It has been my experience that 80% of NFL games are decided by about five plays. If you look at the stats at the end of most games, the total yards and most every other stat are close enough that both teams have a realistic shot at winning. But one team converts a third-and-twelve or throws a pick in the end zone or holds on a 50-yard gain, and the game is decided.
Which is why Hue Jackson’s recent statements about the Cleveland Browns having to play a perfect game in order to win seem disingenuous. Like most of the statements Jackson has made about his team this year, this seems designed to deflect blame away from him and onto his players or the front office. But the Browns have been within two scores in the fourth quarter in 12 of their 15 losses. If Cleveland converts a few plays, they would have put them in position to win. Even when they lost 20–3 to the Bears, they could point to two plays that, had they been executed properly, the Browns probably win the game.
With two minutes left in the second quarter, the Browns had a second-and-four on Chicago’s 28, down 6–0. Quarterback DeShone Kizer threw a deep sideline pass intended for Josh Gordon. Kizer threw a 30-yard pass while Gordon ran a 20-yard pattern, resulting in an interception by Kyle Fuller in the end zone. It was difficult to tell whether Gordon quit on the route or Kizer threw a sloppy pass; this was a play a high school team shouldn’t make. Gordon gave less than exemplary effort on several plays in the first half, which raises the question of why he was in the game. Jackson said after the game that Gordon was under the weather. If he knew that going in, why have him out there? At the very least, after about two drives it was obvious that he wasn’t able or willing to give his best effort. Instead, they kept him out there. You could just attribute the interception to Kizer’s inexperience if you’d prefer. Unfortunately, the reality is that this was a route run and a pass thrown without a sense of urgency. That’s on the coach.
On Chicago’s first drive of the second half, Miles Garrett picked off a pass and ran it back to the Bears’ five. In typical Brown’s fashion, Carl Nassib lined up offside. He didn’t jump early because he was overeager, he simply wasn’t paying attention. Four plays later, Chicago had a touchdown. Instead of being up 10–6, the Browns were down 13–3. If the pick had stood and Kizer had protected the ball on his pass to Gordon, it would have been 13–6 or 17–6. The Bears scored one more touchdown, which was academic. In a driving snowstorm, any lead the Browns could have gotten would have stood up.
Casting aspersions on the front office and, by extension, his players, is the worst sort of leadership a coach can exhibit. It is understandable that Jackson would be frustrated, given his record of 1–30 as coach of the Browns. But this total rebuild was in the works when he signed on as coach. He knew that he was facing a serious talent deficit for the first few years while the team accumulated draft picks and the young players matured. Indeed, with their 12 picks in the 2018 draft — five in the first two round — added to their ten picks from the 2017 draft, the Browns could have a totally retooled roster in a matter of months. Jackson knows that those picks are the payoff for the two years of suffering he has endured. His job was to praise his players’ effort, find reasons for optimism, and teach good habits. He has failed on all three counts.
Jackson could have put his players in a better position to win by hiring an offensive coordinator. This would have freed him up to focus on the big picture. Establishing a culture of accountability and emphasizing effort and fundamentals, while also giving his quarterback the attention he needs to develop properly should have been the top priorities. It was obvious that this arrangement didn’t work in Jackson’s first season. Furthermore, it was less likely to work with a rookie quarterback in his second year. The fact that he is only now recognizing that he needs to remedy this shows that he doesn’t understand what an NFL coach needs to do to succeed.
Despite the doom and gloom that surrounds this franchise at the moment, you don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see the Browns making the playoffs by 2019 or 2020. Develop the half dozen or so impact players they currently have, get a franchise quarterback, and hit on ten or so picks over the next couple of drafts. Then use their mountain of cap space to add the right veterans, and you are right there. It’s not too different from the formula the Rams have used this year. But the Rams would not be where they are today if they had not recognized that Jeff Fisher wasn’t the answer.
The Browns won’t fulfill their potential if they fail to realize the same thing about Hue Jackson. If I own this team, the question I ask myself is this: when the games really matter and we face some adversity, will my coach do what it takes to make sure those five crucial plays go our way? Nothing Hue Jackson has done in his two years should make Jimmy Haslem feel good about the answer.