The Browns broke a 17-game winless streak in Week 1 of the new NFL season in the most Browns way possible—with a tie. However, they were able to avoid losing to the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has historically shellacked Cleveland at every opportunity. It took a terrible performance by Pittsburgh, but the Browns pulled it off against all odds. Being able to hang with the Steelers, who have been projected to be one of the NFL's top teams this year, makes one wonder why Cleveland hasn't been able to do that more often in the past. The way I see it, there's only one explanation.
Let's look at the numbers: Hue Jackson took over the head coaching job in Cleveland in January of 2016. The following season, he led the Browns to a stellar victory over the Chargers, sandwiched by 14 losses before and one after the lone win. Included in that season's loss column were two defeats by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The latter, however, went to overtime and was won on Chris Boswell's game-winning field goal at Heinz Field. In the 2017 season, Jackson somehow outdid himself with a perfect 0-16 season. Needless to say, the Steelers beat the Browns twice that season as well. But the Browns only lost those two games by a combined seven points. Doesn't it seem a little fishy that the Browns, who didn't win a single game, only lost by 3.5 points/game to the Steelers, who went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs? Really makes you think. But that's not all…
Let's back up a few years. Immediately before being hired by Cleveland, Hue Jackson was the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals (another inter-division rival of the Steelers), a position he took over prior to the 2014 season. 2014 and 2015 were two of the best seasons in Bengals history. Jackson coached a stellar offense, led by Andy "The Red Rifle" Dalton and AJ Green. Cincy went a combined 22-9-1 in the regular season over those two years. During that span, they never lost to the Ravens and only lost once to the Browns. Clearly, they had a lot of success in the AFC North. But what about the fourth team, the Steelers? Cincinnati went 1-4 against Pittsburgh while Jackson was the OC, including one of the most devastating losses in franchise history in the 2016 AFC Wild Card Game. An impressive team won 65% of its games over two years but, conveniently, four of its 11 losses came against one opponent during that stretch. Noticing a trend?
Flash forward to this season. As I already mentioned, the Steelers failed to beat the Browns for the first time since Hue Jackson took over in Cleveland. Interesting timing that the Browns would finally put it together, at least enough to tie, right at the beginning of a new season. Putting it all together, I have deduced that Browns' head coach Hue Jackson has secretly been on Pittsburgh's payroll for years, but his undercover contract didn't get renewed prior to this season. Given the aforementioned evidence, I believe Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert approached Jackson when he was promoted to the Bengals OC in 2014. Colbert knew Jackson would be hungry for some extra cash, and he only needed to do one thing: throw the game whenever Cincinnati played Pittsburgh. It was a rather simple agreement and beneficial to both parties. You might ask how the Bengals managed to beat the Steelers once during Jackson's tenure, but there's a simple explanation. The Bengals were good. It was unlikely that they'd lose four straight games to the Steelers, so Colbert instructed Jackson to allow one Cincinnati win to avoid suspicion. Come 2016, when Hue got hired by the Browns, Colbert talked to Jackson and they decided they'd both like to continue their agreement. Jackson went above and beyond and lost every single game but one. This made it easier for Colbert because he didn't have to worry about letting Cleveland win one game, even over a two-year period. The symbiotic relationship was working to perfection.
After two straight seasons of embarrassment and talks of termination, Jackson had had enough. His contract with Colbert was at its end, and Hue decided not to renew the deal. He was ready to stop losing over and over again to the putrid black and yellow bullies from Southwestern Pennsylvania. Finally free of the bureaucratic shackles, Jackson went to work in the offseason. With a solid draft, some key signings, and front office changes, the Browns were ready to give it a real shot. His hard work has not completely paid off yet, but tying the Steelers is a massive step in the right direction. I have no doubt that the Browns will beat Pittsburgh in Week 8, sparking a long era of Cleveland dominance in this AFC North rivalry. Kevin Colbert can no longer control Jackson like a puppet, and he's going to regret ever messing with the balance of the division. Hue and the Browns are free at last.