Inside an emotional scene in Cleveland, where Hue Jackson’s team closed the book on a dismal 2016 with a victory for its veteran leaders. Plus a word on the passing of special teams ace Bruce DeHaven and reader mail
May 2015. Doctors tell veteran Carolina special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven—ex of the Bills, Seahawks, 49ers, Cowboys and Panthers—he has three to five years to live. Prostate cancer. He’s got a big decision to make. With the fervent support of his family, the genial DeHaven chooses to coach the 2015 season with the Panthers.
Three months later, in training camp, DeHaven told me: “I love coaching. I just do. I love teaching football. There’s a story I need to tell you. I grew up in Kansas, a farm kid. And I got to be a high school coach, and in 1976, the team I coached in Wichita went to Kansas City and won the state championship. So we’re headed home to Wichita after the game on a yellow school bus, and everyone’s so happy, and I’m happy we won, of course. But part of me was so sad. The season’s over. I don’t get to coach these kids I love to coach on Monday. It’s over. So it’s the coaching, the teaching, the process. That’s what I love.
“From life on the farm to the NFL … I mean, are you kidding me? Coaching in the Super Bowl? With Hall of Fame coaches? Marv Levy, Bill Parcells. My gosh, I understand what Lou Gehrig said. I honestly feel it. I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Turns out DeHaven had a year and a half. He died Tuesday night. One of the best special-teams coaches in NFL history is gone, a salt-of-the-earth guy with a knack for making fourth receivers and fifth linebackers great special-teamers.Tributes will pour in over the next few days, and I’ll have more on DeHaven in my Monday column. It’s a sad day, particularly in Buffalo, where he was the coach of the great Bills’ special-teamer Steve Tasker and his mates.
“I was a better football player because Bruce DeHaven was my coach,” Tasker said Tuesday night, “but I was a better man because Bruce DeHaven was my friend.”
Today, I’ll take the top of my column today to report on the Cleveland Browns getting off the schneid.
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When he took the field Sunday for Cleveland, all-pro left tackle Joe Thomas, the best player on the worst team in recent football history, was 3-32 in his previous 35 games. His coach, Hue Jackson, was 0-14 in his rookie year with the Browns.
“I’m sure people would look at you funny if you told them, here we were, 0-14, with nothing to play for that people would see, and everybody thinking we’re going 0-16, and we really wanted to win this game badly,” Thomas said from Cleveland on Tuesday afternoon. “This was something really important to the people on this team, the people on the coaching staff and front office, and the people in this city. In 10 years, when I’m gone from this game, I’ll look back and wonder, Why was I so emotional back on that day in 2016 when we played San Diego? You just had to be in the stadium Sunday to feel it. You had to be in our locker room. The fans just wanted a win so bad. So did we.”
During the week before taking the field against 5-10 San Diego, Jackson acknowledged he thought of the obvious. “This was our shot,” he said. “We couldn’t be going to Pittsburgh with them needing to win to make the playoffs or for seeding and … ” He didn’t have to finish. Jackson’s an NFL veteran. The Browns weren’t going to Pittsburgh and pulling a Buster Douglas on Mike Tyson. They had to beat San Diego.
The night before the game, in a downtown hotel, Jackson told his players this was their last opportunity to play together in Cleveland, as Browns. He told them things would change, big time, in the off-season. He told them that for Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins and Gary Barnidge and Joe Haden and for Tramon Williams, veterans who did things the right way, the young guys needed to win this game.
“We owe it to those guys,” Jackson told his team.
Then Jackson sat by himself in his room, for 20, 30, 40 minutes, looking at the game plan. “I looked at it 20 times at least,” Jackson told me after the game. “I sat there knowing we had a good plan to win, and thinking we were 0-14, and going back to all the different games we played, how many ways we’d lost. But this week, I felt really good about our plan. Mostly, I felt good about our players. They just worked. They never mailed it in. My ending scenario had us winning.”
But his ending scenario usually did.
When Jackson walked onto the field for warmups Saturday, Christmas Eve, he saw the signs. We Believe in Hue. And In Hue We Trust. What fans, he thought. He felt a different energy in warmups, from his players and the fans who showed up. The team built a 20-17 lead with six minutes left in the third quarter and hung on desperately. Cleveland had the ball five more times, trying to buttress the lead. And the Browns quarterback—first Robert Griffin III, then Cody Kessler—was sacked once on the first drive, twice on the second, and then once each on the third, fourth and fifth drives. Hanging on. Desperately hanging on. With 3:49 to play, the Chargers lined up for a 32-yard field goal. The Browns’ nose man on the rush team, Jamie Meder, played college football at nearby Ashland College. Meder grew up in the very blue-collar Cleveland suburb of Parma.
Meder pushed past the Charger center, and then the right guard, and stuck his right arm straight up in the air.
“You hear that thump,” Jackson said, “and you think, ‘Something good is happening to this football team.”
As Thomas said after the game: “The ‘Pierogi Prince of Parma’ does it again. That man is awesome. He is one of my favorites. I think he is playing in the polka band here this weekend on Christmas Day so if you guys get a chance, go out and watch him. He is the accordion player.”
“So fitting a guy from here makes the play,” said Jackson. “So fitting that a guy who does nothing but whatever’s best for the team—plays out of position, plays anywhere—makes the play of the game.”
Afterward, Jackson was asked what he said to Meder. “ ‘Great job!’” he said. “So many other things I wanted to say to him, I needed to say to him, I wished I’d said to him. But what do you think of at that moment, after the biggest play?”
It was a blur after the game. Jackson tried to say something to his team, but choked up after, “I told you guys about the veteran players, okay,” … and then couldn’t get anything else out. Thomas, weeping, stood next to Jackson as Barnidge stepped up with a game ball. “For sticking with us for the whole year … hasn’t been the way we wanted … but this one’s for you, Coach,” the vet tight end said.
Somebody yelled “MERRY CHRISTMAS COACH” and then there was a scrum around Jackson. Thomas hugged Jackson.
“I love you, Joe,” Jackson said.
“I love you too, coach,” Thomas said.
Jackson had a 15-second embrace with GM Sashi Brown. Jackson hugged half the locker room, and owner Jimmy Haslam. Jackson said this is what it’s supposed to feel like.
“Hopefully,” Jackson said, “what we did is a glimpse of what the future should be and could be. And will be.”
The most interesting thing about my conversation Tuesday with Thomas: He realized one of the truly important things about this first win. “We didn’t lose the first overall draft pick, because San Francisco won too,” Thomas said.
Now there’s a man who understands the real purpose of the season, after the Browns’ year all went so south. Draft season is pretty important in northeast Ohio. If the standings don’t change between now and Sunday night, the Browns will hold the first and 10th overall picks in the first round when the draft kicks off April 27 in Philadelphia. It’s almost 2017, and hope springs eternal in Cleveland—whether there’s reason for it or not.
Now for your email:
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WEEK 16 INJURIES
So, after the NFL loses two up-and-coming QBs in Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota, can we finally put this stupid, idiotic 18-game schedule idea to rest? I just can't believe that anyone wants another two weeks of potential injuries to prime players. Even the money-hungry owners have to see this, right?
—Christopher H., Palouse, Wash.
I have three comments, Christopher:
MARIOTA GOT HURT TOO
How could you omit mentioning the broken leg for Marcus Mariota yet you mention the identical injury to Derek Carr? Be consistent in how you provide info on top line quarterbacks please. We don't get much press as it is here for the Titans—but it has been a better year.
—Perry M., Nashville, Tenn.
Why one and not the other is easy: Oakland is moving on; Tennessee is out of the playoffs. In retrospect, I should have mentioned Mariota. But I didn’t have a lot to say other than I think he’s really going to be good for a long time and it’s a shame.
BELICHICK COACH OF THE YEAR
Thank you Peter for acknowledging Bill Belichick for his work this year. I have said to friends for the past four weeks, that either Tom Brady is the MVP or Belichick is the coach of the year. Most arguments against either revolves around the other: i.e. When Brady was out, the team went 3-1 without him, or (the reason every year why he isn’t considered for Coach of the Year) Belichick has Brady. I am an unabashed Patriots fan, and am thoroughly enjoying the current run. But for people to discount both of them because of the other is disingenuous.
The problem with never voting for Belichick because the Patriots are consistently so good is that you end up always discounting his accomplishments because the team is always so good. That is not fair. The Patriots are the best team in football this year, a point few could dispute right now. They’ve done it with three quarterbacks. They've done it without (arguably) their best two defensive players from last year, or at least their best two front-seven players in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Belichick’s a coaching metronome, and that should be to his credit, not his detriment.
ADD BILL O’BRIEN FOR COACH OF THE YEAR
Your coach of the year piece details what is probably the toughest call for the regular season. I am surprised that you have missed out Bill O'Brien from that list. He is the 'Rodney Dangerfield' of coaches because he's in the AFC South. Think of it—his MVP candidate JJ Watt is injured and knocked out for the season. His quarterback has been a severe disappointment. Yet somehow figures out a way to win close games and make the playoffs given the talent he has. If there was a ranking to classify wins per ounce of talent on a team Bill's ranking would be off the charts. Please reconsider your list with Bill.
I like O’Brien a lot. But that is a poor division, and whether his fault or not, he chose Brock Osweiler and Osweiler failed miserably. Kudos to Houston and O’Brien for finding a way to win the division, however.
CARR’S INJURY EFFECT ON THE MVP RACE
What does the injury to Derek Carr do to the MVP race? It's been an unspoken given that the award doesn't go to guys who get injured, but if the Raiders lose and fall to the 5 spot, and then lose their first playoff game, does that then make the case that Carr is the MVP?
Really good question, Corey. Thanks for raising it. I found myself thinking Sunday night about my vote, and about the greatness this year of Matt Ryan and Carr, and the importance of both. And not just about them. The Cowboys have two great candidates. New England has Tom Brady. It is really a tough call. I think I’m going to look at this closely late this week and share my thoughts in the column next Monday or Wednesday.
FACEMASK PENALTY ON ANTONIO BROWN TD
“Elam bounced off Brown. Weddle arm-barred Brown by the neck and tried to almost rope-tie him backward. Brown’s spindly legs, as he said, got low and pushed and pushed, and here came Orr, ready to blast Brown.”
While nicely written, it seems to be missing the fact that Brown was blatantly facemasked with his head twisted. And don’t forget about the defender who fell to the ground and tried to kick (presumably the ball) and whiffed. Both things being illegal that were inexplicably missed by the crew, and you apparently as well.
“Blatant?” I think not. It did appear the face mask was grabbed by Eric Weddle, and after watching the play again the morning I noticed it. If it were so blatant, the Mike Tirico crew would have nailed it Sunday night, and I would have noticed watching it eight or 10 times. This is one case I will take up for the officials. They had to watch closely to see if Brown broke the plane of the goal line and to see if either knee was down prior to breaking he plane if he did. I imagine, upon looking at the replay and the still photos of Weddle and Brown, you saw the face mask violation. I imagine you didn’t see it, as precious few did, in real time.
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