Cleveland went full-on Cleveland on Monday, not only canning coach Hue Jackson but also his ever-subversive offensive coordinator, Todd Haley.
To be sure, Jackson’s lackluster record and the team’s recent slide — the Browns have lost three in a row — had plenty to do with the firing. With the Browns’ 33-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, he fell to a 3-36-1 during his 2½-year tenure, one of the worst winning percentages of any head coach in NFL history, and sources told Yahoo Sports that many in the building had come to believe Jackson’s message had grown stale as the losses mounted, which necessitated a move.
But the offense also slid in recent weeks, and the growing tension between Jackson and Haley has been brewing for weeks. It turned into a sideshow last week, with Jackson trading veiled shots through the media, and by firing both men team owner Jimmy Haslam effectively spared his gifted rookie quarterback — No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield — from being stuck in the middle of their cold war over the direction of the offense.
“I think the message today is … we’re not going to put up with internal discord,” Haslam explained during a news conference Monday.
“Right now, we’re trying to create the best environment moving forward, and that’s what we’re going to do,” general manager John Dorsey added.
It’s the right decision, to be sure. It’s also a decision that’s coming about 10 months too late, especially if the Browns wanted to provide the best possible environment for Mayfield. It’s inexplicable, actually. When the Browns went winless a season ago, they knew back in January that they’d own the No. 1 overall pick in a quarterback-heavy draft. Haslam had just hired Dorsey in November, and at that moment he had an opportunity to fire Jackson, let Dorsey pick his coach and quarterback only months apart and let them all grow together on the same timeline, like good teams do.
Instead, Haslam held onto Jackson, even though he wasn’t Dorsey’s guy. Even worse, Jackson’s lack of success over the previous two years meant he would immediately be put on the hot seat with another miserable start, which, you know, would cause the negative cycle of speculation, upheaval and inconsistency that has plagued the franchise for 20 years.
Now Mayfield, a determined, accurate thrower with moxie who is as promising as any quarterback the Browns have had in decades, is set to play for both his second head coach (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) and offensive coordinator (running backs coach Freddie Kitchens) in only six months. And if Haslam fires them both at the end of the season, Mayfield will be learning from his third coach and offensive coordinator within a year of his selection.
This is Step 1 for how young quarterbacks are ruined in the NFL, as many a talented passer has been overwhelmed by being forced to learn too many systems before they could master any. Quarterbacks have to memorize more than everybody, lead better than everybody and handle more responsibility than everybody, so consistency — both in scheme and coaching — matters. Passers build confidence through repetition, but it’s hard to get better at an already difficult game when you’re constantly learning new terminology, which is what quarterbacks are forced to do whenever new coaches are brought in.
The good news is, while the Browns were 10 months too late with this move, Mayfield’s development still has a chance to be saved. In the short term, the offensive terminology likely won’t change much since Kitchens was promoted from within, though it’s not ideal that he has never been an offensive coordinator before. This will allow the team to get a steady evaluation of the way he’s improved over the course of the season, especially since the Browns are hopeful Williams — an organized, feisty man with head-coaching experience — can unify a team that hasn’t played with enough spirit in recent weeks.
However, it’s also clear the Browns’ path to long-term NFL respectability begins with giving Mayfield everything he needs to succeed, and that goes beyond improving the Browns’ overall talent. It starts with improving the culture in the organization and establishing some consistency, particularly on offense, and the best way to do that is to hire a bright, offensive-minded head coach — one who, fairly or unfairly, doesn’t have Jackson’s losing track record — with a clear vision for what he wants to do on offense that Mayfield can grow with.
That’s the new rage in the NFL. Look at what other teams around the NFL are doing. In 2017, the Rams saved former No. 1 overall Jared Goff from being a bust after a brutal first year under an older, defensive head coach in Jeff Fisher by hiring a young hotshot in Sean McVay who specializes in offensive play-calling and quarterback play. Since then, Goff has steadily become better, and now he leads the 8-0 Rams.
Also take a look at the Bears, who fired another older, defensive head coach in John Fox this past offseason after former No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky’s rough rookie year. Chicago went out and hired another young, hotshot offensive specialist who understands quarterback play in Matt Nagy. You can already see the positive affect on Trubisky, who has guided the Bears to a 4-3 record this season.
So the good news for the Browns is that both the Bears and Rams managed to provide their young quarterbacks with the coaching help they needed, despite starting the timeline a year late. I’m reasonably confident Dorsey understands the importance of letting a young quarterback grow around the same people early in his career — it’s something we spoke about during his years in Kansas City — and there is still time to give Mayfield what he needs, despite an unnecessarily choppy start (thanks to Haslam’s reluctance to cut bait with Jackson).
“Unfortunately, sometimes the best plans don’t work out,” Haslam explained Wednesday. “We were optimistic they would, but they didn’t work out.”
The Browns’ next plan better, at least for Mayfield’s sake. It starts this offseason with hiring a bright offensive mind who specializes in quarterback play. Anything short of that is a failure, one that could push the Browns’ stretch of ineptitude another decade.
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