Jackson brings head-coaching experience, knowledge of the AFC North and a knack for fixing quarterbacks to the Browns, who fired Mike Pettine following a 3-13 season. The 50-year-old Jackson has spent the past two seasons directing Cincinnati’s offense.
He also was head coach with Oakland in 2011, leading the Raiders to an 8-8 record. Jackson waited for his second chance as a head coach and he’ll get it in Cleveland, where coaches — and quarterbacks — have come and gone with regularity for more than a decade.
After a second meeting with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, Jackson backed out an interview scheduled for Thursday with the New York Giants.
Seated on the dais next to his new boss, Jackson was reminded that Haslam recently claimed it may take several years to fix his football team.
"I’m glad he said that," Jackson said, smiling and grabbing Haslam’s arm. "That makes me feel a little better."
Unlike the construction going at their headquarters, the Browns don’t have a completion date.
Picked over other quality candidates because of his background in the NFL and openness to embracing Cleveland’s restructured, forward-thinking front office, Jackson was hired as the Browns’ eighth coach since 1999 on Wednesday.
The 50-year-old Jackson has earned a reputation for being an offensive innovator as well as being tough but fair with his players. He is undaunted by the challenge of turning around a team that has been stuck in a perpetual cycle of losing for more than a decade. He wanted to be here. And the Browns wanted him.
Jackson was the final candidate to interview with Haslam and his search committee, the meeting taking place the day after the Bengals were eliminated in the wild-card game by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns met with Jackson again on Tuesday and Haslam offered him the job on Wednesday.
"Hopefully, the third time’s the charm," Haslam said, referring to his unsuccessful hires since 2012 of Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine, fired on Jan. 3. "We got the right guy for the Cleveland Browns. He is smart. He’s tough. He’s confident. He is competitive. He has been a head coach before. He has a great offensive mind. He has a tremendous track record developing quarterbacks."
After he walked into the team’s headquarters for the first time, Jackson was greeted by team employees, who applauded when he laid out his goals during an impromptu speech.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do," Jackson told the gathering of secretaries, sales representatives and others. "We’re going to chase greatness here, that’s for sure. That’s what we’re interested in doing. The AFC North, we want to win the division championship. We want to go to the Super Bowl and win that, too. That’s what it’s all about."
Jackson joins the team amid other changes at the top. Haslam recently promoted team counsel Sashi Brown to vice president of football operations and pulled Paul DePodesta, a baseball analytics expert, away from the New York Mets to direct strategies for the team.
And while the new look and talk of advanced analytics has some Browns fans skeptical about Haslam’s direction, Jackson is excited about the new group he’ll be working with.
"There is more than one way to do things," he said. "Analytics is just a part of it. It is not the whole part of it; it is a piece of it. If we can find another way of doing things good to give us an opportunity to have success, we all would do that. I like being cutting edge. I try to be innovative and cutting edge on offense. We want to be innovative and cutting edge on everything that we do in this building because eventually, everyone is going to be doing what we are doing."
As for Manziel, Jackson said he has not yet considered the troubled second-year quarterback’s future in Cleveland. Jackson did acknowledge that Manziel came up in his discussions with Haslam. Manziel has been a major distraction during two drama-filled seasons with the Browns.
"I don’t know Johnny personally," Jackson said. "I know who he is, but at the same time I think I have to give everybody on our football team a fair opportunity to see who they are, to truly learn who they are, and then make decisions from there."
Jackson has to quickly assemble a coaching staff, and as Haslam looks for a GM who will acquire talent, there will be other decisions.
But Jackson has already made the biggest one: coming to Cleveland.
"I like challenges," he said. "And boy, what a challenge."