Why Hue Jackson Will Get the Cleveland Browns Back on Track

As part of their latest overhaul, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as their head coach. That was a good move.

Sometimes the right decision is the most obvious one. When the options are clear-cut and have no shades of grey, these are simple questions with simple solutions.

The Cleveland Browns have often still found a way to make the wrong decision in those circumstances.

Whether it was head coach Mike Pettine implicitly encouraging the media circus surrounding quarterback Johnny Manziel, general manager Ray Farmer texting plays down to the sideline, star wide receiver Josh Gordon not keeping his personal life in check, or the team forcing game-plan gurus Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner, Ray Horton, and Kyle Shanahan out the door, the Browns have been a masterpiece of mismanagement in recent years.

For this reason, I was fully surprised to hear today that their head-coaching search yielded promising fruit. Yes, the Browns’ eighth head coach since the dawn of the new millennium would be Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and offensive wizard himself Hue Jackson. Jackson has been in the NFL in a variety of position coaching and coordinator roles since 2001, so he brings experience to the table.

Can he bring stability to the Browns’ organization and some hope back to Cleveland?

Major League

Fortunately for us, Jackson’s lengthy track record gives us plenty of data to look at when assessing his success. And fortunately for us, the numberFire Net Expected Points (NEP) metric will help us analyze Jackson’s coaching chops in detail.

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how teams and players performed relative to expectation level. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Jackson’s offense gains five yards on a 3rd-and-2, that means more than a five-yard gain does on 3rd-and-10; it should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Jackson’s coaching career through the lens of NEP. We’ve broken this into the strength-of-schedule-adjusted components of Offensive NEP, Passing NEP, Rushing NEP, and Defensive NEP, as well as displaying his units’ ranks in a given year. If there is a blank in a category, that unit was not his responsibility in that season (i.e. Passing NEP in 2001; he was the running backs coach of Washington).

Year Team Pos. O-NEP Pass NEP Rush NEP D-NEP
2001 WAS RBC -- -- -15.52 (12th) --
2002 WAS RBC -- -- -14.44 (21st) --
2003 WAS OC -28.81 (17th) -21.24 (17th) -9.74 (12th) --
2004 CIN WRC -- 10.87 (17th) -- --
2005 CIN WRC -- 82.08 (3rd) -- --
2006 CIN WRC -- 86.06 (3rd) -- --
2007 ATL OC -99.78 (28th) -53.63 (26th) -34.95 (28th) --
2008 BAL QBC -- 23.47 (17th) -- --
2009 BAL QBC -- 51.63 (13th) -- --
2010 OAK OC -1.67 (17th) -19.02 (25th) 29.09 (5th) --
2011 OAK HC 7.99 (16th) 29.04 (15th) -1.97 (13th) 99.47 (29th)
2012 CIN STC -- -- -- --
2013 CIN RBC -- -- -11.11 (22nd) --
2014 CIN OC 33.32 (17th) 31.45 (21st) 16.87 (t-4th) --
2015 CIN OC 149.25 (6th) 166.62 (2nd) -12.15 (20th) --

This is a lot to look at, but peeling it apart piece by piece will help us.

It’s important to note, first of all, that Jackson has been a full-fledged offensive coordinator for exactly five seasons of his 15-year NFL coaching career, and only two of them (2014 and 2015) came back-to-back. Washington head coach Steve Spurrier was fired after 2003, Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick was arrested, and head coach Bobby Petrino left the team midway through the season in 2007, and Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable was fired after the 2010 season.

When a new coach comes in, the cupboards are cleaned, and often, the coordinators and assistants are fired; it’s a tough string of luck.

In addition, Jackson only got one crack at a head coaching job, in 2011 with the Raiders. After Cable was let go, Jackson had one offseason to assemble a unit and deliver a playoff berth. Despite a solid core of players including quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Darren McFadden, the team went 8-8, missing the playoffs on tiebreakers. New general manager Reggie McKenzie fired Jackson in the offseason.

Despite a narrative of instability, Jackson showed results and improvement whenever he was given more than one season to turn a team or unit around. His running backs in Washington steadily improved their value production annually in three years there (-15.52 Rushing NEP in 2001, -9.74 in 2003). His wide receivers with the Cincinnati Bengals did the same (17th in Passing NEP in 2004, 3rd in 2006), as did quarterback Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens (17th in Passing NEP in 2008, 13th in 2009).

Should the Browns finally stop their itchy trigger fingers when it comes to canning coaches, Jackson can create a culture of growth around him. He’s done it before.

Cleveland Rocks

His most recent reclamation project was average-at-best quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton was a second-round draft pick out of TCU in 2011, and he instantly became the face of the franchise, with veteran quarterback Palmer threatening to retire and eventually traded to Jackson’s Raiders. With passing aficionado Jay Gruden helming his tutelage, Dalton put up solid but unspectacular numbers in Cincinnati.

The table below shows the Bengals’ offensive production in terms of schedule-adjusted Offensive NEP, Passing NEP, and Rushing NEP during Gruden’s 2011 to 2013 tenure as Bengals’ offensive coordinator.

Year Adjusted NEP Adjusted Passing NEP Adjusted Rushing NEP
2011 4.54 (17th) 27.95 (16th) -16.49 (19th)
2012 14.37 (20th) -1.76 (23rd) 24.39 (7th)
2013 46.71 (17th) 58.77 (11th) -11.11 (22nd)

Dalton leading the Bengals to the 16th-best schedule-adjusted Passing NEP in the NFL in his rookie season is no small feat, but he wavered as a passer in the following two years. His own Passing NEP per drop back marks were 0.02 (20th), 0.02 (23rd), and 0.09 (14th) with Jay Gruden, and the offense followed suit.

With Jackson promoted from running backs coach in 2014, however, the team charted a trajectory to set up their franchise passer for success.

Behind the advent of power running back Jeremy Hill in 2014 (who led the team to a 4th-best Rushing NEP that year), we saw them take a slight step back to 17th in Adjusted Passing NEP and then explode to sixth in 2015. Dalton’s Passing NEP per drop back rates with Jackson: 0.05 (21st) and 0.35 (1st).

Wild Thing

I am fully convinced that Hue Jackson’s mastery of his offensive schemes has allowed him to re-invent himself and the offenses he is asked to manage, if he is given the time to do so. He did his best work in stable situations, with strong head coaching presences like John Harbaugh in Baltimore and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, so he likely knows the benefit of creating a stable, steady situation himself.

He has also proven he can manage personalities. While the wide receivers coach of the Bengals, he managed Chad Johnson/Ochocinco and Peter Warrick simultaneously, not to mention handling defensive end Richard Seymour in Oakland. We already know that Jackson plans to jettison quarterback Manziel as soon as possible, and thus rebuild the offense in his own ideology.

The only other question will be how he addresses his own weak point, the defensive side of the ball. In Oakland, he hired Chuck Bresnahan, with whom he was familiar from his first stint in Cincinnati. Still, he has the willingness to address both sides of the ball, and showed that in Oakland, when he spent decent money to bring back edge rusher Kamerion Wimbley and sign safety Michael Huff.

If Cleveland and owner Jimmy Haslam give Hue Jackson a real chance to rebuild the franchise, and they show a true commitment to the analytical front office of Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta, this could be the sturdiest foundation the Browns have had in years. Today, with Jackson, the Browns made the obvious choice, and it was the right one.