After he was hired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in January, Hue Jackson acknowledged that his role in the development of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was one of the primary reasons he got the job.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh brought in Jackson as his quarterbacks coach in 2008, the year the franchise drafted Flacco. In two seasons with Jackson as his position coach, Flacco helped lead the Ravens to the AFC championship game as a rookie and then had one of the best seasons of his career in 2009. Flacco, now in his 10th season as Ravens starter, credits Jackson for what he's become as an NFL quarterback.
Nine years after Jackson began the tutorship of Flacco, he has another big and strong-armed quarterback to mold. The Browns drafted DeShone Kizer out of Notre Dame in the second round in April, and much the way the Ravens did with Flacco in 2008, gave him the keys to their offense as a rookie.
He started his 10th consecutive season opener in Sunday's 20-0 victory over the Bengals and said that despite being sidelined five weeks with a back injury, he exited the game happy with where he was physically.
Kizer, the 27th quarterback to start a game for Cleveland since 1999, played well in a tight season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the rookie prepares for his first road game Sunday against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, his talent has given long-suffering Browns fans hope.
"Joe has gone on and obviously become one of the elite quarterbacks in the league and won a Super Bowl. He has great status in the league. Here's a young guy that's trying to acquire some of the things that Joe has had happen for him in his career," Jackson said Wednesday on a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters. "Again, the blueprint for me of bringing Joe along, there's some things in that that I use for DeShone. But as we all know, some players are different. Some guys react to things differently, so I'll use what works for DeShone the best, but obviously, I will take some things that I used with Joe."
Flacco and Kizer entered the league in different situations. Flacco joined a veteran team with an established defense and annual Super Bowl aspirations. Kizer was brought aboard by an organization in a perpetual rebuild. The Browns have had nine consecutive losing seasons and haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. When he was hired, Jackson was the Browns' sixth head coach in nine seasons.
But there are plenty of similarities with the quarterbacks, from their size – Flacco is 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds and Kizer is 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds – to their skill sets to the circumstances behind their being named starters as a rookie.
The initial plan wasn't for either to start as a rookie, but an early opportunity presented itself for Flacco as Kyle Boller had a shoulder injury and Troy Smith had a severe case of tonsillitis. Kizer, meanwhile, outplayed veteran Brock Osweiler and second-year quarterback Cody Kessler, who started eight games last year, and made it clear this preseason he was the best candidate for the job.
"Coach Jackson is a coach who has obviously had some success with young quarterbacks in the past," Kizer said Wednesday in a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters. "To come in and have a well-thought-out plan for me from the first day I stepped into this facility has benefited me big-time – from working with the ones consistently over and over again while still progressively moving up the depth chart, that allowed me to obviously be thrown into the fire and create some chemistry with these guys as well as staying on the learning curve."
Jackson's reputation as a quarterback guru was enhanced by the work he did with Flacco and with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Jackson was Bengals offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015.
Jackson is known for an innovative offensive mind. He is friendly and upbeat off the field, but he's tireless and unrelenting in how he goes about developing quarterbacks. He's notoriously hard on them and not afraid to challenge quarterbacks in every way. Flacco and Jackson had many fiery exchanges during their two years working together.
"He was a part of a good team we had here early in my career," Flacco said. "He was a very emotional guy and gets you ready to play in a very confident way. He allows you to go out there and play fast, and free, and wants you to go out there and play with emotion and let it all go. I think that his coaching style and his offensive philosophy allows the quarterback to do that."
The early returns from Jackson's mentorship of Kizer – a relationship that will go a long way in determining the head coach's future in Cleveland – are promising.
"He's only going to get better," Harbaugh said of Kizer. "I mean, he's in there for a reason. Hue Jackson knows what he's doing when it comes to quarterbacks. He believes in his rookie quarterback – talent, head, poise, all those things. He believes he has a great quarterback there, so that's the quarterback we're going to prepare for."
In his debut, Kizer completed 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown and one interception while rushing five times for 17 times and a score. A day after the Browns' 21-18 loss to the Steelers, Jackson said of Kizer, "At the end of the day, this young man gives us hope."
Flacco's arrival in Baltimore in 2008 halted the organization's long pursuit of a franchise quarterback. He led the team to the playoffs in his first five seasons and was the Most Valuable Player of February 2013 Super Bowl.
He started his 10th consecutive season opener in Sunday's 20-0 victory over the Bengals. Flacco said that despite being sidelined five weeks with a back injury, he exited the game happy with where he was physically.
"I feel really good," Flacco said. "I'm not going to say I'm 100 percent, but there's no limitations come Sunday."
Yet, he was still facing scrutiny Wednesday after a game in which he threw only 17 times and didn't complete a pass in the second half.
Asked whether he would hold up throwing the ball 40 times if that's what the game demanded, Flacco said: "Yes, there's no doubt. I have no limitations on Sunday when it comes to throwing the football, moving around, doing all those things."