“Suffer now, and enjoy the rest of your life as a champion.”
This quote from the late great Muhammad Ali usually isn’t one to describe a team like the Cleveland Browns, who seem to be in a rebuild almost every year. But while they remain the only winless franchise in the 2016 season at 0-4, there’s plenty of reasons to get excited about for the future.
Head coach Hue Jackson is one of those reasons.
Previously the offensive coordinator for the Bengals, Hue quickly earned his role thanks to his creative formations, trick plays, and improved efficiency he brought to quarterback Andy Dalton. While Dalton’s numbers were bad in 2014, under Hue in 2015, he recorded career highs in passer rating, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and career lows in interceptions and interception percentage.
The run game also improved under Hue Jackson. Where it ranked 18th in yards in 2013, it ranked 6th in 2014 and 13th in 2015. The team was 2nd in rush touchdowns in 2014 and 4th in 2015 in addition.
This was able to grab my attention, as Hue Jackson was my #1 candidate to coach the Browns. Having fired yet another head coach in Mike Pettine, the HC job looked toxic. To the surprise of many, Jackson accepted the job and became the latest head coach in Cleveland.
The team was expected by many to finish winless this season, and they’re off to a great start at 0-4. But while this would normally suggest bad coaching, it’s actually been the opposite. Under Hue Jackson, the Browns offense has some sparks they have not seen in years, even decades.
It’s an offense that’s fun to watch for the right reasons this time around. In previous years, the offense was plagued by bad receiving talent, a lack of run game, lack of good QB play and poor coaching. Through 4 games in 2016, the Browns have one of the best run games in the league, promising young receiving talent, good coaching and a lack of good QB play.
They’re not 4/4 in these categories, but 3 of 4 is certainly a nice start.
So below, I’ll list the reasons why Hue Jackson has already made a significant impact on the Browns’ offense, using the usual GIFs and descriptions.
Hue Jackson understands the skill set his players have and has put them in the spots where they are most comfortable and built for success. The first GIF illustrates this perfectly when the linemen tell each other who to cover before the snap. Tight End Gary Barnidge lines up as a blocker initially and lets the defensive end go right past him, making him wide open for Cody Kessler to throw him the ball. Jackson knows how to scheme Barnidge open, and he has good hands and solid route running, making him a favorable target in the Browns offense.
The next 2 GIFs feature shift changes, another prominent role in Jackson’s offense. In the first GIF, Terrelle Pryor (at QB) sets up a shift change, with blockers to his left and right. The Dolphins defense bites on the read option to Isaiah Crowell, and the two blockers are schemed to open up lanes for Pryor to run. Pryor is a great athlete who has been a pleasant surprise as an offensive weapon for the Browns this season, and once the blockers set him up his athleticism does the rest, making great use of his footwork to get a big gain.
In the 2nd GIF, the offense shifts over to a 4 WR set, with running back Duke Johnson lined up as a receiver on the right side. Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the league thanks to great vision and quick jump cuts, and often runs routes perfectly. With a cut on the route, Duke gets open and makes the catch, then makes an excellent cut to the left to get an even bigger gain.
In the GIF above, Duke is available as the checkdown option. Once freed, the linemen in front of him blocks as Duke makes the catch, allowing Duke’s athleticism to take it from there. These types of plays are common in the Browns’ offense, and because the skill players are where they are most comfortable, can show off their talents easily and help drive the ball down the field.
The Browns offense is based on collecting yards after the catch and stretching the field, and so far it’s been done successfully. Cody Kessler has looked decent in this offense, but that’s because of how quarterback friendly it is, emphasizing open receivers on the first reads just like Jackson’s offense for Dalton back in his Bengals days.
The inability to move chains with the run game has been a problem for the Browns since they returned in 1999. Under Hue Jackson, they are first in rushing yards and yards per carry through 4 games (597 rush yards, 1 more than the Cowboys, and 5.7 yards per carry). This is not only because of the line formations, but also because of the talent in the backfield. I’ve already mentioned how gifted Duke Johnson is, but Isaiah Crowell is a talented back that went undrafted in 2014. Crowell also shows off nice vision while having an impressive burst running to the line of scrimmage.
Each of these GIFs illustrates the amount of space the linemen create for the running backs. In the first GIF, the Browns blocking gives Crowell a huge amount of space to run in as he breaks loose for a long touchdown run. In the 2nd GIF, a hole is open for Duke Johnson in the middle, but it is a tough one to spot out as he is running with his head turned away from it. Incredibly, Johnson notices it anyway (a testament to his great vision), cuts, and bursts for a nice gain.
These last 2 GIFs are freeze framed at certain spots to illustrate the holes left open by the Browns’ run blocking. In the first GIF, Duke Johnson is given the ball on the handoff from Robert Griffin III. Immediately a hole is open, allowing the back to go to work right away. Incredibly, in the last GIF, the Browns shift to an 8-man protection scheme, with one of the blockers set up in motion. There’s plenty of space for Crowell at the line of scrimmage, and he uses his strength to bulldoze past defenders for a big gain.
It’s clear from the film that Hue Jackson has impacted the Browns offense in a positive way. Where as in previous years they struggled to move the chains or relied on bad defenses to gain yards, here they have successfully relied on talent and diverse play calling to make the work happen.
While the Browns are 0-4, this is not because of the play calling or the offense. The defense lacks fresh talent, and have given up easy yards because of it. The Browns offense has been exciting this season and has kept the team in close games. With the players being put where they can best succeed, it’s made the play calls and schemes fresh. Corey Coleman has looked intriguing when on the field, and expect to see fellow rookies Ricardo Louis and Rishard Higgins get more reps to flesh out their skill sets as well.
Hue Jackson won’t change the perception of the Browns this season; that’s impossible to do in your first year on a rebuilding team. They’ll likely finish with a poor record because of the defense and continue to be the laughing stock of the NFL. God only knows how the game against the Patriots with Tom Brady returning will end up, but the results likely won’t be pretty.
But at the very least, Hue Jackson has brought back excitement and competence to the offense of the Cleveland Browns. Competence that hasn’t been seen in decades.
(Featured image via bleacherreport.com)