Why Hue Jackson had to go, and 13 options to coach Baker next

When you have a new baby napping in the house, and your two older children are fighting over a toy and the fight gets so loud you worry they’re going to wake up the baby, you don’t pick which one of them gets to have the toy. You take it away from both of them.

In the case of the Cleveland Browns, the sleeping baby is Baker Mayfield, the two older children are Hue Jackson and Todd Haley and the toy is the two coaches’ jobs.

So it was that on Monday, the Browns resolved a petty power struggle between head coach Jackson and offensive coordinator Haley by firing both men in an effort to quiet things down around Mayfield, in whose success the Browns are far more invested than they ever were in either coach.

Pretty remarkable, when you think about it, especially in the case of Jackson. Haley is quite talented but has a well established reputation of being difficult to work with, and he now has been let go by two different AFC North teams in in a span of about 10 months. Browns management deserves some heat for ever thinking the Jackson-Haley thing would work in the first place, but at least they didn’t linger too long on their mistake.

Jackson, though … The Browns brought this guy back after he went 1-15 in his first season and brought him back again after he went 0-16 in his second season. They forgave him, continually, for being a historically terrible NFL head coach. What they couldn’t forgive, and what led to Jackson’s dismissal in the midst of his best year as their coach, was his contribution to any situation that might hinder Mayfield’s growth. After Sunday’s events — not just the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers but the pregame revelation of the fractures in the Jackson-Haley relationship — the team decided that relationship had grown potentially poisonous to Mayfield. So they eliminated it from his life.

Sources with direct knowledge of the situation say Haley and Jackson never developed a level of mutual respect that enabled them to work together for the benefit of the team and of Mayfield’s development. During training camp, HBO’s “Hard Knocks” showed a meeting in which Haley and Jackson strongly opposed each other on the issue of how much players with nagging injuries should be asked to practice. Sources say the disagreements didn’t stop there, and that the two clashed throughout the summer and the early part of the season on the direction of the offense.

Areas of dispute included the offensive line arrangement (specifically, the decision to insert undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison at left tackle to start the season), playing time for wide receiver Josh Gordon in the opener (Haley started him after Jackson had publicly said Gordon wouldn’t start), the usage of pass-catching running back Duke Johnson and the early-season marginalizing of rookie running back Nick Chubb. The Chubb issue frustrated the front office so much that they eventually traded running back Carlos Hyde to the Jaguars so the coaches would have no choice but to give the rookie the ball.

More recently, sources say, Jackson and Haley clashed over Mayfield. Jackson wanted to adjust the offense to help Mayfield play quicker — use more of the up-tempo concepts with which he had so much success in college. Haley wanted to stick with his more conservative approach, especially with the team decimated by injuries at wide receiver and unable to rotate personnel in a way that would keep a quicker tempo from exhausting everyone.

Sources say Jackson had privately brought up to management the idea of his taking back some control of the offense or getting rid of Haley entirely. Jackson had been publicly supportive of the offseason decision to hire Haley and cede control of the offense to him, but as the season went along Jackson grew restless about his own long-term future and told people in the building that, if he was going to end up getting fired anyway, he wanted the opportunity to run things his way in the meantime.

Things came to a head after the team’s Week 7 loss to Tampa Bay, when Jackson suggested in a postgame news conference that he might need to get more involved in the offense. That led to increased tension in the building and a week in which, according to one source, “there were a lot more meetings than usual.” Correctly or incorrectly, the front office believed Jackson to be one of the anonymous sources of information behind Sunday’s reports of division, and that irked them further.

A source close to the situation told ESPN on Sunday that any decision the team made about the coaching staff (or anything else, for that matter) would be rooted in the idea of what they felt was best for Mayfield and his development, and they determined that a feud between the head coach and offensive coordinator did not fit that description.

“The message today,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said in the news conference at which the firings were announced, “is that we’re not going to put up with internal discord.”

So the temporary solution is that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was the Buffalo Bills’ head coach from 2001-03, becomes interim head coach while running backs coach Freddie Kitchens becomes interim offensive coordinator. Kitchens has been an NFL position coach since 2006 but never a coordinator, though Jackson and Haley allowed him to call plays this summer during some preseason games in which Mayfield was playing quarterback.

And sure, if things go really well the rest of the way, everybody gets along, the Browns win a bunch of games and Mayfield flourishes, it’s not out of the question that they could keep the same arrangement for 2019. But it’s far more likely they bring in a new head coach from the outside. The team gave Dorsey control over the draft and the roster, it may as well let him bring in his own coach to oversee it all. Mayfield and some of the young talent on defense are likely to make this a more appealing job than it has been in years past, so there should be no shortage of interested, qualified candidates looking to put their stamp on a talented young roster as it grows. Whoever Dorsey picks will be selected once again with the best interests of Mayfield in mind. That likely means an offensive coach, but it doesn’t have to mean that if the Browns believe it’s a coach who can establish and maintain a culture that gives Mayfield the best chance to develop and succeed.

Here are some possible candidates, based on what our reporting has turned up so far.

  • Mike McCarthy. This assumes the Packers move on from McCarthy at season’s end, which is far from a certainty. But if it happens, expect a front office packed with former Packers executives to put McCarthy at the top of their list.

  • Lincoln Riley. The Oklahoma head coach is on the radar of a lot of NFL teams if he decides he wants to try the NFL. He has been mentioned several times as a potential Jason Garrett replacement in Dallas if they decide to make a change. The Mayfield connection makes him an obvious target for the Browns if he’s available.

  • Matt Campbell. He’s the head coach at Iowa State and is said to be well regarded by Browns GM John Dorsey.

  • Eric Bienemy. Succeeded Matt Nagy as Chiefs offensive coordinator this year. May be too inexperienced at this point, but teams really like to hire Andy Reid guys.

  • Jim Harbaugh. NFL people still think the Michigan coach will want another crack at the pros. He’ll be a hot candidate in several places when/if that happens.

  • Urban Meyer. Hey, he’s big in Ohio.

  • Brian Flores. Well-regarded Patriots defensive coach who got some attention on last year’s interview circuit. He’d have to come with a strong offensive coordinator and a plan for Mayfield, but those who know him rave about his leadership qualities.

  • John DeFilippo. Jumped from Eagles QBs coach to Vikings offensive coordinator following Philly’s Super Bowl title. He’s a former Browns offensive coordinator who’s from Youngstown.

  • Dan Campbell. He was once the Dolphins’ interim head coach and remains an intriguing head-coaching prospect for teams. Currently on Sean Payton’s staff with the Saints, who may be in the midst of a special season.

  • Zac Taylor. He’s the Rams’ quarterbacks coach and, like Bienemy, may still be too green for an assignment like this. But a lot of teams are going to want to try to get a piece of what Sean McVay’s doing out there in L.A.

  • Dave Toub. The Chiefs’ special teams coach always seems to be on these lists, and NFL people believe he’ll get a shot eventually. Could it come under former Chiefs GM Dorsey?

  • George Edwards. The Vikings’ defensive coordinator is another guy who gets attention every year but no job offers. His time will come.

  • Teryl Austin. Bengals defensive coordinator. Ditto what we said for Edwards.

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