- Hue Jackson has won just one game in two seasons as Cleveland's head coach—and many front offices would consider that terms for firing without second thought. But the circumstances are different for the rebuilding Browns, explains Joe Thomas.
In 2016 and ’17, the Cleveland Browns went 1–31. One win in two seasons. When you look at the record on it's own, it’s abysmal. Horrible. Monumentally poor. But I’m glad that the Browns, a team I’ve proudly spent my entire pro career with, decided to retain Hue Jackson as head coach after two awful seasons in the standings. It wouldn’t be fair to judge Hue based on his record after just two seasons because few NFL teams have put themselves at such a disadvantage in order to save assets and focus on winning three or four years down the road.
When Hue was hired as head coach, he had no understanding that management was going to trade all their good players and current draft picks for future picks. The front office’s strategy was to save as much cap space as possible over two years, get rid of almost all the veteran free agents and compound draft picks for future years. The guys in charge realized that if the team was willing to accept two really horrible years, we could get some top-five picks, and if we trade one to somebody else, were going to get two first rounders in the future and so on. As the head coach, Hue was expected to hold the team together, develop players and get them to play hard—when everyone in the building knew the front office put us in the best position to lose. It’s hard to split hairs on that comment.
Ultimately the degree of losing became simply unpalatable, and the guys who enacted the plan couldn’t see it through. The team realized that while some of those strategies may work to rebuild baseball teams, it doesn’t quite work the same way in the NFL; the pain of losing is so much greater in the NFL, and fans, management and coaches struggle to tolerate it.
But the wheels are in motion, and I believe the original plan will work. I’m more excited about the team’s direction than I’ve ever been before in Cleveland, because many people in the building understand what it means to truly tear down a football team and start over.
Think about when a new coach comes to a college football team. He runs off all the older players and develops the players he recruited. At the end of the first four years, they're better players than they would’ve been had they sat behind the veterans for two or three years. The strategy: Play all these rookies, see what you got, then when those players are hitting their stride, you have all this cap space to spend money in free agency and you give yourself the best chance to win in the third and fourth years.
Welcome to Year 3. The Browns added three first-round picks in the NFL draft last April and have 12 picks in this year’s draft, including four picks in the first 35 and the No. 1 and No. 4 overall selections. And more importantly, in spite of playing with half a deck of cards, Hue kept the team together, kept the players focused, kept the coaches motivated and continued to develop players through two of the worst seasons ever. I don’t think many coaches could do that.
When Hue said, “nobody could have done the job that I did,” he took a lot of heat for it because it was perceived he was talking about the record. But he was talking about the way this team fought to the end, the way the players prepared and went out and played with as much passion and toughness and intensity as they did. There was nothing on the line, there was no reason to do it, but they still gave their best effort to the last play.
But the media turned on Hue, and I worried the team would be influenced into the wrong decision. Stay around the league long enough, and you realize there’s a big difference between team owners who grew up in the NFL and those who didn’t. The lifers in many cases have more patience; they understand that media and fans have roller-coaster mood swings. When the team is doing well, they heap praise, and when you’re doing poorly, they’ll criticize to no end. The coach has to be somewhere in the middle, with a steady approach, and it’s important not to listen to what they’re saying about the team, because those words and comments go into your head and start to affect the close decisions.
I understand that hirings and firings stir up controversy, which is great for the media—that makes the job fun and easy. What’s hard to communicate is nuance. It’s so much easier to say, ‘well, they've won one game in two years—time to fire the coach.’ The reality is there are plenty of bad coaches who have made the playoffs with good quarterbacks and plenty of good coaches who have never made the playoffs because they don’t have the quarterback, the supporting cast or the defense. It’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Most players on the team think Hue’s a great head coach and really like him, but I’m sure there are some guys who don’t like him. When I was a younger player it was easy to either fall in love with the coach if you’re doing well and hate the coach if you’re doing poorly without knowing why. And just like fans, players can judge the coach based on the record. But as a player who’s been around more coaches and GMs than most players and seen different ways of operation, I can look beyond the record.
John Dorsey and Jimmy Haslam looked at why the team hired Hue in the first place. He was the hottest coach on the market for several years, developed QBs like Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton and went 8–8 as a head coach in his only full season. He’s a great leader, a great manager of coaches and a great x’s and o’s football guy. Firing him based on the record wouldn’t have been the right move.
And now we get to the fun part. We got rid of everybody we had that was really good for two years because we knew that we would be ahead of all the other teams in year three or four. We have more than $100 million in cap space; we could sign three Kirk Cousins if we wanted to. We could legitimately add three Hall of Fame players in free agency if they're out there. We have an upcoming No. 1 pick who could transform the roster by himself. You throw an experienced quarterback in the mix and there’s nothing that says the Browns can't make the playoffs next year.