Andy Dalton is grateful for how Hue Jackson helped guide him to a career year.
For the second time in four days Bengaldom is grappling with a tough loss in the division.
With the wound still raw from Saturday night's loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card Game, the Browns reached up from the AFC North basement Wednesday and snatched highly-regarded Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to be their eighth head coach since Marvin Lewis took over the Bengals in 2003.
The Jackson hiring comes straight out of the Bengals playbook and one day shy of 13 years ago when the Bengals tapped Lewis. Lewis, an assistant coach also immersed in the AFC North elite, worked four seasons in Pittsburgh and six in Baltimore before coming to the Bengals. Jackson had two stints in Cincinnati under Lewis during seven seasons and also worked for head coach John Harbaugh in Baltimore for two years. The programs of Lewis and Harbaugh have accounted for five of the last seven North titles.
"Sad to see him go," said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth at the close of Jackson's two-year run. "But so happy for someone who deserves the opportunity. He's an exceptional coach and man. He'll make them a contender quickly."
It's believed the Bengals are looking both inside and outside to replace Jackson, starting with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. Zampese is an original member of Lewis' staff and both starters that he's helped draft and develop in Cincinnati, Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer, were named to this year's Pro Bowl in a season they contended for the NFL passing title.
When Dalton's season ended with a fractured throwing thumb on Dec. 13, Zampese had untried Andy Dalton ready enough to win two of his first three NFL starts before pulling off a stunning 16-point rally in the fourth quarter against the Steelers Saturday night.
The last time Lewis replaced a coordinator, he stayed in-house and promoted Jackson from running backs coach in 2014 when Jay Gruden became the Washington head coach. When defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left a few days later to become Minnesota's head coach, Lewis also stayed in-house and tapped linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
One potential external candidate, former Cardinals and Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt, went off the board Wednesday when he agreed to return to the Chargers as offensive coordinator
With Jackson calling the plays, Dalton blossomed from an 85.2 career passer into an MVP candidate this season with a Bengals-best 106.3 passer rating that gave him the AFC passing title and a Pro Bowl berth. The seed was sown in an off-season summit where Jackson not only challenged Dalton on the field but on his overall approach to the team and the game.
"He was great for me. He was able to push me," Dalton said Wednesday. "We talked about expectations and what he wanted from me and I think I came into my own. With the conversations and the way we worked together and his openness for what I liked, it helped me be the player I was this year. He's a big reason for my success. . . . He had a different approach and from a pure mental side it was great."
Dalton thinks the lessons are going to stay.
"It's not something you just learn and use for one year," Dalton said. "I definitely feel like it's a part of who I am now."
Lewis' delicate charge is to make sure Dalton keeps progressing and that may mean he sticks with a guy like Zampese since he's so close to the scheme and playbook. It will mark Dalton's third different offensive coordinator in six years. Compare that to Palmer and Boomer Esiason, who each essentially had one in their Bengals careers. Since Dalton became the starter in 2011, they've been working out of Jay Gruden's base West Coast offense.
"Hue put his own twists on it, but the foundation basically goes back to Jay," Dalton said. "I'm not concerned about the continuity. We've got the guys that can handle it."
Dalton said he's prepared to work with whomever and says he's already got a good working relationship with Zampese.
"Zamp's been good for me," Dalton said. "He has an understanding of this team and this offense."
But, like Dalton said, he hopes Jackson doesn't bring too much magic to a division opponent. In Jackson the Browns plucked the top aide for Lewis, a guy that has an 18-8 record against in Cleveland in 13 seasons. While the Browns are searching for their first AFC North title and second post-season berth, the Bengals are coming off their third AFC North title and sixth playoff appearance in the past seven years.
Even before Jackson's Wednesday evening news conference in Cleveland, his trademark enthusiasm had already reached Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, a former Bengal that worked with Jackson.
"I think he's exactly what the doctor ordered and what we need to start moving in the right direction," Hawkins said. "He's knows the division. He can relate to anybody. He's not talking just to talk.
"He's confident because he knows football. He's confident because he can deal with people. From the front office to ownership to players. The head coach is the core of your franchise which is why he is the face of it. You have to maneuver through all those avenues to be successful."
With Jackson scheduled to fly to New York Wednesday to interview with the Giants, there were indications that he, Lewis, and the Bengals, in order to keep Jackson, discussed a succession plan Wednesday morning in which he would eventually replace Lewis. But the Browns' deal carried the day. Lewis, 57, is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL next to New England's Bill Belichick and is coming off his best season with a 12-4 record. Although he has yet to win a post-season game, his total of seven post-season appearances matches the seven play-off berths the Bengals reached in their history before he arrived in 2003.
The 50-year-old Jackson appeared to be the likely heir apparent. Lewis has known him for years, the two are close friends, they first worked together in Washington during the 2002 season, and Bengals President Mike Brown has been a big advocate for him in NFL circles. Jackson followed Lewis to Cincinnati in 2004 to coach the receivers for three seasons and returned in 2012 as a defensive assistant in the wake of his firing as the Raiders head coach.
"Our division will continue to be one of the best in the league," Whitworth said. "I know myself and others on our team are better players and leaders because we had the honor of playing for him."