Cincinnati lost yet another coach on Wednesday when Hue Jackson was named head coach in Cleveland. He is going to be missed and not only because he was well respected by his players but also because he's been a key element of two straight playoff campaigns, including a franchise-tying 12-win season in 2015.
The Los Angeles native started his history with the Bengals in 1997, when Jackson was named USC offensive coordinator and had the chance to work with somebody named Carson Palmer, with whom he was later reunited in the Queen City and Oakland. Then in Washington he and Marvin Lewis first met and the relationship that was born there helped him land twice in Cincinnati afterward, once as wide receivers coach in 2004 and then as secondary assistant and special teams coach in 2012, after being fired from his first head coaching gig in Oakland.
When Jay Gruden left the Bengals for the Redskins, Jackson was a natural in-house candidate to replace him because of his previous experience. Many wondered if young quarterback Andy Dalton had been good prior to the 2014 season because of Gruden or despite Gruden, and the change was a good opportunity for fans to find out. After all, Jackson had not also helped develop former Bengals franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, but also Joe Flacco and had had a lot of success with running backs everywhere, from Stephen Davis in D.C. to Darren McFadden in Oakland.
He did not get a fair start though, losing two of his top three receivers before the first half of his first game at offensive coordinator concluded, and many realize now how badly those two guys absences - Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert - hurt the team. Nonetheless, Jackson was able to rebuild the offense on the fly, switching to a power running scheme that made running back Jeremy Hill look like a star for years to come, and featured one of the most improbable stories of the year with undrafted rookie Ryan Hewitt becoming one of the best fullbacks in the game.
The Bengals team looked bad against good teams most of the time - excluding the mighty 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football in Week 16 to clinch a playoff spot. The offense was painful to watch at times many players sidelined, such as in the 27-0 loss in Indianapolis and the 24-3 loss to the Browns at home on Thursday Night Football. And not only did Jones and Eifert miss the entire year, but A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard also missed time. The offensive line was without right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler for a combined 11 games too, and backup Marshall Newhouse was a disaster. Nonetheless they were able to make it to the playoffs and look good at times despite sporting players like Greg Little, Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Tate as their biggest receiving threats. Some thought the Bengals could have added better players capable of providing some spark, but they ultimately trusted what they had on the roster.
By most metrics Cincinnati's offense was not great in 2014. They were 15th in points per game, 16th in percentage of their drives that ended in a score, 20th in net yards per drive, 13th in yards per play, 18th in first downs and were tied at 20th with 26 turnovers, including 17 picks by Dalton, who struggled without many reliable targets other than Green and Bernard. But the rushing game blossomed, averaging 134,2 yards per game - good for 6th in the league - at a 4.4 yards per attempt average - 10th - and with plenty of missing talent returning in 2015, there was hope that things would only improve.
And that was what happened. The Bengals finished this season 7th in points per game, 6th in percentage of their drives that ended in a score, 11th in yards per play, 15th in first downs and 7th in turnovers with only 17. And quarterback Andy Dalton was on pace for one of the greatest years in franchise history until a thumb injury sidelined him for the last three and three quarters of the season's games. Luckily, Cincinnati did not look that bad with AJ McCarron either.
When Hue Jackson took over the offense, he kept most of the Jay Gruden scheme but retooled the ground game, and this year he unleashed his weapons with Eifert and Jones back. Hill regressed in 2015 though, and the Bengals were far more explosive with Bernard in the backfield. And one thing he could not overcome was Dalton's struggles against common team, something that has been hunting this franchise since his rookie season. Against good teams that know Cincinnati's offense they rarely play well, and most of the time they end up losing in the most tragic ways: Houston on Monday Night Football was this year's best example. Some of his critics also say Jackson got too cute way too many times, with a lot of changing formations and motions that forced the team to waste timeouts or drew a lot false start penalties. Though, they actually recorded the same number of false starts in 2015 as 2014, 21 including the playoffs. Saturday night's playoff game saw a 2-point conversion attempt against the Steelers that was among the lows of his play calling, and it was a meaningful one because everything counts and the Bengals lost by two points.
@JoeGoodberry quick someone hire hue Jackson as their head coach— JDee (@sammydipro) enero 10, 2016
But Hue Jackson was still a key element to this team's success. Even though Andy Dalton had a down year in 2014 and many pundits considered he was holding the Bengals back, he proved in 2015 that this team can win with him under the helm, and that helped Jackson net the job in Cleveland. Our own Anthony Cosenza said it best, when wondering if Cincy is going to take a step back without him:
Regardless, the biggest differences in Dalton's game this year were his decisiveness, confidence and care of the football. Did this have more to do with Dalton's intense offseason workouts and the return of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones? Or was it Jackson concocting a scheme perfect for his quarterback and the weapons around him?
Again, maybe it's both.
This is something we also considered when Gruden left for Washington, and even though most would say Jackson was at least more willing to adjust than his predecessor, it is fair to ask the same question now. Jackson's track record is impressive, and only a very dysfunctional organization like the Raiders, could have sent him packing after an 8-8 season in which he lost his starting quarterback. In Cincinnati though he's helped this team to make a leap and even if it was not good enough to win a playoff game, it is also fair to wonder what could have happened with Dalton playing on Saturday and how different this analysis would then have been.
Congratulations to Hue Jackson; he deserved the opportunity and is one of the good guys.