When Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were seen having a tense disagreement on the debut episode of “Hard Knocks” a few weeks back, it was met with the typical NFL media car wash — what did Hue vs. Todd mean? — before becoming something of a non-issue.
The fight itself, at least in terms of what it meant to the immediately stability of the Browns, probably didn’t reveal any cracks that were not evident before. The issue was over Jackson wanting to keep a few players fresh by holding them out of practice, and Haley not wanting to.
In an awkward moment, Jackson reminded Haley — a former head coach — that he, not Todd, was the one “driving the bus” and that his opinion on the matter trumped all. Jackson looked curiously defensive on the matter, even if he tried to wear his diplomat hat when doing so.
But what that exchange did do was paint a picture of Haley that we hadn’t really expected. The assistant coach who was run out of Kansas City and branded (by some) as a paranoid hot head with stability issues. For all his offensive acumen, they said, the dude just wasn’t head-coaching material because of his penchant for blowing up — at players, coaches, general managers, whomever stood in his way.
And yet the man who passively objected to Jackson’s ideas (and might have rolled his eyes a bit at them) really came out of that Browns thinktank as … the sympathetic one? The reasonable one? The more head-coachy of the two?
Jackson made it clear to Haley and everyone else in the room at that time that it was his team and that they could run their teams the way they wanted if or when they got their chance to be a head coach. Bold words for a man who currently has lost 35 of his past 37 games as a head coach, once lost to Haley head to head and who has less than half the victories that Haley does despite coaching three more games as the head man.
But for one NFL observer of that episode, who once worked alongside Haley, it showed far more about Haley than it did about Jackson.
“I thought Todd showed a lot of restraint,” the former Haley coworker said, requesting anonymity for his candor. “I really did. There might have been a time where something like that ate him up and got the best of him. But not there.
“I don’t know what went down in Pittsburgh, and he and I never talked about that. But I can tell you I was seeing a different Todd right there.”
The son of longtime Steelers executive Dick Haley had spent the previous six years as Mike Tomlin’s offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh after the Chiefs fired Haley as their head coach late in the 2011 season. The early results were mixed — at best — as Haley came in and appeared to challenge convention. He often butted heads with QB Ben Roethlisberger in the early days, the Steelers’ offense sputtered and Haley’s personality quirks became quite the local topic there.
And even as Haley’s behavior remained something of an issue throughout his six years with the Steelers, even as recently as the infamous “Tequila Cowboy” incident along with his wife back in January, there’s no question that the team largely improved under Haley’s watch. Although it was not surprising the Steelers moved on from him this offseason, there were some with the team who didn’t think it was a good idea to let him go.
Whether the 51-year-old Haley has been humbled enough by the bar incident or his dismissal from the Steelers is up for debate. But what could be a growing storyline over the coming weeks and months centers around the idea of Haley possibly replacing Jackson, Mr. 1-31 in Cleveland.
“Hard Knocks” has been a wild romp the first few weeks, and Tuesday’s episode promises more intrigue with the return of Josh Gordon and the briefly frightening injury to Tyrod Taylor in the Browns’ most recent preseason game. Haley has been something of a folk hero for popcorn-eating viewers who appreciate his brusque, colorful language and is turning into a bit of an antihero when compared to Jackson, a man perpetually swimming against the rising tide.
So is it really possible that Haley could be the choice for new GM John Dorsey if and when the Browns' general manager ultimately has to make a decision on Jackson’s fate?
“It wouldn’t stun me,” the former Haley coworker said. “Look, I want to be clear: I don’t know [Dorsey] and haven’t talked to Todd at all about what his goals are. This is just me looking from the outside in here, and that’s all it is.
“But I really wouldn’t be shocked. Todd is a really brilliant guy in a lot of ways. He can be his own [worst] enemy at times, but I get the feeling that’s more of the old Todd. That’s what hit me most watching that scene. I think he seems different. Or maybe he knows more than the rest of us do.”
Among the Haley highlights: Screaming about his quarterbacks getting hit. (“Good teams don’t do that!”) Calling out Corey Coleman for lackluster effort. Imploring Jarvis Landry to take troubled but talented rookie Antonio Callaway under his wing. (“Larry Fitzgerald would do it.”)
Haley also shouts how “important” and how much “this matters” when the Browns aren’t performing the way he expects, and he walks off the field bemoaning his team’s performance against the Buffalo Bills.
“That’s what we get,” Haley is heard saying on the HBO microphones after another Browns penalty broke their chances of beating the Bills. “That’s how we practice, that’s what we deserve.”
Haley might never be buddies with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with whom he’s sparred in each of the first three episodes, and the above quote easily could be taken as a knock on Jackson’s operation as a whole.
But to Haley’s credit, he’s said all the politically correct things to the media when asked if he’s at odds with the current head coach.
“The great thing about here is Coach Jackson gives us assistant coaches the opportunity to speak our opinion,” Haley said, via quotes distributed by the team. “Ultimately, it is his decision of what he wants to do, and I will 100 percent support it. It is not always the case where assistants get to voice an opinion or thoughts. Some of them he is going to take. Some of them he is not. Whatever decision is made, I am 100 percent behind.”
But it’s easy to peel it back and see Haley’s input — such as on the Coleman trade. When Coleman wonders why he’s running second team, he marches into Jackson’s office and asks, to which Jackson said, “Why don’t you ask Todd?”
It’s not long afterward that Coleman is seen shipped off to Buffalo for a 2020 seventh-round pick — pennies on the dollar for the former first-rounder. You can’t tell me that Haley’s opinion on the matter didn’t impact Dorsey’s eventual trade. Now whether that means Dorsey ever would consider Haley head-coaching material is, admittedly, a stretch. It’s hard to bridge that gap just yet.
But Dorsey is viewed as a good team builder, and he certainly has thought about who his next coach might be. It’s possible that Jackson gets fired in-season, Haley replaces him on an interim basis and that Dorsey might have someone else in mind. The team also would have to navigate the Rooney Rule properly if a change is made after the season.
It is easy to see, though, that changes are afoot in Berea, Ohio. The Browns suddenly are one of the most interesting teams in the NFL, and it’s clear that the talent level is notable. Losing with this roster — even with a tough schedule ahead — would certainly doom Jackson, but it might not necessarily be curtains for Haley, at least in the short term.
He’s been building relationships with the team’s building blocks — Landry, Taylor, Baker Mayfield and others — and showing restraint when he hadn’t previously been known for doing so. Call him an opportunist if you want, we’re not certain what the endgame is here.
But it wouldn’t stun us if Haley gets the Dirk Koetter treatment when Lovie Smith was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Koetter was elevated to head coach despite a good but hardly great background with that title in college football. The reason: He was viewed as a big reason for Jameis Winston’s development in Year 1.
If Mayfield is pressed into duty (or, you know, given a chance to start) and performs well, it can’t help but reflect well on Haley’s coaching. That could be the failsafe for Dorsey going forward, keeping the Haley-Mayfield dynamic intact, as a way to ensure some positive momentum for a team that has changed leadership structure the past few decades as often as Fleetwood Mac did in the 1970s and 80s.
Haley’s resume as a head coach is flawed for sure. But the work he did with the 2010 Chiefs, coaxing a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance out of a team quarterbacked by Matt Cassel and Brodie Croyle, can’t be overlooked. Cassel made the Pro Bowl, for crying out loud. So did Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and a rookie Eric Berry, but a team dripping with talent this was not.
If Haley somehow got his chance with these Browns, he’d have an immensely more talented roster with which to work. Has his attitude changed enough to earn that right? Does Haley deserve this chance if it does come? We’re not certain, but we certainly can’t dismiss the realistic possibility that this is a move that could be in the hopper.