Hue Jackson and the Cleveland Browns are about to find out how good – or bad – it feels to be young again.
As they begin preparations for this week’s season opener in Philadelphia, the team’s 2016 roster boasts 17 rookies – 13 draft picks and 4 undrafted free agents – and 28 of the 53 players have 2 or fewer years of experience in the NFL. Only 7 are over the age of 30 and 36 players are 25 or younger.
Call them the baby Browns.
“I didn’t know how young we would be,” Jackson said “We have what we have. I’m excited about the guys that we have. We just have to coach them up and get them better.”
Although the team finds itself in the infantile stages of a massive rebuild, Jackson hasn’t changed his outlook or expectations heading into the season which kicks off Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.
“I have an expectation and I’m not backing down from that and I’m not changing that thought process in our players,” Jackson said Monday afternoon. “That is just what we are going to do and we are going to find a way to do it. I don’t know how it’s going to happen.
“By hook or by crook, we are going to get this done. We have to. That is all I know. I don’t know anything else.”
Cleveland’s sports curse was lifted this summer when the Cavaliers shocked the Golden State Warriors and erased a 3-1 series deficit to win the NBA championship. The Indians currently reside in first place with a healthy lead in the AL Central and a ticket to the playoffs all but punched.
Then there are the Browns, who haven’t won an NFL title since 1964 and have had 13 double-digit loss seasons, 1 playoff appearance and just 2 winning seasons since returning in 1999.
None of that maters to Jackson. His positive attitude has become infectious throughout the organization since the moment he walked into the Browns’ facility on Jan. 13 and declared, “We’re going to chase greatness here.”
Despite Jackson’s enthusiasm and desire to win, this does not appear to be the year that the playoff drought – now spanning 13 seasons – will end.
The hope is that Jackson’s confidence will at least bring some calm to an organization that has been as turbulent off the field as it has been awful on it. He has the unenviable task of trying to turn the Browns – a perennial loser that changes quarterbacks, coaches and executives as often as babies have their diapers changed – into a winner.
For him it starts with the belief that they can win. He is employing the phrase “Expect to win” throughout the team’s facility and even has a projected image of the slogan aimed at the floor in the middle of the team’s locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium.
But in Cleveland there isn’t a belief among fans that the team can win anything, except another top-10 draft pick to blow. Jackson knows it and he doesn’t care. He simply greets the skepticism with a smile and embraces the challenge before him.
Since taking over, much of his energy has been spent on sweeping the toxic negativity of the team’s recent history from the organization.
The Browns have rid themselves of 3 recent first-round busts by releasing troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel, selected 22nd overall in 2014, in March and then trading the No. 6 pick in 2013, Barkevious Mingo, to New England and the No. 8 overall selection in 2014, Justin Gilbert, to the Steelers. Over the course of 6 months the entire roster was gutted. 13 starters and 30 players overall were jettisoned from last year’s 3-13 club.
Out with the old, in with the new and Jackson looks to use that youth to his advantage.
“They are not ‘NFL-ized,’” Jackson said. “They haven’t been in the National Football League. I think some of our guys are just going to go play, and I think that is what we have to do as a football team. We can’t get worried about anything.”
Especially the sordid past, because there is nothing Jackson, who begins his second NFL head coaching job after going 8-8 while leading the Oakland Raiders in 2011, can do to fix that. His focus is on the future which he sees to be very bright for a franchise desperate to find any glimmer of light.
“I’m a lot calmer,” Jackson said in describing how he’s changed as a coach. “I thought I was about to lose my mind the first time I did this. I think I get it now. I understand the process of it and understand really what we are trying to accomplish, which really keeps you calm during the week. I think it is really important for our football team. They need to see me be very consistent week in and week out.
“We are not blinking. We are just going to keep getting better. We are going to keep working.”
For Jackson, the work has just begin.