The Cincinnati Bengals have been frustrated by flameouts in the first round of the NFL playoffs three years in a row, mainly due to a sputtering offense. When offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left to become head coach of the Washington Redskins, the Bengals turned to a man with a blowtorch personality and a restless craving for change.
Hue Jackson's appointment as Cincinnati's offensive coordinator for 2014 marks the fifth consecutive year the brash 48-year-old has changed jobs, if not employers.
He was the Bengals' running backs coach last year, and their special teams and defensive backs assistant the year before that. In 2011, he was head coach in Oakland, earning that promotion after just one year as the Raiders' offensive coordinator.
The last time Jackson, who has worked for six NFL teams in 14 years, held the same job two years in a row was 2008 and 2009, as the Ravens' quarterbacks coach under head coach John Harbaugh.
"When you think about all the moves I've made in my career, I was always putting myself in position to become a play caller," said Jackson, who also coached for 14 years in college.
"Everybody talks about my time with Steve Spurrier [as offensive coordinator with the Redskins in 2003]. Well, I wasn't the play caller with Steve Spurrier. I wasn't the play caller for Bobby Petrino [as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in 2007]. That's what people don't really understand. You don't get those opportunities in the National Football League until you've coached a quarterback. And the only guy who allowed me to do that in the beginning was John Harbaugh."
Given the freedom to discover, draft and develop the quarterback of his choice, Jackson helped guide Joe Flacco to two of the best seasons to start a career in NFL history: a combined 6,584 yards, 35 touchdown passes, back-to-back playoff appearances and three postseason victories.
That success earned Jackson his first job as a play caller when Al Davis brought him to Oakland, and a year later the Southern California native realized another dream when he replaced Tom Cable as Raiders head coach.
After 12 job changes with 10 pro and college teams in 24 years, Jackson finally was ready to settle into something permanent.
And then it was taken from him. When Davis died, the owner's son, Mark, took over and fired Jackson after an 8-8 season.
Unlike Jackson's previous moves, this one was done against his will. And it stung.
"The way it ended, I was disappointed," Jackson said. "I'll be the first one to tell you that. But at the end of the day, I grew a lot and learned a lot about myself and about other people and how all of this works. So I'm better for it.
"Do I wish it was different? Oh, yeah. But at the same time, I'm not bitter about it. It brought me back here with people I know and trust."
Back with the Bengals
Jackson and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis have a long history that dates to 2002, when they were on Spurrier's staff in Washington. Lewis brought Jackson to Cincinnati to develop Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as wide receivers coach from 2004 to 2006. And after the fallout in Oakland, Lewis was the first one to call Jackson, even though he didn't have a position for him.
"Hue is going to bring energy to anything he does," Lewis said. "He brought it to us on defense, he brought it to us as running backs coach, and this year, he's going to bring that energy to the offensive football team."
Jackson didn't mind dropping several rungs on the coaching ladder, because taking players out of their comfort zone is his style.
"Hue is the kind of guy who is going to challenge you and keep you from getting comfortable, no matter who you are," said Bengals backup quarterback Jason Campbell, who was the starter in Oakland during Jackson's two seasons there.
"He pushes for greatness. He's not going to let anyone settle. Not even A.J."
A.J. Green, the Bengals' star wide receiver who has increased or equaled his receptions, yardage and touchdowns while making the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the league, feels — and hears — Jackson's prodding every day.
"He never tells me what I'm doing good," Green said. "He's always pushing me, always telling me I need to do this, I need to work on that. That's all I hear from him."
While trying to push the already elite Green to an even higher level is a worthy challenge, Jackson's main aim is getting the entire offense, which he says is he most talented he has ever coached, to go faster and further.
The Bengals have made three consecutive postseason appearances largely on the strength of their defense, which ranked seventh overall in 2011, sixth in 2012 and third in 2013.
But a wobbly offense has stopped them each January. And the bulk of the blame has fallen on quarterback Andy Dalton.
Developing a QB
Handed the starting job the day he was drafted, Dalton has shown flashes of greatness in the regular season. But he also has melted down in big games, particularly the two road playoff losses to the Houston Texans and last year's three-interception performance in the wild-card-game loss at home to the San Diego Chargers.
Improving Dalton's play is Jackson's foremost charge as coordinator.
"My job is to help him through the process, and I think I can," Jackson said. "Andy has all the characteristics that you want. Now what I need to do is make sure I get him to do it consistently when it's a tough time."
Jackson wants the offense to be a reflection of himself — physical, bold, energetic, loud.
"He wants to get the play in quick so he can start trash-talking the defense," Dalton said. "The rest of it is on me. Obviously, he was with the offense last year, so we already had a relationship. But just the amount of support and the trust I get, and knowing that I'm his guy and that I'm going to be running everything, is great."
Jackson said he knows he isn't going to transform the more laid-back Dalton into a clone of himself, but he already has seen a change in their few months together.
"I don't expect him to be me any more than the other way around," Jackson said. "My energy, my exuberance, my passion is a good thing. His poise and the way he's so unflappable is a good thing. I think we can play off each other.
"But there's a time I'm going to need him to demonstrate that fire. The team's only going to go where the quarterback goes. This is his football team, and it's time for him to step forward and take responsibility."
That first big step will be today in Baltimore for the season opener. It will mark a new beginning for Dalton and the rest of the Cincinnati offense, but for Jackson, it will be more than that.
"It's always special when I go back to Baltimore, because I think it's one of the better organizations in football, top to bottom," Jackson said. "From Steve Bisciotti, there are some unbelievable people there, and this business is about people.
"I would not be sitting where I am today if it wasn't for John Harbaugh. John gave me his quarterback. People don't do that. They don't say you come help us draft a quarterback and coach this guy. What he did, to me, broke the mold of what was really happening in the National Football League. So I will always be indebted to him for that."
While Harbaugh helped move Jackson closer to two of his career goals, the Ravens head coach will stand directly in the way of the last one.
"I've always wanted to be a Raiders coach, and I did that," Jackson said. "I had aspirations of being a head coach. I've done that. I still have aspirations of winning a Super Bowl. It's time to get back to work on that."
Bengals by the numbers
Postseason wins under coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals are 0-5 in the playoffs since Lewis took over in 2003.
Playoff appearances in a row under Lewis. The Bengals lost to the San Diego Chargers, a wild-card team, last season.
Home victories for the Bengals last season. Cincinnati was one of just three teams to go 8-0 at home.
Ranking among NFL teams for franchise value ($990 million) in Forbes Magazine.
Three things that need to go right for Bengals
** Quarterback Andy Dalton lives up to his six-year, $115 million contract extension and helps the Bengals finally win a playoff game under Marvin Lewis.
** The new coordinators of the offense and defense seamlessly take over for Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to help the Bengals duplicate last season's 11-5 record and AFC North championship.
** A.J. Green continues to emerge as one of top receivers in the NFL. Last season he had 98 catches for 1,426 yards.
Three things that could go wrong
** With two new coordinators, the offense and defense take steps back early in the season and can't recover.
** Under the pressure of his new contract, Dalton is bad Dalton in the playoffs and in close games.
** The two other potential playoff teams in the division, the Ravens and Steelers, get off to fast starts.