CINCINNATI -- The breakup was difficult. Some on the outside looking in might even call it ugly.
But if it wasn't for Hue Jackson's ill-fated split from Oakland nearly two years ago and Jason Campbell's own eventual departure from the Raiders, we wouldn't be where we are this weekend: with Jackson and Campbell standing on opposite sidelines in an AFC game that has postseason implications written all over it.
"Life," said Jackson, the current Cincinnati Bengals' running backs coach, "is a funny game."
While Jackson hopes the offensive game plan he's helped draw up can beat one of the league's top-5 defenses on Sunday, Campbell, currently the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback, hopes he'll be able to keep his career resurrection going. In starting the Browns' last two games, Campbell has posted a 1-1 record, thrown more than 550 yards, accounted for five touchdowns and not had an interception.
So far, he's looked very good.
"I know him, he's got great leadership," Jackson said. "So he'll take that cast of skill guys there, and he'll get them to play good because he'll distribute the ball good and he'll manage the game and make big throws and run with the ball, and he's tough and he's smart. So he's doing a good job.
"We just don't want him to do it this week."
Jackson has that confidence in Campbell because for six weeks during the 2011 season, the quarterback was giving the Raiders similar production. They were 4-2 under his play and Jackson's guidance. A longtime NFL and college assistant, Jackson had finally been named head coach earlier that season. In the early weeks, it looked like the pair was going to lead the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
But then, during a Week 6 game against Cleveland, all of that changed. Slammed to the turf by now-former Brown Scott Fujita, Campbell broke his collarbone, suffering a season-ending injury that helped alter the fate of two franchises. It may even alter the fate of a third -- depending on how the rest of the Campbell experiment in Cleveland goes.
Days after surgery, while sitting home in a medically-induced haze, Campbell watched as the Raiders introduced Carson Palmer -- the same Carson Palmer who was riding the bench during a Bengals-Colts game in Cincinnati the week before -- as their new starting quarterback. The trade for Palmer included early-round picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts, and was an indication that the coaching staff and front office believed he would be the future of their offense. Jackson, who had worked briefly with Palmer during an earlier stint in Cincinnati reportedly helped engineer the deal.
Campbell felt betrayed. Even when Jackson was fired at the end of what became an 8-8, playoffs-less season, Campbell knew the franchise's faith in him was shot. It was time to move on, he reasoned. So, the following offseason, once he became a free agent, he signed with the Bears. He started only one game and threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns in his limited six-game appearances.
All of that is in the past, though. His present includes quarterbacking a team that is two big division wins away from possibly claiming its first AFC North championship. Still, you almost have to wonder what would have happened had Campbell never been injured in that game. Maybe he's still in Oakland. Maybe Palmer doesn't leave Cincinnati as quickly. Maybe Jackson's still a head coach. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
"We'll never know," Jackson said, smiling.
One thing Campbell knows is that there are still areas of his game he can improve.
"A lot of it is you continue to build chemistry with guys around me and we're on the same page as we go down the stretch," Campbell said on a conference call this week with Cincinnati media. "A lot of it is good, but at the same time there's a lot of work to do and a lot of things you can learn from and get better."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sees a lot of good in Campbell's current play.
"What has impressed me is his ability to move in the pocket and extend the play a bit, get the ball to the receiver and make the first down," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's what you want from your quarterback."
While Jackson didn't speak much about the circumstances surrounding his and Campbell's rocky tenure in the Bay Area, he did acknowledge this week that he has a great deal of respect for the nine-year veteran who has had his share of injuries and been in his share of locker rooms. Total, Campbell has played for four teams.
"I have a lot of respect for Jason," Jackson said. "Jason came to Oakland with me and helped me get that offense back on track. I'll always have a lot of respect for him. I know it didn't turn out the way me or him wanted it to, but he's a fine football player, and he's showing that."