These aren't the same old Cleveland Browns.
Well, technically, they are the same Browns who cycled through three head coaches in three years, but the team's approach and hire of Hue Jackson as the organization's 16th full-time head coach feels completely different from the previous Jimmy Haslam-led searches.
Many expected the most recent coaching search to blow up in the team's proverbial face. There's no denying it.
After all, Cleveland's owner preaches patience yet hasn't shown any since taking over the team in 2012. The team is coming off a 3-13 campaign, with its supposed franchise quarterback more interested in playing dress-up at a Las Vegas casino than his actual football career and the team's most electrifying playmaker serving a year-long suspension because of another violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
Some of the stuff that happened to the Browns in the past two seasons under previous general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine simply couldn't be made up because the accusations were so outlandish.
It all leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those around the league.
The Browns became a laughingstock. The organization essentially served as the NFL's version of Days of Our Lives. The team might not have been very good, but the Browns were never boring.
It couldn't get much worse for the franchise than the team's embarrassing 28-12 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers at home in Week 17 when the remaining fans in the stadium cheered for the result of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills contest. Why? Because they were Steelers fans, and the Bills' victory placed Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Instead of letting all of this baggage bog down another search for a head coach, the Browns conducted a thorough and professional search with a much different result from the previous two hires.
"The Browns have been very professional, have been in-depth with candidates on the organization, what and why things have been poor and what their proactive approach to changing the operation," per the Orange and Brown Report's Lane Adkins.
There wasn't any bungling, in-fighting or Three Stooges references. Under its owner, executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and Jed Hughes of search firm Korn Ferry Sports, the team targeted a specific coach to fill the opening and landed its top choice.
This is important on multiple levels.
First and foremost, the team acquired its "No. 1 target," according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. After the team's previous two searches—particularly two years ago when Haslam eventually settled on Pettine after multiple candidates declined the position or to even interview—this is a stunning development.
All told, the Browns conducted seven interviews. They didn't rush to a decision, but they certainly found the person who best fit the team's new organizational structure.
Under the team's new direction, Jackson will be part of a four-prong leadership group that also features Brown, DePodesta and president Alec Scheiner. All four men answer directly to Haslam.
Of course, Haslam could have waited for the playoffs to end for New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia or Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to make a final decision. Clearly, the Browns gravitated toward Jackson, and the coach echoed the sentiment.
"They made me feel comfortable," Jackson told NFL Network's Michael Silver.
Not only was Jackson Cleveland's top target, but many considered the former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator one of the top two candidates available. He, along with new Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, entered this offseason as a hot commodity and interviewed with multiple teams. It's not a coincidence these two found jobs before anyone else making the rounds on the coaching market.
The outpouring from Jackson's former players says a lot about him as a person and his abilities as a coach. Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth summed it up nicely, courtesy of NFL Network's Albert Breer:
Text from Bengals OT/captain Andrew Whitworth on what the Browns are getting in new head coach Hue Jackson ... pic.twitter.com/NPEGiRerNX— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 13, 2016
These same qualities made Jackson attractive to the Browns.
"He possesses that unique ability to reach the entire locker room in a way that demands accountability while getting the buy-in and team-first mentality that leads to positive results," Haslam said, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. "I think our players will love playing for him."
This past season, the Bengals averaged 358 yards per game, which was a 10-yard-per-game improvement over Jackson's first season as the offensive coordinator.
|Total Offense Ranking||15th||23rd||15th||25th|
|Run Offense Ranking||6th||17th||13th||22nd|
|Pass Offense Ranking||21st||20th||15th||21st|
Another positive in the Browns' favor is luring their new head coach away from a rival. In theory, Cleveland should improve, while losing Jackson should hurt the other team from Ohio.
Jackson's departure from Cincinnati wasn't guaranteed, as Silver noted:
If you are a Bengals fan who wanted Hue to stay: Leaving was harder for him than you would believe— Michael Silver (@MikeSilver) January 13, 2016
He couldn't even describe his loyalty to the Bengals organization without being overcome with emotion. This became a difficult decision for Jackson, and the Browns leadership convinced him of its plan to rectify the team's current problems.
Much like Cleveland, the 49ers face an uphill battle based on recent history. Despite this past season's 5-11 finish, Jackson is a native Californian and the possibility of becoming San Francisco's next head coach intrigued him.
Unlike Cleveland, 49ers CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke didn't present the same type of vision as the Browns, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami:
49ers' problem isn't only that they lost out on Hue, it's that they had no idea what it'd take to get him & didn't know they didn't have it.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) January 13, 2016
The Giants became a far more difficult obstacle.
Outside of the Steelers, the Giants organization is one of the NFL's most patient with its coaches. Tom Coughlin just spent 12 seasons as the team's head coach until the franchise finally decided it needed to move on this year.
New York also features a franchise quarterback in Eli Manning and the game's most explosive young wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr.
The Browns made sure a scheduled Thursday meeting between Jackson and the Giants never happened. According to Silver, the coach was scheduled to leave for New York on Wednesday evening, but the Browns "made sure he didn't get on the plane."
An argument can easily be made that the Giants' opening remains the league's best. Even so, the Browns still closed the deal.
On Monday, an anonymous personnel executive told Peter King of SI.com's the MMQB, "They better be absolutely sure they find a coach and GM who buy into the culture they’re building there, or this will be another Cleveland train wreck. Personally I think it’s innovative and pretty smart. But it only works if the coach you’re bringing in is open-minded."
Plenty of resistance will come with the Browns' recent hires, and understandably so. After all, Brown doesn't have any previous experience making personnel decisions and DePodesta's background and advancements occurred as part of baseball franchises. But Jackson's hire is something altogether different.
Grade the Browns' hire of Hue Jackson:
According to Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo, Jackson "hit it off" with Brown and DePodesta during the interview process.
"We shared a lot of ideas between each other," Jackson said, per Cabot. "We shared a vision for the organization and what we want to accomplish. At the end of the day, we have some very real goals we want to attain and we understand it's going to take a lot of hard work to do that."
While the general manager isn't in place at this time, the Browns' latest head coach seems to be aligned with the team's new approach, which makes Cleveland's situation even more intriguing.
These are only the first steps to another rebuilding project, but the Browns finally appear to be moving in the right direction.
Haslam remained open-minded with his outside-the-box hires of Brown and DePodesta and the team's new approach with a much heavier emphasis on analytics. All three combined to complete a strong coaching hire, which shows the organization will no longer be content with other teams' scraps.
Cleveland might be starting anew for the eighth time since the team's return, but the front office's approach in finding and hiring its newest head coach shows a level of competence the team previously lacked.
These are the new Browns.