Hue Jackson's end with the Browns began on 'Hard Knocks'

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

Before the Cleveland Browns fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Monday, the seeds of dysfunction took root on the Cleveland Browns’ structure after Haley’s hire last January. The agreement was simple: Jackson would be the CEO of the staff, but Haley would be the head of the offense and have the latitude to run the unit as he pleased.

Looking back, Jackson not only agreed to this – he personally pursued Haley to be on his staff. All the while, Jackson had the mindset that if he needed to place the offense in Haley’s hands to get the hire done, he was willing to agree to it.

Then came HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” A buzzy Hollywood production that occasionally framed Jackson as the beta coach to the alpha mentality of Haley and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. According to multiple sources who have spoken to Yahoo Sports about recent friction on the Browns coaching staff, some of the seeds were planted during “Hard Knocks” – most notably, the notion of how much Haley was willing to listen to Jackson’s input when it came to the state of a struggling offense.

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Jackson believed his job was on the line and was less willing to abide by the “hands-off” agreement with Haley, sources told Yahoo Sports – particularly as it pertains to some of the offensive preparation and scheming.

Jackson felt the pressure to win. Haley felt the pressure to listen. Ultimately, it was too late for both and the Browns are moving on, making Williams the interim head coach and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens the offensive coordinator.

Hue Jackson’s last game as head coach of the Cleveland Browns was a 33-18 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (AP)
Hue Jackson’s last game as head coach of the Cleveland Browns was a 33-18 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. (AP)

After Sunday’s 33-18 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson denied wanting to take over Haley’s play-calling duties, despite totaling only 237 yards of offense in the loss.

“There’s nothing wrong with my relationship with Haley,” Jackson said. “I said what I said last week [about wanting to be more involved in the offense] and obviously it had legs. But I’ve never said I wanted to take over play-calling. I said I wanted to help. That’s it.”

In typical fashion with the Browns, the behind-the-scenes picture described by sources is anything but simple. It’s a complicated tangle of personalities, agreements, apprehension and power – all apparently resting in the hands of team owner Jimmy Haslam, who was reticent to repeat some of his past knee-jerk decisions with his team. Particularly in a season where the franchise has been competitive for much of this 2-5-1 season.

Haslam was conflicted over blowing up another coach midseason. On late Sunday night he was leaning toward staying the course. But Haslam spoke to general manager John Dorsey, who said the Hue-Haley dynamic couldn’t continue.

There was significant front-office concern that quarterback Baker Mayfield, the team’s No. 1 draft pick,  would get thrusted into the middle of Hue vs. Haley. Dorsey didn’t want Mayfield being pressed for an endorsement of one of the guys or being constantly asked by the media about it the rest of 2018.

Here’s how ‘Hard Knocks’ played role in friction

Jackson apparently was irritated with some of the perceptions created by the editing of the “Hard Knocks” series. Chief among them was how his coaching style was portrayed against the demonstrative barking storylines of Haley and Williams, who were often framed as the salty counterparts to Jackson’s somewhat less-profane (on TV, anyway) brand of leadership.

One moment in particular was recalled by multiple sources: a disagreement Jackson had in a meeting with Haley and Kitchens (who has a close relationship with Haley), over the resting of players. During that incident, Jackson shut down Haley and Kitchens, who disagreed with resting players to avoid injuries in practice. Jackson then punctuated his authority in the decision, closing the debate by stating “[At] the end of the day, I get to drive this bus, and I’m going to get it the way I want it. That’s it. Period. That’s just how it works.”

The sources pointed to that challenge from Haley and Kitchens as being part of the root behind Jackson repeatedly asserting to the media that he was the “head coach” following a 26-23 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 21. It was the same news conference Jackson said he needed to be more involved in the offense. The message was essentially being the same one Jackson delivered to Haley and Kitchens back in August – if he thinks something needs to be done a certain way, he’s going to make it happen. And that includes how the offense is being run.

But that’s where some of the details of the Haley hiring get interesting. Sources told Yahoo Sports that Haley was told explicitly during the recruiting process he would have control of the offense. So much so that it was framed as a precondition of him taking the job – that Haley wouldn’t have to be looking over his shoulder if the offense struggled early in the season. The sources said this was something agreed upon by both Jackson and Haslam, and that Jackson likely couldn’t take over control of the offense without getting a green light from ownership. All of which might explain the difference between Jackson wanting “input” versus Jackson wanting “control.”

General manager John Dorsey (L) and team owner Jimmy Haslam are looking at another losing season in Cleveland if the Browns can’t turn around their 2-5-1 start. (AP)
General manager John Dorsey (L) and team owner Jimmy Haslam are looking at another losing season in Cleveland if the Browns can’t turn around their 2-5-1 start. (AP)

Sources have said until this point, Dorsey and Jackson got along. Dorsey spent time at Jackson’s home during his interview process for the general manager job and those beginnings kept the pair on the same page through the early growing pains on the field. But the losses and the need to push along Mayfield’s progress put stress across the entire organization, including the relationship between Dorsey and Jackson – and Jackson and Haley.

And it was all evident between the two coaches this past summer on “Hard Knocks.”

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