It’s easy to feel bad for Hue Jackson. You can tell he’s trying. He’s trying so damn hard. He wants to be a good leader, a sound decision-maker, a figure of authority and, most of all, a good head coach. He’s clearly thinking, constantly, about all that. And yet, it doesn’t come naturally to him.
He’s a mess. The Cleveland Browns reflect that. And that sucks, because these Browns have a lot of talent.
The Browns tied on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and ended their 17-game losing streak. Of course, they’re not onto a win streak yet. They had the chance to win with a field goal attempt in the final moments of overtime. The Steelers blocked the kick.
In the fourth quarter, the Browns carried momentum against a Steelers team, which was dealing with Le’Veon Bell’s tumultuous holdout. Pittsburgh was dysfunctional and vulnerable. Yet the Browns failed to capitalize (unlike the Jacksonville Jaguars who upset a dysfunctional Steelers team in last year’s playoffs).
Who else is to blame but Jackson?
Kicker Zane Gonzalez, yes. He sent the ball on a low, block-able trajectory. The left side of the Brown offensive line allowed Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt to squeeze through and get his hand on the kick. They, too, are to blame.
Still, that failed play comes down to Jackson’s coaching abilities — he’s responsible for a catastrophic mishap like that kick. The play screamed bad execution on every level and was not determined by a shortcoming by one player. A handful of players failed at the most important moment of the game, which traces back to bad coaching. And Jacksons team’s have a history of failing on him in clutch moments.
In 2017, the Browns lost four of their 16 games by just four points. Two of those close losses were against the Steelers. The pattern continues.
The problem is that the composition of this Browns team is different. They’re so much better than last year’s team.
Denzel Ward, the fourth-overall pick in 2018, had two interceptions. Myles Garrett, the first-overall pick in 2017, had two sacks. Tyrod Taylor had 274 yards (197 passing, 77 rushing) with two total touchdowns and an interception. Jarvis Landry had seven receptions for 107 yards.
The tie was further affirmation of what we learned about Jackson from HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
In the opening episode, Jackson generated discussion about a veteran’s day off in practice. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was resistant to the idea. Jackson tried to level with Haley: “Well, I respect you saying that, I mean, I used to sit in the same chair.” He tried to give him the floor to share his dissenting opinion: “Speak now or forever hold your peace. Get it out.”
But then Jackson got into an interrupting war with Haley, and said patronizingly, “Let me finish.” The conversation concluded with zero room for discussion.
“When it’s your team, do what the hell you want. Okay?” Jackson said. “So this one’s mine. So that’s just the way it’s going to be and that’s a respect of everybody in this room but this is how we do it.”
In other words: I’m not going to listen, but go ahead and speak. OK, you done? Now listen: I’m the captain now.
Then there was Jackson’s interaction with Taylor, who gave his coach a coaching tip. Jackson wasn’t pleased with the pace of practice, and yelled about it through the day. The Browns looked sluggish. Taylor pulled Jackson aside and suggested a revolutionary idea: show the players film of their poor effort.
This was, apparently, a thought which hadn’t crossed Jackson’s mind. Show the players film of their shortcomings? Bold. Inventive. Cutting edge.
Jacksons lack of awareness and management skills showed on Sunday, too. The Browns coach insisted receiver Josh Gordon wouldn’t start. Then the receiver started. Jackson wasn’t happy, chalking up the miscommunication and Gordon’s presence to the formation they chose to use on the opening play.
If only he had a way to manage the situation. If only.
Of course, well-prepared teams often know exactly what formation they’re going to use on the first play of the NFL season. But, man, if only Jackson had some kind of way of controlling which players take the field for that first snap.
Jackson has struggled to manage his coaching staff on a basic level. He has struggled to manage his players. And he has struggled to win on Sunday, particularly in the clutch, late-game moments when coaching is so important.
Meanwhile, Cleveland showed they have the talent to beat Pittsburgh, one of the NFL’s most talented teams. The Browns are loaded on defense — they’re figuring things out on offense. When the offense can rely upon Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, they could be formidable. And perhaps rookie running back Nick Chubb can help them on the ground after veteran Carlos Hyde ran for 2.8 yards per carry as the team’s workhorse in Week 1.
But with Jackson at the helm, the Browns are a ship flailing with their mast down. Hell, they’re sailors flailing with their pants down. The Browns should be in the the midst of a turnaround, yet Jackson seems to be one of the biggest impediments, making the team look worse than it is.