The Cleveland Browns seem unable to go a week without a surprise.
Last week they were trading for a coach. This week they cut their most respected player and team leader.
But this is a move many teams must do, part of life in the salary-cap world of the NFL. Eight-year veteran D’Qwell Jackson was released on Wednesday in a decision that the Browns said was mutual. Say this for the Browns: It’s a sign of respect that it happened now, because the team’s timing gives Jackson a jump start in signing with a new team; he can start looking before the glut of free agents hit the market March 11.
The Browns lose their leader, though, a guy who loved the team and city, a guy who was a pretty good player a year ago. They also created a need at inside linebacker that did not exist before Wednesday.
It’s hard not to see this decision as part football, part financial, but also a byproduct of instability.
The look on Jackson’s face in Pittsburgh after the season finale when it was mentioned to him that coach Rob Chudzinski might be fired was a combination of incredulous and angry. Jackson was heading to his fifth coach (and sixth defensive coordinator) in his nine seasons, and he clearly was not excited about the possibility.
Just a few days prior, he had adamantly stated he wanted to stay a Cleveland Brown, that he felt good about the team’s direction with Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
The Browns' statement on his release made it clear that the team and Jackson’s agent (Brian Mackler) had discussions the past several days. It did not go into detail, but clearly some of it was about restructuring a contract that called for him to receive $4.1 million in bonuses by mid-March. The team called the discussions productive and positive.
The Browns no doubt considered Jackson’s age and where they are as a team. Jackson would have been paid $3.933 million this season in addition to the bonuses, $6.4 million in 2015 and $7 million in 2016. It’s tough to think if both sides weren’t determined that a middle ground could not have been found with $51.2 million in expected cap room. Especially when a young team needs guys like this as mentors and leaders.
It’s not uncommon for teams to release players in their 30s with that kind of deal. With Joe Banner in charge, Jackson’s departure almost seemed a given.
But when the Browns changed to Ray Farmer as general manager, it seemed there was an even chance Jackson might be back. The Browns have plenty of salary-cap room and Farmer and coach Mike Pettine raved about Jackson’s intangibles.
They weren’t enough to keep him, though. Clearly the upheaval Jackson has been through with the team didn’t help.
Just as clearly the newest regime of the Browns did not feel he was worth keeping.
Jackson will find a new team; he was setting up visits within two hours after his release.
The Browns -- and their fans -- will miss him.
And now the team needs an inside linebacker.