CINCINNATI -- Former Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson picked up speed as he walked down the hall toward the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room. Jackson was practically jogging by the time he got near the entrance, where a small group of reporters waited.
“You’ll have to talk to Marvin about that one,” said Jackson, declining to answer questions. He then opened the door and disappeared inside, as the rest of the team filed in from practice behind him.
It has been just three weeks since Jackson was ousted from Cleveland after compiling a 3-36-1 record, and things have changed quickly. Jackson went from a loquacious, offensive-minded head coach to a practically silent defensive assistant on a team located just a four hour's drive south.
Jackson was hired last week, just one day after the Bengals fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, who added the DC responsibility to his own duties, wanted an extra set of eyes and ears on the sidelines.
Jackson previously had been an assistant coach with the Bengals from 2004 to 2006 and again in 2012 and 2013, before taking over as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2015.
On Monday, Lewis said it was as if Jackson had never left.
Lewis: “It’s been a big positive for us, with his ability to help with the players and with me feeling comfortable with his game day [management] while I have my back turned.”
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati's starting DE in 2015): “It went pretty smoothly. He didn't get in the way or step on anybody's toes. I think he's here more so for the preparation through the week, not to be like a vocal guy for the whole team."
Jackson’s official title is "special assistant to the head coach," but what he actually does during the week isn’t quite clear. Jackson works with the defense and seems to be more involved with helping the coaches than working with the players.
On his first game day in his new role, his eyes appeared to be trained on the action the entire time. He did not appear to have much of a direct role with the players on either side of the ball.
Jackson: "Obviously being on offense, you know what you were trying to do to attack the defense. I can kind of give some pointers here and there to the defensive coaches about what offensive teams are looking for. That can help from time to time, but sometimes it can be overkill too. I'm sure our coaches will take the most that they can what will help, and what won't help them they'll leave out."
Dunlap: "He and Marvin talk very frequently. He didn't have a position group or anything. He just gives his insight where he has insight."
Bengals center Billy Price: "He's with the defense all the time. He goes over and deals with the defensive side of the ball.”
As Jackson prepares to face his former team for the first time this season, it’s quite unclear what his actual role will be this week.
Neither Jackson nor Lewis indicated he wants to talk about that.
Lewis on Wednesday: "This game is about the Browns and not about Hue. I think I've answered enough Hue questions, OK? We're done. Over. You asked me Hue questions on Monday. We're good. Let's get to the Cleveland Browns.”
Jackson was a successful offensive coordinator in Cincinnati before he left for Cleveland after the 2015 season. But only 19 players from the 2015 team are on the current roster, and even fewer had an active involvement in the offense that season.
That means Jackson walked into a building full of new or vaguely familiar faces last week.
Players such as Price don’t know him well enough yet to approach him to pick his brain, while others haven’t talked to him in years.
Price: "I'm not on that level. [Guard] Clint [Boling] would go do that. I'm making sure I'm prepared for the looks, making sure my guys from left to right are on par. If I don't pick up my guys, then picking Hue's brain isn't going to help me. Me having one-on-one conversations is probably not appropriate, being the rookie.”
Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (rookie in 2015): “[I was] as about as close as a rookie can be to a coach, I guess. Not too close. We talked a few times, and I respect the heck out of him. I love the energy he brings when he walks into a room.”
Teams regularly sign players they believe can provide intel on an opponent, but a coach leaving one team for another during the season is decidedly more rare. That leaves players in both locker rooms feeling a little strange.
Uzomah: "We want to win for Hue. He was here when I was here. And I have a massive amount of respect for him. I’m going to try my best to win this not only for our organization and our season, but for him. And obviously, they want to beat their former coach."
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield: “It’s a quick turnaround. For him to go down south, it’s a little different."
Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins: “It is weird. Me being drafted here and Coach Hue being here for three years, just like me, it’s a lot of feelings involved.”
Browns guard Joel Bitonio: “We really do not talk about it that much in the locker room. Not too many people are bringing it up, but it is a great story for ESPN.”
Jackson knows the Browns' system backward and forward, right down to audible calls. The Browns will adjust for that, of course, but there’s a wide variation in how much the Browns and Bengals believe it will affect a game in which the teams already have a deep knowledge of each other.
Mayfield certainly didn’t think it was an advantage.
Mayfield: “Just, no.”
Interim Browns head coach Gregg Williams: “There’s nothing private in our world anymore. Every single clip of film is out there for anybody to watch."
Higgins: “It’s up to us. You can tell somebody to do something and they still won’t do it, you know?”
Browns guard Kevin Zeitler, who also played in Cincinnati, from 2012 to 2016: “He [Jackson] is a smart guy. He knew what we were doing here. So you have to assume they know everything, and we’ll find a way around it."
Dunlap: "He helped build the team to where they are now, minus the last three weeks. But in the last three weeks, they've got a new OC, so they're probably doing things differently than when he left. But he obviously built up that personnel, so he has an understanding of their mindset, and he's been in their prep meetings with them, so he has a lot of insight with that. But they're going to attack us differently, especially knowing he's here with all that insight."
Price: "He's shared his knowledge within the coaching staff. I don't know how much of it's actually going to carry over. It's not going to carry over that much, because the Browns know that Hue's with us. It is what it is. They're going to have their little nuggets, and after the first quarter, you pick up on tendencies and you pick up on key words and stuff. It's just going to be on us to go play."