Browns needed an optics win for the 2016 season. During a year when the Cavaliers would go on to win an NBA Championship and the Indians would come within one hit of winning a World Series, the Browns were embracing a public relations nightmare with the decision to downgrade a team that had only finished above .500 twice in the expansion era, making the playoffs just once. The franchise had been losing, but the new directive was to finish dead last. A full NBA/MLB-style roster deconstruction, asset collection, and slow rebuild unlike any the NFL had ever seen before.
Despite the hopelessness of the upcoming seasons and armed with the knowledge NFL often stands for Not For Long in terms of coaching employment, the Browns were able to snag one of the biggest names on the market. Rumors swirled the quarterback whisperer from Cincinnati was fascinated by the prospect of leading the Giants in New York City. Instead, he never boarded the plane from Cleveland. Articles espousing his gregariousness and coaching bonafides littered the mainstream media; finally, the Browns succeeded on the coaching hire front. The kicker on the NFL.com article announcing the move seemed to be the consensus:
This is a strong hire for an unstable Browns organization in need of direction.
Such platitudes provided cover as Executive Vice President of football operations Sashi Brown constructed a roster whose sole purpose was to elevate the asset valuation in the 2017 NFL Draft; that is, to lose as many games as possible. By the start of the 2017 season, only eight players would remain from the 2015 team—just before Hue Jackson took over as head coach.1 The goal of building a foundation through the draft was demonstrated by selecting 24 draft picks the first two years of Jackson’s coaching tenure. Many of those players would see significant snaps as the Browns led the league in rookie and second-year time on the field both seasons.2
There were some curious decisions, particularly at quarterback. The Browns traded down despite Carson Wentz being available at in the 2016 NFL Draft. In 2017, the Chiefs jumped ahead of them to snag Patrick Mahomes, but it was the Browns direct decision that Deshaun Watson was not a quarterback they wanted to take. In each instance, Jackson was there to provide assertions of positive reasoning. People would have to “trust him” on Cody Kessler. And he noted “If I’m worth my salt as a coach, I’ll get the most out of DeShone Kizer.”3
Unfulfilled promises were part of the lasting legacy of Jackson. Winning but a single game in his initial season, the defiant head coach proclaimed such deficiencies of record would not happen again when he said “I’m not going 1-15. No. I’ll be swimming in that lake over there somewhere. That’s not happening.”
The technical correctness of his quote could not prop up the failure of the intention as the 2017 Cleveland Browns would become the second team in NFL history to lose 16 games.
Of course, a season without a win cannot be accomplished without dysfunction. Unwilling or unable to bear the weight of the on field results himself, Jackson appeared to cast aside previous declarations of roster competence. The tectonic shift between those acquiring the players for the roster and those coaching them on the field was creating a divide underneath the surface in Berea.
The NFL trade deadline would prove to be the catalyst to expose the cracks to the surface. Having proven the team’s centurion4 was not worth the salt accommodations, a new quarterback was sought. Despite the prospect of his free agency in a mere two months, Jackson convinced owner Jimmy Haslam A.J. McCarron must be acquired from his previous team at any cost. The Bengals held firm with a ridiculous price given their knowledge of the inelastic demand, and an accord was reached giving a second- and third-round draft pick as compensation. Except Brown neglected to send in the form until after the deadline had passed; scuttling the deal. Swift recourse was sought as Kansas City exile John Dorsey was hired with Brown being expunged from the organization.
Jackson was quick to embrace the incoming message by the new general manager of directing blame at the failings of the previous front office when John Dorsey stated “the guys who were here before and that system, they didn’t get real players.”
The head coach would even take it a step further after he mocked running back Isaiah Crowell’s 59 yard run as pedestrian when someone dared to question why Crowell only received one more carry the rest of that particular game. The quote would insert a sharp wedge between the soon to be free agent and the organization, so it was not a surprise to see Crowell sign elsewhere. Jackson ranted “No, me and you, all five of us could have run through that hole. Inspiring runs, just so we’re all on the same page, are when you break tackles. It’s the tough runs. It’s when everybody is knocking the crap out of you and you find a way to still make 4 or 5 yards. That’s running in the National Football League.”
The season ended as fans organized to draw attention to their ire with a historically inept stretch of NFL play by hosting an event that was as much protest as it was parade. Haslam was caught with the safety stuck as he decided to keep Hue Jackson after quick triggers on Mike Pettine and Rob Chudzinski before him. With the newfound security of another season ahead, Jackson defiantly challenged conventional wisdom as he proclaimed of his 1-31 record as Browns head coach “I don’t think anyone else could’ve done this job for the past two years.”
Jackson had a distinct point. Most any coach would have managed to demonstrate enough ability in leadership and strategy for more than one win over the course of two seasons to have been captured on the ledger causing deflation of valuation on the associated draft assets. Should the 2016 Browns had won even one more game, then Solomon Thomas (No. 3 overall pick, four career sacks) could have been the selection rather than Myles Garrett (No. 1 overall pick, 19.5 career sacks).
The Browns had more buffer the ensuing season as no other NFL team won less than three games. In fact, over the first two seasons Jackson coached the Browns to a 1-31 record, the second worst franchise went 8-24.5 He had been adamant throughout his tenure of calling plays, but an apparent requirement of his retention was to hire an offensive coordinator as he told Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com “it was recommended I bring in an OC to allow me to focus on leading the organization.”
Sean Ryan, quarterback coach for the Houston Texans, was targeted as a young offensive mind who had received good reviews for how he had handled Deshaun Watson’s transition to the NFL. Ryan, however, was disinclined to acquiesce to the request of becoming a neutered offensive coordinator without play-calling responsibilities. Thus began the arranged marriage with Todd Haley.
The front office spent the offseason frantically filling the voids they believed necessary to field a team worth watching. Perhaps no two acquisitions more important than a Tyrod Taylor as the new veteran quarterback,6 and the selection of Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick in a crowded field as a full handful of signal-callers saw their name called in the first round.
Hopes were abound the injection of veteran leadership combined with the wave of incoming and developing talent would crest at the level of a truly competitive team. The edited for television snippets during HBO Hard Knocks pushed the narrative of consensus building in the coaching rooms. The youth demonstrated periods of excellence generating excitement during the preseason build-up.
Rather the Browns would field an entertainingly competitive team, but one which managed to only win one of the first four games despite the opportunity for victory in each. Poor mindset and execution, sloppiness with penalties and drops, and a horrific special teams unit continued to hold the team back. A win against the hated Baltimore Ravens was enough to reprieve Jackson for three more weeks, but contests against the Los Angeles Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Pittsburgh Steelers were each gross failures in both game plan and game management.
Mary Kay Cabot covered the termination for cleveland.com, and she conducted the exit interview with Hue Jackson where she allowed his own words to reveal his true motivations.
After Sunday’s 33-18 loss to the Steelers, Jackson was hoping to persuade owner Jimmy Haslam to let him take back the offense, which had been floundering under offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Instead, Haslam and Browns GM John Dorsey went into Jackson’s office that morning and told him he was fired.
Haslam said the message was “we’re not going to put up with internal discord.” He was referring to the disconnect that began with Haley during training camp and continued on throughout the season.
Most men in the face of failure would humble themselves as they reflect back on the circumstances of a final power play that proved to be his own undoing. Jackson used the opportunity with Cabot to lay blame on others. The referees were at fault,7 Todd Haley was at fault,8 Jimmy Haslam was at fault,9 Sashi Brown was at fault,10 past Browns’ coaches were at fault,11 and perception was at fault.12 But, Hue Jackson was never at fault.13
“I strongly believe that I did a lot of work in a short time of laying the foundation for turning the place around.”
The fallen butterfly found in the mud affixed to the bottom of his shoe might agree Jackson was an important component of building the franchise foundation. Each failure another sprocket or widget in the Rube Goldberg machinery for the Browns to arrive in their current state.
Internal discord sewn by Jackson allowed Haslam to upgrade Brown to Dorsey and Haley to the surprise offensive wunderkind, Freddie Kitchens. Denigrating players to the press led directly to Crowell’s departure, which opened up the need for Nick Chubb in the draft. An inability to develop either Cody Kessler or Kizer led to the desperate need to select Mayfield.
An undrafted free agent who missed half of Training Camp and never received a snap during a preseason game next to Joel Bitonio would not likely have been allowed to become the Week 1 starter at left tackle. A more cohesive offensive line would not have allowed four sacks in a half against the New York Jets leading to Taylor’s injuries and giving Mayfield the opportunity he has thrived since receiving. Chubb could have well started ahead of Carlos Hyde from Week 1, which would have meant more miles on his legs and no chance Dorsey flips Hyde for a fifth round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Without Jackson, the 2018 team would not have been exposed to the interior of an active crucible with an untenable coaching structure blasted out to the world through an HBO lens, then navigated through clumsiness and vitriol of the warring factions through each week of the season. Most any other terminated coach would have departed with a graceful exit rather than setting fire to every bridge on the way out of downtown Cleveland by laying blame, then agreeing to coach a division rival with two games left against the Browns– for free.14
Upon his selection in the draft, there were many fans of the Browns who disliked the brash confidence– bordering on arrogance– of Baker Mayfield. However, it was Mayfield who cast the first public stone against the turncoat Hue Jackson when he said “That’s just somebody that’s in our locker room asking for us to play for him and then goes to a different team we play twice a year. Everybody can have their spin on it, but that’s how I feel.”
Jackson had declared vociferously he had not lost the players. The uniform rebuke from the roster spoke otherwise. T.J. Carrie, Demarios Randall, and Jabrill Peppers followed Mayfield’s lead with public declarations. The entire roster played with a passion not seen on the Northcoast since bygone eras as the offense scored touchdowns on their first five possessions against the Hue Jackson defense as the Browns jumped to a 35-7 lead against the Bengals. The undercurrent throughout the city of Cleveland against Everybody was being displayed more by the 2018 Browns than any before them. The city fully embraced the Get’s Us meter being broken when Randall became a legend by bypassing the possibility of a Pick-6 to rub Jackson’s nose in his mess by personally handing him an interception. Mayfield was a representative of the collective fanbase when he rejected an attempted hug from Jackson during the postgame moments.
Now, should there be a demand for a willful decision based on the possible risks and costs to oneself before elevating someone to the stature of hero? If the answer is no, then someone should build Hue Jackson a statue outside of FirstEnergy Stadium. Because despite the trials, despite the frustrations, despite the utter incompetence of Hue Jackson, he was exactly the coach the Cleveland Browns needed.