2016 Browns Preview (Part One of Four): Hue Hasn’t Changed His Colors

Note: I seem to have issues with my wisdom teeth. I’ve been zonked out on painkillers, so I didn’t get a chance to post this until now. Nothing has been changed to reflect Sunday’s game– I can’t think clearly enough to rewrite. The other stories are here:

It’s not exaggerating to say that the 2016 Browns season– and also the Hue Jackson era– ended before it began. If I read the events right, as I believe I have, we learned everything we needed to know in the last 2:30 of the first quarter of the third exhibition game, against Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay had just scored a a touchdown to take a 10-3 lead on one of those drives that head coaches adore and Browns fans have seen far too many times since 1999: 12 plays, 82 yards and it burned 5:36 on the clock.

The Browns had already let Tampa dictate the pace of the game. The Bucs had used the no-huddle on both drives. After using a huddle on two of the first three plays (both runs to Isaiah Crowell), Jackson had responded in kind:

  • No-huddle on the next seven plays
  • Shotgun on every play but one– another Crowell run.

This was disturbing on many levels. For one thing, if the Browns run the ball only when Robert Griffin III lines up under center, every defense they face will have a huge advantage. Second, lining up under center makes the case that Griffin is learning to play in a standard NFL offense. If almost everything he does is still out of the shotgun, it shows he’s still the same old RG3.

More to the point, Jackson hadn’t said, before the game, that he planned to use the no-huddle– it was clearly a response to the Bucs. A veteran coach of a team trying to rebuild should never be worried about gamesmanship in an exhibition game. The game doesn’t count; the score doesn’t matter. Use the time to work on the elements that you feel you need to practice.

But, down 10-3, the Browns came out in the shotgun and no-huddle again. Griffin missed connections to TE Randall Telfer on a short pass. Then he tried to throw a pass, couldn’t find anything and scrambled for four yards.

On third and six, he went back to pass, couldn’t find anything again and scrambled for eight yards. The play was called back because RT Austin Pasztor was called for holding.

On the next play, the Browns called time out– in the first quarter of a game where they were down by only seven points. On the next play, the best Griffin could do was a two-yard pass to WR Andrew Hawkins

Let’s stop to note a few issues:

  1. The Browns have lined up to throw on 10 of their first 13 plays– maybe nine if you think Griffin’s run on second down was a designed run.
  2. Journeyman Austin Pasztor– not #3 pick Shon Coleman or #5 pick Spencer Drango– is playing right tackle with the first unit.
  3. Griffin is 5-7 for 58 yards, but 44 yards have come on one throw.
  4. His five completions have gone to Puff Gordon, Gary Barnidge, Terrell Pryor and Andrew Hawkins– not any of the five receivers the Browns drafted (particularly their #1 pick, Corey Coleman).

And the time out, coupled with the decision to go no-huddle.

The Browns punted, and three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee booms the kick 52 yards toward Tampa’s left sideline. But the Browns, as they often do, fail to stay in their lanes and seal the edge. Adam Humphries, a second-year man who went undrafted, blows by the Cleveland kick coverage team and goes roaring up the sideline.

By the time Humphries got to where Lee and his blocking back were (the Cleveland 20, it’s already a 50+ yard return. Lee, who is 34– who plays the most important position on the Browns’ offense– who has no backup– who is playing in the first quarter of a game that does not count— has to decide what to do.

Josh McCown– who never calculates risk-reward on any of his actions– certainly would have tried to make the tackle. As would former Indian Grady Sizemore, who often injured himself diving for balls or trying to break up double plays in blowouts. Lee has six career tackles and two assists– he isn’t afraid of contact. But he makes the correct decision– why risk the injury.

And Hue Jackson went ballistic. Rather than scream at Chris Tabor, the Browns’ journeyman kicking teams coach, or the players who blew their assignments, Jackson ran over to Lee and began giving it to him.

Lee’s career as a Brown was over. After denying an event that everyone had seen, Jackson (I have been told by a team source) told the front office to get him off the club.

The front office– which had wanted to try to move Lee for months (he’s 34, is the third-highest-paid player, has three years and $10 million left on his deal and is a punter)– happily obliged.

They were able to make a good deal. The Carolina Panthers (who went to the Super Bowl a year ago and hope to go back again) had seen their punter go down for the year. They decided that an immediate, high-end solution– one that would not require an emergency search– was worth a #4 pick. But the Browns would have accepted less– they would have traded Lee for any offer.

At 7:03 of the second quarter, Jackson melted down again. On the first play of their fourth drive– having scored on their first three possessions– Winston connected with Mike Evans on a 47-yard pass. It moved the ball from the Tampa 15 to the Cleveland 38.

Jackson challenged the play. Color analyst Phil Simms stated the obvious: Jackson was upset about the big play and had lost his composure. The most optimistic look at the replay suggested that Evans might have stepped out 3-5 yards before he was ruled out.

You don’t waste your only opportunity in the half to challenge (which costs you a second time out if you lose) to get a few yards back. Especially when you have a defense run by Ray Horton. The Browns proved how little the yardage mattered two plays later by giving up a 34-yard bomb to Evans.

That made the score 27-3– and worse, eliminated any chance that the Browns might be on their way to turning things around.

Over the years, I’ve done many lengthy analyses of Browns head coach, speculating on how well he might do. That’s necessary if someone has never been a head coach before (or not done it in the NFL).

When a team hires a guy who’s been fired before, it’s much simpler. He’s a known commodity, so all you need to do is ask three questions:

1. How well did he do at his last job? Did he improve the record? If not, did he make the offense, defense and/or kicking teams better? If he didn’t do that, did he work magic with some unit? If not that, did he at least help some players?

Tom Cable’s 2010 Oakland Raiders (the team Jackson inherited) went 8-8. With Jackson as offensive coordinator, they scored 401 points (sixth in the league) John Marshall’s defense allowed 371 (20th). A team that outscores opponents by 30 more points should normally go 9-7. It’s fair to say the 2010 Raiders were
stronger than they looked.

Jackson went 8-8 again, but he made them worse in every respect.

He continued to call his own plays and the offense scored only 359 points (dropping to 16th). He fired the defensive coordinator; under his new one, the  defense allowed 433 points (down to 29th).

That’s a drop of over 100 points (42 scored and 62 allowed). That indicates Jackson’s team was much weaker its record. A team that allows 74 more points than it scored normally goes 6-10 or 5-11, not 8-8,

On kicking teams, both punt and kick coverage got worse– punt return average rose from 8.7 yards allowed to 13.5 yards.Under Cable, the Raiders returned three kicks or punts for TDs, allowing only one TD runback.

In 2011, under Jackson, they reversed the ratio: one return for a score; three opponent runbacks.

Last and least, under Jackson, the Raiders broke the NFL record for most penalties in a season (163) and most yards penalized (1,358).

2. Were there extenuating circumstances for the firing? Most coaching changes are due to wins and losses, but often there are other issues. Sometimes everyone expects a big year (rightly or wrongly) and they freak out when they don’t get one. Sometimes the coach alienates the players, media, GM or the owner. Or makes a bad trade or has a terrible draft (or does something that doesn’t pay off immediately).

With Jackson, it was all of the above. He might have been able to blame his 8-8 record on the loss of his starting quarterback in game six (with a 4-2 record), except that:

  • His quarterback was Jason Campbell, who went 32-47 as a starter. Nobody other than Washington (who spent a #1 on him) and Mary Kay Greenhouse (who predicted he could lead the Browns to a Super Bowl– and then retracted it a week or two later) ever thought he could play.
  • After the injury, Jackson traded a #1 and a #2 for Carson Palmer.
  • Before the season, Jackson had spent a #3 on Terrelle Pryor in the supplemental draft.

When he tried to point to Cambell’s injury, the media correctly reminded him that he’d given away half a draft’s worth of future picks for quarterbacks.

Also (as the media reminded him), Campbell wasn’t playing defense. The 2011 Raiders gave up the third-highest point total in team history, and also set franchise records for:

  • Most total yards allowed (6,201)
  • Highest yards per carry allowed (5.1)
  • Most yards passing allowed (4,262), and
  • Most TD passes allowed (31)

To quote from one post-firing story: “Oakland joined this season’s Tampa Bay team as two of the four teams to allow at least 30 TD passes and 5.0 yards per carry in a season, a distinction achieved previously by only the 1950 Baltimore Colts and 1952 Dallas Texans. The Raiders also became the sixth team since the 1970 merger to allow at least 2,000 yards rushing and 4,000 yards passing in a season.”

Writers quote stats like that when they don’t like a coach. They didn’t like Jackson because he used his press conferences to rip players, throw his assistants under the bus and blast writers for saying the team wasn’t playing well.

There were also the circumstances surrounding Al Davis’s death. The owner was old and sick (he died during the 2011 season) and Jackson had taken control of the front office. In addition to the deals I mentioned, he burned a number of other draft picks to get players, promising they would get the Raiders into the playoffs.

It didn’t work. There was a three-team tie at 8-8; the Raiders missed the playoffs because they went 1-4 in the last five games and lost 38-28 to San Diego in the season finale. At which point, Jackson claimed he hadn’t been behind most of the trades.

Here’s something you should know about Jackson: He’s as committed to telling the truth as Donald Trump. There is no reason to trust anything he says. Like trump, Jackson will say whatever he thinks will help him at the time– then, after his lie blows up, deny he lied.

Jackson’s behavior wasn’t just easy to prove false (the media had tape and transcripts of him touting the deals and promising they would work out). It was crass– he was blaming someone who (a) had made the Hall of Fame as an owner and (b) was dead abnd couldn’t defend himself. It was also incredibly stupid: with Davis dead, control of the team passed to his son

But wait, there’s more. When Mark Davis announced that he planned to hire a GM, Jackson demanded to be involved in the hiring– and told the media that the coach, not the GM, should have control over the roster. The new GM naturally decided he couldn’t work with Jackson, and immediately fired him.

3. Is there any reason to think that he’ll do better with you? Ideally, a guy who gets fired will (as Bill Belicheat did) replay every decision he made. Whatever one thinks of his morals (not much), Belicheat clearly thought about what he could have done better, asked his friends and mentors for advice and turned himself into a better coach. He made mistakes in Cleveland that he simply didn’t make in New England.

Another reason to hire a retread is that the new team is a better fit than his last one– they need what he can do. Gary Kubiak isn’t a good coach, but he knows more about offense than John Fox (which isn’t hard), and Wade Phillips doesn’t run as passive a defense as Fox did.

It is very difficult to know if a coach has changed. That’s why many teams don’t hire a man who has been fired. I have a friend who works in a front office that refuses to hire a former NFL head coach, Here’s why his GM won’t interview retreads:

You have to ask them if they’re going to do the things that got them fired last time. They’ll say whatever they think will get them the job. But very few of them do change.

“Once you hire a coach, you can’t fire him just because he hires his cronies, or doesn’t cut the veterans who played badly for you, or won’t draft players who address needs.”

On paper, Jackson was arguably the best hire of the six who were hired this off-season. After he’d been fired, Marvin Lewis rehired him, and Lewis tried to groom him for a head coaching position. First he made Jackson coach defensive backs (Jackson had never coached a defensive unit in his career). Then he switched Jackson (a former QB, who prefers to coach quarterbacks or receivers) to running backs. Only after Jay Gruden left for Washington, did Lewis give Jackson the coordinator’s job.

Some people like Chip Kelly (San Francisco); others expect big things from Adam Gase (Miami). You can argue (and I would) that neither is as good as he appears.

Doug Pederson (Philly), Dirk Koetter (Tampa Bay) and Ben McAdoo (the Giants) are all attempts to provide continuity or recapture glory. Koetter and McAdoo are promoted coordinators; Pederson has been running Andy Reid’s offenses.I wouldn’t expect any of these guys to succeed. Kelly maybe. Pederson possibly. McAdoo is a longshot. Miami and Tamps don’t have the owners or front office staff to allow a winner to develop.

But, since his hiring, Jackson has demonstrates that he’s going keep doing the stuff that got him fired last time.

A friend who has covered the NFL teams in the bay area since the turn of the century listed a number of issues with Jackson:

A. He doesn’t have technical knowledge about the defense or kicking teams. If reporters asked Jackson about a pass play, he would spend 5-10 minutes dissecting it in detail. He was a little fuzzier about line blocking and running lanes, but he clearly knew his stuff.

But if you asked him what went wrong on a defensive play, he didn’t respond that way. “We didn’t get it done” or “We didn’t execute” or “We needed to man up there” or (if pressed) “Talk to coach X about that.” It was the same problem Norv Turner (or myriad defensive coordinators) had– the guy stays in his comfort zone and lets the rest of the club run itself.

Anyone who follows the NFL closely knows that Ray Horton can’t coach defense. Hell, anyone who kept his eyes open during the 2013 Browns season should know that. Chris Tabor.

B. He doesn’t sweat the details until it’s too late. Unlike most coaches, who are control freaks and worrywarts, Jackson would downplay concerns about issues that worried fans, team executives and media.

Most of the people around the Raiders felt that Bruce Gradkowski wasn’t a very good quarterback, but Kyle Boller was terrible. If Campbell went down, Gradkowski didn’t have the talent required to win any games, but he was a steady player who might be able to manage a game to a win. Boller was a sack and turnover machine with a tendency to panic.

Jackson pooh-poohed it– but after Campbell went down and Boller played badly in a relief appearance and a start, the Raders traded a #1 and a conditional pick (#1 if they made the AFC Championship, #2 if they didn’t) for Palmer.

“I know it sounds insane, but I felt like we worried more about a nagging injury or a slumping player than Jackson did. He seemed to believe that he could overcome anything if he thought positively enough about it. He’d tell us to have faith and that we needed to trust him.”

C. He’s convinced he’s the smartest guy in the room. Jackson would decide, based on very limited exposure to a player, that he could and would become a star. He’d play hunches, bringing a guy in (or handing him the starting job), move someone else out. When the decision wasn’t working out, he’d want to ditch the guy and bring someone new in.

“We let TE Zach Miller leave because Jackson was convinced that Kevin Boss would be better. That hurt us. He thought he could get a big year out of T.J. Houshmandzedah. He was our version of Dwayne Bowe.

“It was obvious from the first practice that Terrelle Pryor would need years– if he could make it at all. Jackson talked him up like he was going to be Pro Bowl player in a year or two. Pryor was so hopeless that Jackson didn’t even let him take a snap.”

D. He has no control over his temper.  When something bad happened– and the team needed to stay on an even keel– players look to the coach for leadership. Jackson often lost control of himself, often visibly enough that he would lose the players.

“I really think you’ve got another Norv Turner. Whatever you gain on offense, you’ll lose on defense and special teams. He’ll cut players you need and take flyers on guys who won’t help. And he’s a total prick when you’re losing. I’d expect Joe Thomas and Joe Haden to hate him by the end of the year.”

After It’s very difficult to see how or where any of that is wrong. With the possible exception of the receiving corps (which couldn’t have gotten much worse) and defensive line (which should be Pro Bowl caliber, given all the picks thrown at it), I don’t see any area of the team that is any better than it was a year ago.

A year ago, the strength of the team was the offensive line and defensive backfield. I’d grade them both as below average. The Browns don’t have a single linebacker I trust– and they might be scouring the waiver wire for quarterbacks in a few weeks.

The Browns will have to hope the running backs improved– there isn’t any reason to think they will. And all four elements of kicking teams have been shaky this year.

And not one of the people in charge– Jackson, his coordinators or The Marx Brothers– shows any indication that he knows what he is doing.

It’s almost impossible for a team to go 0-16, simply because some of the opponents will have catastrophic seasons or bad days. But other than Philadelphia (playing a rookie QB in week one), and several teams that could blow apart (Dallas, Tennessee, Buffalo, Miami, San Diego, the Giants), it’s difficult to see any games that grade as wins.

The Browns went 3-13 last year. They could very easily do worse this year.


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