Hue Jackson knows all about the negativity. After all, when you’re the Browns’ coach, it’s a prerequisite of the job to understand what has come before. It is not for the faint of heart.
Jackson became the team’s eighth head coach since football came back to Cleveland in 1999, and his quarterback, Robert Griffin III, will become the 14th different opening-day starter in that time. Griffin will be the 24th different starting quarterback when the Browns face the Eagles in Sunday’s regular-season opener. There have been only two winning seasons in this second coming in Cleveland, and just one playoff berth.
Longtime Browns reporter Tony Grossi even has a Twitter hashtag for all those seasons of disappointment and statistics of failure: #100yearswar. It’s just about perfect.
So how does a coach not let all that get to him and the people around him?
“I’ve always told our players, and it’s the same thing I would tell anybody, whether they’re Browns fans or Browns players or even the people in our building that work here,” Jackson said. “Be very careful what you let go in your ears, because it’s about what we do. It’s not about what people say, it’s about what we do or what we don’t do. We’re in control of how this thing goes, and we have to strive to be the best we can be.”
Wise words from a long-time NFL assistant and one-time head coach of the Raiders. Now we see if Jackson can transform his new team from the depths of disappointment to a consistent winner.
Jackson is described by those around him as a relentless optimist who looks at problems as opportunities, not obstacles. His enthusiasm is both genuine and contagious.
“He’s very different than any head coach that I’ve had at any level and in any sport,” longtime Browns All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas said. “He’s so energetic and engaging and personable and motivating. He’s a guy whose passion every day is real. It’s not a phony passion, and that’s something that rubs off on the players every day.”
Thomas contends that motivation at the NFL is much more important than most people know. Even at the highest level of the sport, most players need a head coach to get them going.
“I’d say maybe 20 percent of the guys in the NFL are self-motivated,” Thomas said. “For those guys, it’s so important to them because they don’t want to embarrass themselves and they don’t want to embarrass their teammates. They don’t want to embarrass their family, their team.
“But then there’s 80 percent of the guys that if there’s not somebody kicking them in the butt every day, they’re going to take the easy route. A lot of those guys got here because they’re super-talented, and they’ve succeeded in college because they’re so much better than everybody else. Maybe the NFL was their goal, and they’re happy to be here. They’ll play well at times, but there’s none of that striving for excellence. But having a guy like Hue kicking them in the butt every day, I think that brings a little extra out of that 80 percent. That love of the game is really cool, because it rubs off on everybody. When he’s up there in front of the team or the whole offense, you can just see how excited he really is. It makes meetings fun, if that’s even possible.”
Thomas also marvels at how involved Jackson has become with the entire team, not just the offense, which has been his specialty as a highly respected offensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
“He’s the offensive coordinator, but he’s just as involved in every step the offensive line makes, every pass the quarterback makes, every route the receivers run, and he demands perfection because he loves it so much,” Thomas said.
Jackson also is involved with the defense, something he believes is essential to earning the respect of his players.
“I’ve always been like that,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, I think the players want to know that you know. Obviously, I was able to have this job because of a specialty, which was on offense, and I think that’s important. That’s an area where I think I can help our football team the most. But it’s also been fun to look at the defense and tell what things should be done. At the same time, I would hope that the things that I’m good at, I’m able to pass along, and the things I’m not, I have guys that are extremely good at what they do to help.”
It helps, too, that Jackson, 50, has seen what it’s like to be a head coach, even though he lasted just one season with the Raiders in 2011.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever ready their first time,” he said. “I know people say they are, but you can’t practice all the different things that come at you your first opportunity. But I think your second opportunity, you kind of know the lay of the land and what to expect. I think the guys who have done it for a long time, guys like Marvin Lewis and Bill Belichick, I commend them because then they were able to stick through some good times and some bad times, too, where they had to get over things. So when you get that second opportunity, you’ve got to do it right, because there probably won’t be a third opportunity around the corner.”
Jackson joined a Browns team that was bereft of talent and is in the first year of a massive personnel overhaul after Mike Pettine was fired following a two-year run. The Browns had the second overall pick and could have taken a quarterback — Carson Wentz of North Dakota State would have been the most likely choice there — but Jackson decided to take a chance on Griffin and trade the pick to the Eagles. It is a move that has come under scrutiny, especially as the Browns prepare to play an Eagles team with Wentz as its No. 1 quarterback after last week’s trade of Sam Bradford to the Vikings.
The Browns’ chief strategy officer, Paul DePodesta, a former Major League Baseball executive, recently said the Browns passed on Wentz because they didn’t think he could become a top-20 quarterback in the NFL. Does Jackson agree?
“I think it’s hard for me to say that,” he told Eagles reporters on a conference call during the week. “I think Carson Wentz can be whatever he wants to be. I really do. I think he’s going to be a good player. But again, he’s at the Philadelphia Eagles and we made a decision to not go in that direction. I think a lot of things are going to be written and said because we didn’t, but it’s going to take a little time before that decision of what we did or what anybody else did will come to fruition. I think we have to just let it all play itself out and see what happens here pretty soon.”
The Browns trust Jackson can turn the team’s fortunes around, although this will clearly be a years-long project. Jackson believes he — and the organization — are up to the task.
“It’s all about the people I’m with,” he said. “I truly believe in [owners] Dee and Jimmy Haslam. I believe in [general manager] Sashi Brown. I believe in Paul [DePodesta]. We all have a collaborative idea of what it’s going to take and our vision is the same about what it’s going to take to build the Browns’ organization back to what we want it to be. We’re all joined at the hip in doing that. I think we know that one can’t succeed without the other, so I think we’re working at it from the ground level up.”
Jackson also will lean on the advice once given to him by then-Raiders chief operating officer Amy Trask, whom Jackson credits with teaching him more about the NFL than anyone else.
“We went through a tough time together after [Raiders owner] Al Davis died,” Jackson said. “Amy was my right hand. There was nothing I did at the Raiders without her. She taught me the National Football League game. She worked at the knee of Al Davis for a long time, so there’s a lot of lessons she taught me about and a lot of wisdom that she gave me. There’s a lot of things I’m doing here that is in remembrance of Amy Trask. She taught me how to deal with people and how to get the best out of people.”
The best thing she ever told him?
“You be you,” Jackson said. “Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not, and you’ll get enough to get done what you want to get done if you work at it.”