CINCINNATI — A reunion between Marvin Lewis and Hue Jackson seemed destined from almost the minute Jackson was fired in Cleveland on Oct. 29. The only surprise is that it took this long.
So why did it seem so obvious that this would happen?
Lewis and Jackson have an incredibly close relationship and talk on the phone almost every week. Lewis probably trusts Jackson as much as anyone he ever has had on staff, enough to bring him back to the fold three separate times. He’s going to need that now that he’s down a staff member.
Things changed quickly once Lewis fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and took over playcalling duties himself. There aren’t many coaches who actually take on both roles, which probably is why Lewis placed a call to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on the night of a disastrous 51-14 loss to the Saints, likely seeking advice.
That’s not to mention the fact Lewis hasn’t actually called the defensive plays on a regular basis since he was the Redskins’ defensive coordinator in 2002. The last time was in 2004, when he took over the playcalling from Leslie Frazier in a 34-17 loss to the Browns. He gave it back the next week, but Frazier ended up getting fired at the end of the season.
“It’s different [on defense], because on offense most of the decisions are made. Most of the things happen on offense,” Lewis said. “You don’t decide whether the offense is going for it on fourth down when you’re calling the offense, you already did. But the defense doesn’t decide whether the offense is going for it on fourth down and so forth. That’s why you see fewer on defense.”
Lewis admitted he quickly felt like he wasn’t able to be on top of everything against the Saints while he was trying to pull the defense out of its slump. Lewis usually leaves that sort of thing to his coordinators, but he went to the defensive players himself that day to try to snap them out of it. That meant he wasn’t seeing what was happening on offense.
“A lot of things happen when you’re on defense. I had my back turned yesterday to the offense a couple times, trying to bring the defense together. Things happen,” he said. “It could be whether or not we made a catch, and if we made a first down or not. If I’ve got my back turned, I have to make the decision if we’re going for it. Are we in four-down territory? I have to let Bill [Lazor] know and the quarterback know that they have three downs here. Those kind of things. If I have my back turned by making corrections or whatever, I can’t do that. I’m going to try to minimize that as much as possible. I feel strongly that I have to make the correction to coach the defense right now.”
When asked how he planned to handle both roles going forward, he grinned.
“I’ve got a plan,” he said. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
That plan apparently comes in the form of Jackson, although it’s unclear just what he’s going to do on game day. Lewis implied in a statement that Jackson would help on defense, when his entire coaching background is on offense. Jackson was a secondary assistant for the Bengals in 2012, but that was essentially a placeholder while the Bengals tried to find a spot for him after he had been fired as coach of the Raiders the previous year.
“I have a great comfort level with Hue and his ability to assist me with the day-to-day responsibilities on defense, including analyzing our opponents and helping me on game days with the players and defensive coaches,” Lewis said in a news release.
Because Austin was in the booth, Lewis will lose one staff member up there and said he doesn’t plan to move anyone around. That makes it likely Jackson will be down on the sideline, where he could help Lewis by being an extra eye on offense.
While Jackson didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard as head coach of the Raiders and Browns (11-44-1 coaching record), he has proved his capabilities as an assistant at every stop. The Bengals’ offense was extremely successful when he was coordinator in 2015, albeit with many different players than they have now. It makes sense to add him to get some additional help, and he could provide intel on the Browns, whom the Bengals haven’t played this season.
The only real downside is the potential to mess with the chemistry of the coaching staff or the feeling that Lazor could be looking over his shoulder with Jackson around.
But considering Lewis made it clear that everyone in the building, including himself, is on notice after their performances lately, hurt feelings are probably the least of his concern. Lewis, like everyone else, just wants some help.
“The guys want to help,” Lewis said on Monday. “‘Give me something.’ … ‘Help me through this.’ That’s the thing, I have to be the rock. That’s why I have to hide my feelings on the sideline and not choke anybody out or anything.”
Maybe Jackson can be that help. With seven games left, and the Browns up twice, surely the Bengals will take all the help they can get.