For now, Hue Jackson won the power struggle. The Cleveland Browns head coach won’t frame it that way, of course. And he might even go as far as to make it sound like it was all a media creation. But speaking truth to reality isn’t always a high-percentage play in the NFL, so Jackson will take another road.
The rest of us don’t have to. So we’ll just say it: Hue Jackson won.
When Sashi Brown was fired Thursday, the Browns coaching staff claimed its first victory of the season by defeating the head of football operations. It’s not the kind of thing that calls for champagne goggles in the locker room, but when the regime has embraced “losing to win” to the tune of a 1-27 record, triumphs should be seized where you can get them.
This is right about on schedule for this franchise, which is still paying a litany of fired executives and coaches. Considering the dynastic grip the Browns franchise has on culling staffs, there should be a Jimmy Haslam Unemployment Trophy.
In fairness, this latest move seemed necessary and inevitable. Whether Jackson wants to admit it or not, the relationship between himself and Brown was fractured from the tip to the base. It stopped working, largely because of the unscalable wall between the coaching staff and personnel department. The breakdowns weren’t all Brown’s fault – and they weren’t the only things leading to his firing Thursday – but a strained relationship with Jackson coupled with roster missteps ultimately fell on Brown’s shoulders. And when he was pushed out the door, Jackson was gifted a victory in the power struggle he’s trying to pretend didn’t exist.
That’s fine since the mess around Jackson remains as cluttered as ever. This despite the declaration from Haslam that Jackson would still be the coach of the franchise in 2018. From a mechanical standpoint, if a franchise is in the market for a general manager, it’s not very appealing when its owner has already declared that the head coach is guaranteed into the next season. That is, unless you’re sending up a flag to candidates that they will be expected to keep Jackson and embrace his input on roster decisions. It’s unclear how this will play out with John Dorsey, the man who will replace Brown as GM (the Browns announced the hire Thursday night).
Taken at face value, that’s what Haslam told candidates. That Jackson is still standing. That Jackson still reports only to Haslam. And that Jackson’s relationship with Dorsey will be a significant point of emphasis. All of which should thrill Jackson.
In a statement announcing his hiring, Dorsey, the former Kansas City Chiefs GM, said, “I am eager to work with Hue and his staff, and our personnel department and help bring us the success these fans so deserve.”
Most of the frustrations existing between Brown and Jackson were related to the dysfunctional power dynamic set up by Haslam, in which everyone reported into him and then had to claim that all moves were “joint decisions.” Which they were not. More often than not, the personnel side was creating the roster with little influence from the coaching staff, lest Jackson plead his case to Haslam and then Haslam press the issue on behalf of his head coach.
Even for the Browns, this has been a wonky infrastructure, leaving the coaching staff feeling disenfranchised and the personnel department operating a fiefdom that could be pushed only by ownership. This set up the failing disconnect between Brown and Jackson, and ended with Brown losing his job. With three damaging points in particular, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the fallout. Among them:
When Jackson and Brown discussed the team’s long-term plan prior to Jackson’s hire – and then again while filling out the staff of assistants – coaches were given the impression that the roster churn wasn’t aimed at completely gutting the team and starting over. The staff was under the belief that the front office would push to retain key veterans (and also be solidly active in free agency) to the point that the roster could remain competitive on a week-to-week basis. Instead, the majority of the roster was cut to the bone with a single-minded emphasis on securing youth and draft picks. While there were a handful of disagreements, the most frustrating occurred in August, when the Browns released cornerback Joe Haden on the doorstep of the 2017 season despite already having an embarrassment of salary-cap space. The move stunned Jackson and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, then moved to total disbelief when Haden signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite his decline, Haden was still one of the Browns’ most valuable defensive pieces and it was tough to swallow his loss and then have the frustration compounded by facing Haden twice a season against a division rival.
Despite Jackson and Williams being front and center in the draft vetting of defensive end Myles Garrett, the coaching staff wasn’t informed that the Browns had settled on Garrett with the first overall pick until the late morning of the first day of the 2017 draft. Sources said it created some palpable anxiety for Jackson and his staff leading into the first day of the selection process – particularly after he and Williams had put Garrett through a torturous last-minute workout and endorsed him with the top pick. Garrett’s selection appeared to be undecided right to the morning of Day 1 of the draft, with others in the Browns building continuing to advocate for Mitchell Trubisky’s selection at No. 1 overall. While Trubisky’s selection never came to pass, the stress over finalizing Garrett as the choice left some fractures between the front office and coaching staff.
Finally, the incompetence (or sabotage) in failing to acquire Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron at the trade deadline may have sealed Brown’s fate. Jackson and the coaching staff were so certain that the deal for McCarron was done that they were actually celebrating the completion prior to the trade falling through. When the deal was ultimately nixed, members of the staff were completely deflated, feeling they had lost both a promising young veteran and a chance to compete in the remaining months of the season. That deflation quickly turned to suspicion, as some senior members of the coaching staff wondered whether Brown had gotten cold feet and either backed out of the deal at the last minute or purposely engineered the failure of the deal. There’s no evidence that Brown purposely scuttled the trade, but the lingering anger and disappointment – not to mention some clear trust issues – were said to be a defining part of why Jackson and his coaching staff were struggling to maintain a good relationship with Brown.
As track records go between a head of football operations and a coaching staff, that’s a bundle of problems and misgivings created in less than two years. And it speaks volumes about the continued problems facing this franchise.
That’s not to say the Browns aren’t an attractive landing spot. The roster is young. The cap space is plentiful. The draft portfolio is overflowing with future picks. And there is also that big draw that launches new regimes: a likely No. 1 overall draft choice that can be spent on a franchise quarterback. Not to mention the rest of the AFC North rosters getting long in the tooth or featuring quarterbacks heading into the winter of their careers.
As usual, success is there to be had. And as usual, we’re watching the Browns franchise constantly trip over itself as it reaches for it. At least the seal on the 2017 season has been broken. Cleveland finally has a victory of sorts. Unfortunately, it came in the same place as always.
The Browns defeated the Browns again on Thursday. Same as it ever was.