Hue Jackson left wondering what derailed a once promising future
This is not the Hue Jackson most football fans have come to know. He is seated on the edge of his king bed in a downtown Indianapolis hotel room, the smell of onions from room service heavy in the air. He is talking softly and slowly -- a strong contrast from his one season as Raiders' head coach in 2011.
Back then Jackson spoke boldly and loudly. One of his favorite words was "bully," something he wanted his team to do to opponents. But on this night Jackson is contrite and confused, openly questioning how his career could go from the fast lane to the off-ramp practically overnight.
Surely it has nothing to do with his ability to coach -- if there's one thing Jackson can do, it's coach. He excelled as an assistant with Washington, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore, and in his two seasons with the Raiders, the last as head coach, he took an offense that ranked 31st among 32 teams and transformed it into a unit that finished 10th in 2010 and ninth in '11 in total yards. It also ranked second and seventh in rushing yards, dramatic improvements over the 21st- and 28th-place finishes it had in the seasons immediately before and after he joined the Raiders.
So what gives?
Jackson knows but he doesn't know. He's heard it has to do with others perceiving him as a power-hungry opportunist who'll step on or over anyone to climb the professional ladder. He denies it.
He has heard it's because he's brash and confident, a "me guy" in a world that prefers "team guys" -- or who at least pretend to be team guys. He definitely is confident and, at times, brash. But a me guy? No way, he says.
Still, despite doing a phenomenal job with the Raiders offense, he couldn't find a job on the offensive side of the ball after being fired in Oakland (newly hired general manager Reggie McKenzie wanted to bring in his "own guy"). He also received only one interview for a coordinator position this offseason despite eight teams changing head coaches (Carolina coach Ron Rivera elected to stay in house and promote Mike Shula).
Several general managers, who spoke about Jackson's situation under the condition their names be kept confidential, either because he doesn't work for their organization or because they've worked with him in the past and don't want to create a potentially awkward situation, said at the Scouting Combine that Jackson is a talented offensive coach who would do well as a coordinator, a title he has held twice since entering the NFL in 2001. But ...
"Sometimes these things are about comfort hires," said one executive. "It's hard to hire a very confident individual that has stepped out of the box, so to speak, which Hue has on occasion. When head coaches are making that hire, they're going to be a little cautious because they feel he might threaten their position. You have some who don't hire someone who's more qualified and might take their job and hurt their credibility. The people who are successful in this business don't think that way, but you have some who do."
The general managers traced Jackson's situation back to his final game as Oakland's coach in 2011.
The Raiders could have made the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season with a win, but instead they failed to force a punt and were beaten 38-26 by the visiting Chargers. Instead of following his usual routine of showering and clearing his head before meeting with the media, Jackson went directly from his meeting with the players to his session with the media. He prefaced his remarks by saying he accepted responsibility for the team, said he accepted responsibility for the club's performance, but then appeared to quickly distance himself from the players.
"I'm pissed at my team," Jackson said. "At some point in time as a group of men you go in the game and you can say whatever you want about coaches, [but] you win the game. Here's your time. Here's your time to make some plays. We didn't get them stopped and we didn't make enough plays. Yeah, I'm pissed at the team. Like I tell them I always put it on me, but I am pissed at my team because when you have those kind of opportunities you've got to do it, and we didn't do it."
Jackson, whose biggest supporter, owner Al Davis, died midway through the season, was asked if he was going to take a stronger hand in solidifying a porous defense.
"I'm going to take a stronger hand in this whole team, this whole organization," he said, fully aware that Davis' son, Mark, planned to hire a general manager in the offseason. "There ain't no way that I'm going to feel like I feel today a year from now. I promise you that. I ain't feeling like this no more. This is a joke. To have a chance at home to beat a football team that is reeling after being beaten in Detroit, who's one of your rivals and they come in here and beat us like that. I'm going to take a hand in everything."
Many outsiders viewed that comment as a power grab, with one rival executive saying, "Perception in this business is reality. Some owners hear that and say, 'I don't want that guy in our building because of the way he challenged ownership when he was going down.'"
Jackson has said repeatedly he regrets his word choice in that situation, but not the message he was sending to the team. "I will never make that mistake again in terms of the way that I spoke, but I wasn't how I was portrayed, like I was throwing everybody under the bus, that I wanted to be the general manager, that I wanted to be this or that," he said recently. "People would have had to have lived in my shoes that year, or since I was hired, to know what I was going through. If I could, I'd do it differently. My intentions were not to come off like I was the end-all or be-all, as some people have told me I did."
Jackson claims that before being hired as offensive coordinator in 2010, Al Davis offered him the position of general manager. Jackson says he turned it down because his passion is coaching and working with players. He says he and Davis never discussed him taking the head coach position -- contrary to speculation that he accepted the coordinator position with an eye on the top job, held by Tom Cable at the time.
Rather than live in the past, Jackson, who'll coach the Bengals' running backs this season, wants to look ahead. He says he's seeking nothing more than an opportunity, which he really hasn't gotten since being fired. Despite breathing life into an Oakland offense that was among the walking dead, taking it from 197 points the year before his arrival to 357 points in his first season, he has been interviewed just twice for a coordinator job, in St. Louis in 2012 and Carolina this year.
"I get surprised by some of the things that are said about me," Jackson said. "Look, I'm not shy. A lot of people in this business go along to get along, and I respect that. But when you ask me an honest question, I'm going to give you an honest answer. I don't think some people like that sometimes. But this thing is about winning. That's what it's always been. Some people don't like that. Some people run from confrontation. I don't run from confrontation. I never have. Some people want you to cower, and there is a time for all of that. But if you ask me something I'm going to tell you.
"Everybody is not for everybody. I'm very vocal, I'm very vocal with my players, I'm very confident in what I'm able to do, and sometimes people take that the wrong way. But I can't worry about what the next man is thinking. My challenge is, go look at what I've coached, who I've coached, go talk to the players and ask them. If you did that you'd get an entirely different description of me. My challenge is to get people to bring me in and let me challenge them on the things that they've heard, because I'm not who some people have painted me to be. I've asked several people who I trust in this business what's going on, but they tell me to be patient, that things will work out."
The fact that Jackson's style is even being discussed could be construed as comical, since brash and bold is celebrated with other coaches (see: anyone with the surname Ryan). But, as one general manager said, Jackson simply needs to put his head down and keep marching forward. Time, he said, should wash anyway any negative stigmas. But will it?
"You have to separate the personal from the professional," said another executive. "The professional isn't the problem with Hue -- it's the personal. The person that hires him [as a coordinator or head coach] is going to have to be comfortable with the personal, because this business is all about relationships."