Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco talks about playing against Browns head coach Hue Jackson and about how he felt after playing in the season opener. (Jonas Shaffer, Baltimore Sun video)
Few people can understand why Hue Jackson took the top coaching job in Cleveland better than Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
A year or two before he arrived in Cincinnati in 2003, Lewis was one of the NFL's top assistants and his name had surfaced a lot during head-coaching searches. But sometimes he didn't even get an interview.
"Back then, [Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome] told me I better be careful, or some day I could end up being the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals," Lewis said, laughing. "The opportunities to be a signal-caller, a coordinator or a head coach in the NFL are limited for anybody, but even less for minorities.
"You just can't always wait. I felt the same way coming into Cincinnati."
Entering his 13th season in what used to be one of the NFL's worst jobs, Lewis has guided the Bengals to the playoffs in six of the last seven years.
Jackson, 50, would like to duplicate one of his best friends' success.
The Browns haven't been the playoffs since 2002 and have had just two winning seasons since re-entering the NFL in 1999. Since then, the team has gone through eight head coaches, including four since Jimmy Haslam purchased the team in August 2012.
Jackson, in his first year in Cleveland, needs to be a miracle worker as much as a coach. According to Lewis, an agreement was in place for Jackson — the Bengals' offensive coordinator the past two seasons and an assistant for two more seasons before that — to become the Bengals' head coach in two years. Bengals president Mike Brown cried when Jackson told him he was leaving for Cleveland.
"My thought process was that it was the right opportunity and the right fit for me," Jackson said. "I am truly committed to the task at hand with the people here with Dee and Jimmy Haslam as the owners, and Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry, some of our executives that are truly involved in our football organization. I feel very good about our process and what we're trying to do.
"I know it's not a glamorous-looking opportunity right now, but I'm not worried about that. I'm more worried about making sure we get our process right so that as we head into the future we become a team that can sustain winning over time, and I think we'll do that."
Jackson has been through this before. After a year as Oakland's offensive coordinator in 2010, he became the Raiders' coach in 2011. The Raiders finished 8-8, but Jackson was fired because the team had new owners.
"I think, for me, I've been a lot more patient," Jackson said of what he learned in Oakland. "I understand that it takes a village to run an organization. That it's not just Hue Jackson and a couple of other people. We all have a part in this in order to get this organization where it needs to be – that I don't have all the answers. There are others that have a ton of input in getting this right. It's about being collaborative and being a collaborative group and working together. It's been outstanding here so far."
Lewis basically restarted Jackson's career by hiring him as a defensive assistant in Cincinnati, and eventually as the offensive coordinator. Lewis, though, noticed a difference in Jackson from the fallout in Oakland.
Jackson's confidence might have been shaken.
"I think once he came back here he was more comfortable," Lewis said. "He had family that lived in the area, guys he had coached with like Mike Zimmer, myself and Darrin Simmons.
"Hue has good relationships with people and players. He can get guys to play hard for him because he likes building those relationships. That's one of the reasons that I think he will succeed."
Jackson also likes tinkering with offenses. He has worked with some of the league's best quarterbacks in Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. He is creative in running everything from the Wildcat to unbalanced lines to putting offensive linemen in motion.
Cincinnati had one of the NFL's most explosive offenses under Jackson. When the Ravens travel to Cleveland on Sunday to face the Browns in their home opener, the Ravens will have to prepare for almost anything.
"The circus is in town," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We are looking at film from three or four years ago of all these funky formations. We are expecting everything. Hue was here, so we have a great deal of respect for Hue. This is his home opener. They are coming off of an emotional loss last week, and they lost their starting quarterback. They are going to be ready.
"We expecting Hue to throw the kitchen sink at us. We are preparing for everything. They have a receiver over there who was once a quarterback [Terrelle Pryor]. Don't be surprised if they come out there with that 'Little Giants' formation, the Flying V. They have something up their sleeve for us; we just have to be able to prepare for it and react for it."
Suggs' feeling about Jackson illustrates the type of relationship Jackson likes to build. While serving as the Ravens' quarterbacks coach from 2008-09, Jackson and Suggs had constant, playful verbal exchanges. It was as much a part of practice as stretching and conditioning.
And Jackson still has a relationship with Flacco, who's first two years in the league were Jackson's two years with the Ravens.
"Hue is great, I have a lot of respect for Hue. I had a lot of fun here with him," Flacco said. "We had a lot of fiery battles between us and a lot of really good times our first two years. I love him. A lot of what he taught me is a lot of the reason I am here and the reason we still play the way we do."
Finding a quarterback now, though, is a problem for Jackson. The first big mistake he made was trading away the No. 2 pick in the draft instead of selecting North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. The Browns eventually selected 14 players in the draft, but it's hard to win without acquiring a franchise quarterback.
You build around your quarterback, not build your team and then select a quarterback. The Browns signed Robert Griffin III, but he injured his non-throwing shoulder last week against the Eagles and could miss the remainder of the season. The Browns are left with Josh McCown, who has played well against the Ravens, but has also suffered various injuries the last two seasons.
Who will be the Browns' next quarterback? Who knows; these are the Browns. They look a lot like an expansion team right now.
But those close to Jackson say he will succeed because he has the right work ethic and learned from John Harbaugh and Lewis, two of the better coaches in the NFL.
"The first time I ever met Hue he almost knocked me down trying to get to a player," Lewis said. "He has a great personality and a big heart. He learned a lot from the first time in Oakland and since then he has only gained more experienced, worked harder and gotten better. He will do well, even in Cleveland, which was a lot like Cincinnati."