When Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis receives a phone call at 5 a.m., there is only one person it could be on the other end: Hue Jackson.
The former Bengals offensive coordinator won’t be calling any this week, though.
Jackson, who spent seven years on Lewis’ staff in Cincinnati, faces his former team for the first time as Cleveland Browns coach Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I miss the hell out of him,” Lewis said. “I watch their games every week, and text or call him. He’s coaching his tail off, as we knew he would.”
It’s been a rough beginning in Cleveland for Jackson, as the injury-plagued Browns (0-6) are off to their worst start since the 1999 season when they lost their first seven games as an expansion franchise.
Cleveland has lost three games by six points or less, including one in overtime at Miami after newcomer Cody Parkey missed a last-second field goal to end regulation. Among a slew of injuries, the Browns have used five quarterbacks, including wide receiver and former Ohio State University quarterback Terrelle Pryor on a few occasions.
“I think they’re a group becoming hardened,” said Jackson, whose first NFL head coaching stint came in 2011 with Oakland. “We’ve had some rough games early in the season. I think guys have worked extremely hard and are giving me everything I’m asking for. At the same time we’ve fallen short in some areas. I think we have to keep working to become the best we can become.”
Jackson said he enjoys the challenge — as big as it is — of working with so many young players as injuries have forced many of the more experienced players off the field. It helps having friends like Lewis to bounce ideas off during times of struggle – even if he can’t make that call this week.
“The biggest thing Marvin taught me was to be a professional coach and have some stick-to-it-ness and understand it’s not a fast race, that it’s a marathon to get ultimately what you want, and you have to work through it,” Jackson said. “This guy threw me, as you guys say, a lifeline a few years back to even be sitting in the seat I’m sitting in today. There are so many lessons I’ve learned from him on the field, off the field, about coaching in the National Football League.”
Lewis said his best advice for Jackson is to just put his head down and coach and ignore any criticism directed his way.
The only way to not let that pressure get to you is to immerse yourself in the game and try to find another way to do it, Lewis added.
“You have to bring somebody forward, encourage them, show them a different way to do it,” Lewis said. “He’s very good at that. That’s one of his greatest strengths; to bring the most out of people. That’s so much a part of it.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton credited Jackson for helping him to one of his best years in 2015 – Jackson’s second year as offensive coordinator – and for the confidence he still plays with today.
Dalton, coming off a career-best 106.3 quarterback rating last year, ranks third in the league with 1,757 passing yards and owns a 97.2 rating through six games.
“He coaches you hard,” Dalton said. “He tries to get the best out of his players. I think he definitely helped me out a lot. … He brought that (leadership) out in me more. I think he talked to me about some things I could do a little bit better and I felt like I did that. I feel like it’s showed the way I’ve played the last couple years.”
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, who spent the 2014-15 seasons with Cleveland, even referred to Jackson as one of “the great coaches out there,” based on his experience preparing for and playing against Jackson’s offenses the past two years.
“His ability to get guys in position to make plays as playmakers (makes him special),” Dansby said. “He is moving guys all around the place, and he’s able to get one-on-one matchups they can win.”
It’s a little more of a chess match this week.
Jackson has an advantage in that he knows the Bengals’ personnel and Paul Guenther’s defense so well, but the Bengals also are familiar with Jackson’s tendencies after two years of facing his offense in practice. Cincinnati is just less familiar with his ever-changing personnel.
“You’ve’ got to be ready for everything,” Iloka said, noting Jackson’s DNA is all over the Browns offense even if he’s not calling the plays anymore. “In OTAs and minicamp and training camp (in Cincinnati), he did a good job of opening up the playbook quite a bit, so you saw a little bit of everything. They’ve done a good job running the ball, so we know we’ll get a heavy dose of that. But you’ve still got to be expecting everything and anything.”
Dalton said he finds himself watching the Browns even more than he already does for an AFC North opponent, because of Jackson.
He remains grateful for the influence Jackson had on developing him into a stronger leader and still roots for his former offensive coordinator to do well — when he’s not facing the Bengals.
“I think he’s got the right personality and coaching style to get things turned around,” Dalton said. “We’re just hoping it’s not this week.”
Cleveland Browns (0-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-4)
1 p.m. Sunday
TV: Ch. 7, 12
Radio: 700-AM, 1290-AM, 1530-AM, 95.7-FM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM