Thirty or so years ago, someone reported that the Cleveland Browns had traded for wide receiver John Jefferson. I vaguely remember the announcement coming on Monday Night Football, but I might be romanticizing the deal. What I remember vividly is the excitement. John Jefferson! For those of you not old enough to remember, Jefferson was magical. And as someone writing a book about Harry Houdini, I don’t use that word lightly.
In those days before never-ending highlights and on-demand video, you only got glimpses of even the greatest football players. They would pop on your screen for only a few seconds at halftime of other games, and then, like that, they were gone, like Keyser Soze. Nobody made those few seconds light up the way Jefferson could when he played for the San Diego Chargers. He would make these back-bending, arm-twisting, fingertip catches that blew the mind.
So when the Browns acquired him, I was ecstatic. I either did not know or did not care that it had been four years since Jefferson had been that shape-shifting wide receiver in San Diego. I either did not know or did not care that he’d been pretty invisible in Green Bay, and the Packers were prepared to cut him. I got ready for the John Jefferson of my memories to make a million catches for the Browns.
Jefferson caught three passes in eight games and was released.
The point being: I’ve been deluded by irrational hopes before. But I can’t help it: I’m excited by the direction of the Cleveland Browns … or at least what I understand about it.
Moments after the final depressing game of the depressing 2015 season, Browns owner Jimmy Haslem announced that the team was firing coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer. You couldn’t blame them, but there was something demoralizing about it. The Browns have been in a state of flux for a decade. Every year, they change SOMETHING — a general manager, a head coach, a coordinator, the team color, a mascot, the mural. It feels like the ground is constantly moving underneath the Browns. That’s no way to build a team.
So here they were again, starting over, and early signs were not promising. They restructured the organization with weird titles. They put a Harvard Law graduate with a background in the salary cap in charge of the roster. They hired a Moneyball baseball guru and gave him some job overseeing something. They talked about hiring a coach who would help hire the general manager. It was all so baffling.
But then they hired Hue Jackson.
And now, I can’t help it, I’m excited about the Browns’ future.
I should say: I have no idea if Hue Jackson will be a good head coach. He’s been an NFL head coach before, but it only lasted one year, and it wasn’t a resounding year. His team set a record for most penalties in NFL history. The era ended with a press conference that began with these words: “I’m pissed at my team.” The Browns are the 13th stop on his strange coaching odyssey.
But I’m excited anyway, and the excitement goes beyond the qualities of Jackson as a coach, which I will talk about it a minute. I’m excited because bad football teams — bad sports teams — face terrible temptations. I’ve seen it again and again and again over the years, especially in Cleveland. If there was a decision to make, you just knew the Browns wouldn’t just mess it up. They would mess it up with comedic style.
When you are a bad team, there is the temptation to hire a splashy and recently-fired coach in the hope that he can turn things around quickly. The Browns tried this with Eric Mangini. The Bills tried it with Rex Ryan. The 49ers, I believe, have just tried it with Chip Kelly. I hate this strategy.
The Browns avoided it.
There is the temptation to hire the hottest name out there. This year, that name was Adam Gase. Now, Adam Gase might turn out to be a fantastic head coach, but how many times have we seen these ultra-hyped young coaching prospects fail at their first job? Does Gregg Williams ring a bell? Lane Kiffin? Raheem Morris? Josh McDaniels? Sure, there are counterexamples, and Gase is his own man with his own plan. But a couple of years ago, the Browns hired Pat Shurmur for many of the same reasons that Gase became such a hot name — he supposedly knew how to develop quarterbacks. Hiring the hot name of the moment feels like the wrong way to win.
The Browns avoided it.
There is the temptation to go with an old warhorse who has won in the past. Philadelphia interviewed Tom Coughlin, for crying out loud. San Francisco supposedly chatted with Mike Shanahan. There are always rumors about bringing Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher out of retirement. I don’t know if anyone reached out to Marty Schottenheimer yet, but, yeah, I don’t like this strategy any more than I like a bad team trying to hire the hot name on the market.
The Browns avoided it.
There is the temptation to break the bank and hire the biggest coach in college football. The Browns have, according to rumors in other years, danced with Nick Saban and Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer and Les Miles and, probably, Bear Bryant. Best I can tell, the only time this strategy has ever worked was when Seattle got Pete Carroll, and that was different because, by all appearances, Carroll’s time had run out at USC. Nick Saban is 64 years old, his previous NFL head coaching stint was mostly a disaster, and he’s a deity in Alabama. At last check, Tampa Bay was chasing Saban around.
The Browns avoided it.
Instead, the Browns soberly but quickly looked over the landscape and locked in on Hue Jackson for reasons that make all the sense in the world. He did a fantastic job developing Andy Dalton the last couple of years from a middle-of-the-road NFL quarterback into one of the best in the NFL. He mixes some old-school traits (he’s tough, expects and demands excellence) with some new-school ones (he appreciates analytics and devises complex offenses). He understands the landscape of football in the AFC North. He has faced the Browns enough times in the last decade to know, full well, just how bad it has gotten in Cleveland.
They targeted Jackson early in the process, they moved fast, and they got him.
Whether Jackson wins or loses, this was the most efficient and skillful thing the Browns have done in memory. And it shed a little bit of light on those guys I mentioned earlier. The Harvard Law graduate with a background in salary caps is named Sashi Brown and he led the way. He’s obviously a brilliant guy, and he seems to have a clear vision. If he runs the team as methodically and skillfully as he ran this coaching search, the Browns could turn around. It’s, at least, possible.
And the Moneyball baseball guru is named Paul DePodesta, and though he was just hired it seems that he was one of the people who impressed Hue Jackson and inspired him to take the job when he was sure to have other offers.
Then there’s Jackson himself. I mentioned that in his one year as coach, his team set a penalties record, and he was fired after publicly turning on his own team. But context is needed. He had taken over the Oakland Raiders in the year after the death of Al Davis. That place was a circus — and not just any circus, but an old circus where the elephants were forming a union and the trapeze artists were threatening to take their services elsewhere, and the tents had holes in them. The Raiders had gone 37-91 since losing the Super Bowl eight years earlier, and Jackson was the sixth coach in those eight years, and the roster was right out of the script of “Major League.”
Jackson traded for Carson Palmer (which now looks to have been a prescient move, though it didn’t work out for the Raiders) and he fashioned an offense that somehow moved the ball, and he got his team to 8-7 with a chance to make the playoffs. They got beat in the last week of the season, which prompted the outburst that got him fired — but even that outburst spoke to Jackson’s hardcore belief that players have to take responsibility if they want to become a good football team. That’s what the Browns want, a coach who holds players accountable.
The Raiders finished 8-8 and Jackson was canned. The Raiders have not been 8-8 since.
It all could fall apart for Cleveland, of course. The decision makers have not proven they understand this game. Jackson could implode. And, most importantly, the roster is still a wreck. Early draft analysts seem to be in agreement that quarterback is the biggest need, and, yes, quarterback is a major need (Johnny Manziel’s career in Cleveland seems to be over with Jackson, but realistically it was over no matter who came in). But the Browns need help everywhere, not just at quarterback. They also need to develop some of the players they already have. The recent drafts have all been fiascos, yes, but the Browns drafted some people who were high on other teams’ draft boards too, and they have flopped.
I think Jackson gets it. I think he knows how to build a team and how to win. The new decision makers seem smart and focused. Something good could be happening. Anyway, something feels different.
Yes, it’s also true that I have watched this Cleveland Browns 2016 Season Ticket video approximately 249,000 times and am steeled for the staggering disappointments that probably lie ahead. But, for the moment, Cleveland has offered some reasons to believe. As a Browns fan, you take those whenever you can.