Continuity has eluded Hue Jackson at every turn in his career as an NFL coach. His first three shots at an offensive coordinator job were one-year stints for outgoing head coaches: 2003, Steve Spurrier’s final year in Washington; 2007, Bobby Petrino’s aborted tenure in Atlanta; and then 2010 in Oakland, where he held play-calling duties for the first time before replacing Tom Cable as head coach the following season.
Only in Cincinnati, where Jackson has spent seven of his 15 years in the pros—including the last four—had he ever found a measure of stability. He walked away from that on Wednesday when he agreed to become the Browns’ eighth head coach in 15 years, placing himself right back at the center of a franchise well-versed in turmoil. But in the end, the Bengals will miss Jackson’s energy, bravado and offensive acumen more than Jackson will miss the team’s consistency and structure.
Jackson, who was on the short list of nearly every team with a coaching vacancy this off-season, set the tone for the Bengals’ season with his cryptic preseason proclamation that Cincinnati would “open Pandora’s box more” on offense and then backed that metaphor up with a high-scoring 8–0 start and an eventual division title. He was the architect of this season’s No. 1 offense by Football Outsiders’s DVOA, and he coaxed Andy Dalton from No. 20 in the league in yards per attempt among qualified quarterbacks to No. 2 in his second year on the job.
Jackson’s interview schedule and whereabouts had generated an amount of post-Black Monday buzz second only to ex-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who became the first candidate off the board when he was hired by the Dolphins on Saturday. Though he may fall under the technical definition of a retread hire, Jackson’s lone season of head coaching experience in Oakland in 2011 was bizarre enough to deserve its own category.
That season changed the trajectory for Jackson. After being fired when the Raiders fell on the other side of that year’s three-way tie atop the league’s worst division, Jackson returned to Cincinnati to rejoin the staff of his old ally Marvin Lewis. Starting as the Bengals’ secondary coach, Jackson worked his way back up the ladder, and when Jay Gruden left for Washington’s top job, he took control of an offense that had just finished 17th in DVOA for the third consecutive year.
If experience in the center of organizational chaos can be spun as a selling point, it’s hard to think of a better trial by fire than Jackson’s two years in Oakland. Cable was fired after an eight-win season—three more victories than the Raiders had posted in any of the previous seven years—and in his place Jackson countered the overbearing presence of Al Davis with expressive affection for the Raiders’ renegade owner and an abrasive confidence that the team’s fans connected with.
When Oakland held on for a last-second win in Houston the day after Davis’s death, Jackson knelt to the turf overcome with emotion, then delivered a tearful speech in the locker room. When the Raiders threw away their shot at the playoffs on the last day of the season by giving up a 99-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive at home, he railed at the team’s effort in his end-of-season press conference. His high-energy, hyper-competitive approach hit more times than it missed, but it would never have worked with the methodical front office that took over.
This year in Cincinnati, Jackson’s tactics and rhetoric have helped change the conversation around Dalton’s development. Heading into his sixth season, Dalton doesn’t deserve the sympathy of other young quarterbacks exposed to a revolving door of coordinators early in their careers, since his early success has paved the way for both Gruden and Jackson to earn promotions elsewhere. On the other hand, he improved so dramatically this season after four years of consistent results that had turned from encouraging to frustrating as he got older, and a backslide in 2016 would rekindle the concerns that he has already found his ceiling.
It remains to be seen whether the Bengals will hire a like-minded replacement for Jackson—as the Bears did in promoting quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to replace Gase—or take a different route
, but the risk in the latter option seems like a lot to bear for a franchise staring down five straight one-and-done playoff appearances. Jay Cutler has been a pro twice as long as Dalton, and even his 2016 outlook was uncertain before it was clear the Bears were staying in-house with Loggains.
While Dalton’s broken thumb and a heartbreaking wild-card loss to the Steelers will be the target of much of the off-season’s hand-wringing in Cincinnati, the Bengals will miss Jackson next year and beyond more than many are expecting. As he crosses Ohio in search of a turnaround he can put his name on, the results of his first shot at a second year in charge stand as a testament to just what the Bengals are losing.