Frank Victores/Associated Press
The importance of Hue Jackson’s firing to the Cleveland Browns organization can’t be stressed enough.
Midseason dismissals tend to be frowned upon since NFL teams prefer to maintain continuity and not throw the organization into upheaval. The Browns, however, decided to live dangerously and dismissed both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
For two-plus years, Browns faithful endured losing, inept decision-making and a selfish approach from a head coach who continually threw his players under the proverbial bus. Jackson never had any answers; he only deflected the blame while managing a woeful 3-36-1 record.
It’s easy to see his presence made the franchise worse, and all anyone has to do is look at the team’s performance since the Haslam family relieved Jackson of his duties after a Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sunday’s 35-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium brought some closure by exorcising previous demons while a brand-new attitude emerged.
“We’re just tired of being disrespected,” Browns safety Jabrill Peppers told the media after the game. “… They said, ‘Why you all talking? You play for the Browns.’ … We’re a real NFL team.”
Jackson joined the Bengals as a special assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis just two weeks after being handed his walking papers. This particular contest meant a little more to the Browns.
“Yes, yes, it will be a lot of motivation going into Cincinnati week because he’s over there,” wide receiver Rashard Higgins told Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot on Wednesday. “Absolutely. From him coming to Cleveland it’s been hard, and we grinded it out with him. We’re not going to put too much pressure on it, but we’re going to go out and play ball.”
The Browns made sure to ruin their former head coach’s afternoon by lighting up the defense he’s supposed to be helping. Cleveland scored touchdowns on five of its first six drives, and the Bengals looked helpless trying to stop their opponent.
Not only did the Browns make Jackson’s day uncomfortable, but a few individuals also made sure to make their feelings known during and after the fact.
Safety Damarious Randall presented his ex-coach with the football after intercepting an errant Andy Dalton pass.
“I love it. … That was probably one of my best moments of the game even though he could’ve scored,” Peppers said. He added: “It was definitely worth it to see Hue’s face, man.”
The disrespect didn’t stop with that play. It continued during postgame handshakes when quarterback Baker Mayfield gave Jackson the cold shoulder.
Will Brinson @WillBrinson
Hue Jackson went for the hug and Baker hit him with the “we’re just friends” handshake 😂 https://t.co/khycq8Vhik
Mayfield didn’t want anything to do with the current Bengals assistant.
“Didn’t feel like talking to him,” the first-year signal-caller told reporters. “He was here trying to tell us to play for him. Then he goes to a team we play twice a year. That’s how I feel. We have people we believe in calling the plays now.”
Mayfield’s final point hits like a nuclear bomb. Jackson earned an opportunity to become the Cleveland Browns head coach after establishing a favorable reputation as an offensive play-caller. Yet he consistently struggled to place his players in a position to succeed.
The difference between Jackson’s tenure and Cleveland’s current approach is astounding, starting with the play of this year’s No. 1 overall pick.
Freddie Kitchens took over as interim offensive coordinator upon Haley’s firing. Kitchens immediately began to design his scheme around the available talent instead of forcing his players into situations that don’t play to their strengths.
The simplistic approach has been a godsend for Mayfield. The offense is now relying more heavily on the quick passing game. Mayfield isn’t asked to take deep drops as often. The team’s weapons are better utilized. Plenty of new offensive looks have been thrown into the mix.
In Cleveland’s first two offensive series against Cincinnati, the Browns used 22 (two running backs, two tight ends), 31 (three running backs, one tight end), 13 (one running back, three tight ends) and 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel before upping the tempo and going empty in the backfield to keep the Bengals on their heels. Cincinnati didn’t have an answer.
These adjustments have allowed Mayfield to be far more comfortable and the offense more unpredictable.
|Baker Mayfield’s Production (2018)|
|First six games under Jackson/Haley||58.3||1,471||8||6||20|
|Last three games under Kitchens||73.9||771||9||1||2|
He looks well on his way to becoming a franchise signal-caller. He may have even overtaken New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley as the favorite for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Mayfield has it all: accuracy, pocket mobility, ball-handling, arm strength, good decision-making and calmness under pressure.
All of these traits were on display during Sunday’s contest when Mayfield became the first Browns quarterback since Brady Quinn in 2009 to throw four touchdown passes in a game.
He can go right…
He can go left…
.@BakerMayfield looking gooood.
And Antonio Callaway hauls in the TD!
📺: CBS #Browns https://t.co/XWblNIkYUn
Sometimes, he just toys with the defense.
The Checkdown @thecheckdown
Baker Mayfield got that filthy fake 😳 @bakermayfield https://t.co/rBdsPv6qGy
Mayfield had already eclipsed the franchise’s rookie record with 17 touchdown passes in only nine games, according to Dan Murphy of the team’s official site.
The quarterback isn’t the only player to benefit from Kitchens’ play design.
Running back Nick Chubb became the first player in Browns history to record rushing and receiving touchdowns in consecutive games, per Murphy. This is the same franchise that featured Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Leroy Kelly, Kevin Mack, Eric Metcalf and Jamal Lewis over the decades.
The offensive line is much better as well.
Naming an undrafted rookie, Desmond Harrison, the team’s starting left tackle the week of the team’s first game couldn’t have been more ill-advised. Harrison struggled before suffering an illness took him out of the lineup in Week 9.
Greg Robinson took over blindside duties and easily outplayed the first-year blocker. In fact, the 2014 second overall pick is experiencing a career revival as the Browns’ left tackle after being labeled a bust.
Cleveland offensive tackles were counted among the league’s worst under Jackson’s supervision. Haley too often used 90 series protection and seven-step drops as primary components of his vertical passing game. The tackles were overwhelmed. A quicker passing game featuring quick or jump sets plays to Robinson’s strengths. Chris Hubbard hasn’t been a liability either.
The offensive line didn’t surrender a sack in back-to-back games for the first time since the 2007 campaign, according to Murphy.
Imagine thinking Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde and Harrison were better options than Mayfield, Chubb and Robinson. Jackson did. He compounded these mistakes by never fully utilizing the talent available to him.
The best part about the newfound bad blood between these rivals? They play again in Week 16 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns aren’t worried. They’re very different now after winning back-to-back games for the first time since 2014 and ending a 25-game road losing streak.
As Randall told reporters, “This team is very scary right now.”
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.