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Browns analysis: Hue Jackson almost struck gold thanks to near-perfect game plan against Dolphins

Coach Hue Jackson was the big winner in the overtime loss to Miami.
Jackson would never admit that publicly because he’s trying to change the Browns’ losing culture and wants the focus to be on winning, not moral victories. But if anyone in the locker room or front office had any lingering doubts about the impact Jackson could have on a game, they were erased in the near-upset in Florida.
Jackson took a depleted roster — one too young and lacking talent before a rash of injuries — and came within a missed field goal from stunning the Dolphins for his first win with the Browns. He did it with unwavering belief and a game plan that confirmed the scouting report on Jackson as an offensive mastermind.
Jackson was on his third starting quarterback in the first three weeks of the season in rookie Cody Kessler. He wasn’t expected to play that early in his career, but Jackson had no choice. So he spent the week preparing Kessler to face the Dolphins’ dominant defensive line while also figuring out a way to take some of the pressure off the rookie.
Terrelle Pryor was the answer.
Jackson had experimented with Pryor since he arrived. He threw passes and ran the option in practice, so it wasn’t a surprise Jackson turned to him with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown standing on the sideline with their left arms in slings.
The way he used Pryor was the key.
He wasn’t a gimmick to give Miami something extra to think about, but the primary part of the plan. Jackson took his best healthy skill player and made him the No. 1 target in the passing game and a dual-threat quarterback.
Even if the Dolphins counted on seeing Pryor in the backfield, they didn’t expect 14 snaps — with Pryor in total control and looking like the quarterback he was for most of his life.
Jackson varied from the typical wildcat package by removing Kessler from the game. While that allows the defense to recognize Pryor will be behind center, it puts five skill position players at his disposal, unlike when the quarterback is lined up wide as a dummy. It was a smart tweak.
Jackson also had Pryor throw early, a 26-yard completion to tight end Gary Barnidge. That kept Miami on its toes, as it didn’t know if Pryor would hand off to Isaiah Crowell, keep the ball on the option or pull up and throw.
Down two veteran quarterbacks, receivers Josh Gordon (suspension) and Corey Coleman (broken hand) and center Cameron Erving (bruised lung), Jackson manufactured enough points to win the game. Sure, the defense scored seven points on Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s interception return for a touchdown, but Cody Parkey missed three field goals.
Jackson made the best use of his tools, including increasing the role of running back Duke Johnson, who had 10 rushes for 69 yards and five catches for 12 yards.
Jackson loves calling plays and thinks he does it well. So an imaginative and effective game plan was to be expected.
The strong performance in Miami also showcased his other coaching skills. Despite the daily dose of bad injury news last week, Jackson didn’t crack. The players saw his resolve and kept believing.
Injuries are one thing. Injuries after the game plan is installed — Coleman, cornerback Joe Haden, kicker Patrick Murray — require even more adjustments and renewed focus.
Jackson stayed steady, didn’t dwell on the negative and had the team ready to go.
The players believed they could win and almost did. When the game was over, even with a crushing 30-24 loss, players were impressed with the boss. They saw a noticeable difference from previous coaching staffs.
Jackson isn’t perfect. His decision to take a knee before trying the potential winning field goal at the end of regulation looks bad in hindsight. And he shouldn’t have chosen to play defense to start overtime.
The Browns defense isn’t good enough to trust to get a quick stop and give the offense an advantage in field position. The Browns lost the field position battle, which led to the Dolphins’ winning touchdown on their second possession. Just take the ball and try to score a touchdown, which ends the game without putting the defense on the field.
But that’s nitpicking considering the scope of the rebuilding project Jackson inherited. He’s done a nice job balancing his disappointment in the three losses with the positives he’s seen from his young team.
Jackson needs a win before too long to keep spirits up and provide tangible evidence his long-term plan is working. But for 0-3, he’s off to a good start.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or [email protected] Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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