As Browns QB, DeShone Kizer best be ready for the challenge of Hue Jackson

BEREA, Ohio -- Hue Jackson greeted Jason Campbell at the airport when the quarterback was acquired by the Oakland Raiders via trade from the Washington Redskins in April 2010.

Jackson, then Oakland’s coach, took Campbell immediately to a restaurant so the two could share some plain talk.

“He challenged me about what I was walking into,” Campbell said. He recalled Jackson being “blunt” and “straight-up” with “no in-between.”

The more Cambpell talked about Jackson, the more the word “challenge” was used. The Browns coach has an easygoing, happy-go-lucky demeanor, but it became clear the coach is anything but easygoing when he works.

On Sunday, Jackson will be the coach as rookie DeShone Kizer starts in the season opener for the Cleveland Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“That’s the one thing he’ll really do with Kizer -- he’ll challenge him: Come out of your comfort zone,” Campbell said. “Yes you have ability, yes you have skill, but it’s different at this level.”

Campbell spoke in the context of the coach-quarterback relationship, which almost every NFL insider considers vital for success. As Campbell spoke, he ticked down the list of coaches and quarterbacks he said are “tied at the hip,” from Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England to even Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson in Philadelphia.

Jackson has admitted he was hired to find and develop the Browns’ long-missing franchise quarterback. He has cast his lot with Kizer, a rookie from Notre Dame and only the second rookie since 1999 to start for the Browns in the opener. The coach has been open about saying he believes he has found the guy -- to the point he responded with a single word when asked if he had any trepidation about going with Kizer: “Why?”

“The head coach-quarterback deal is very important, especially when the head coach is the offensive coordinator as well [which Jackson is],” Campbell said. “If he’s an offense-minded coach, he’s in your room all the time. He’s with the offensive team. So you’re hearing the same voice pretty much 95 percent of the time. There’s no guessing on what the head coach wants from you. You already know. Because you’re around him more than anybody else in the building.”

For the Browns, Jackson is one reason the optimism for the quarterback position is greater than it has been in the past. He has had success as a quarterback coach for Joe Flacco, as a head coach with Campbell and as an offensive coordinator with the Bengals. The other reason for excitement is Kizer himself. He brings professionalism that combines with natural arm strength, size and ability, and that combination made the decision to turn to him as a rookie feel different than past Browns experiments at the position.

“If ever there was a great team of rookie quarterback and coach, it would be DeShone and Hue,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “I think DeShone really embodies what a professional is. Even as a rookie, he understands how to work, how to study the game. He understands the commitment it takes to be a starting quarterback, so if ever there was a great combination for a rookie quarterback and coach, it would be Hue and DeShone.”

Those who have played for Jackson describe his style as a little bit friend, a lot prodder. Campbell’s success with Jackson got lost in an injury and trade while he was with the Raiders. He was on the verge of doing some very good things when he started for Jackson.

Campbell went 7-5 as a starter in 2010, and started the 2011 season 4-2. But he separated his shoulder in a game against the Browns and was lost for the season. That led the Raiders to trade for Carson Palmer and, as Campbell said, “flipped [his] career upside down.” Campbell wound up spending time as a backup for the Bears, Browns and Bengals -- where Jackson was offensive coordinator -- before he retired after the 2014 season.

“I would’ve really liked to have seen what we could have kept doing together,” Campbell said.

Campbell described Jackson as detail oriented and supportive, but always prodding and challenging. He mentioned some of the same things about competitiveness that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has mentioned about working with Jackson.

“I can tell you which offensive coaches write everything on a chart and call the game on a chart,” Williams said when he was hired, “and I can tell you which offensive coaches lay it down and say, ‘Let's go -- come get some.’

“And Hue’s one of them.”

“He challenged you in all kinds of angles,” Campbell said. “Challenged you in practice. He challenged you to go out and have a strong day. Be a big leader. He always challenged you to get off to a fast start early in games. The one thing that he does is he makes you prepare really well. Go through a lot of film, go through a lot of studying. He’s very detail oriented in what he wants out of his offense and what he wants out of each play.

“He kind of takes out all the guessing, and that was a big thing for me.”

“As a coach Hue is not a happy-go-lucky guy at all,” former Browns and Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins said. “Not even a little bit. I don’t know anybody who would describe him that way as a coach. There is zero gray area with the guy. You understand where you need to improve immediately, and it’s the same whether you’re the No. 1 quarterback or the No. 53 guy. You know where you stand.

“It never comes from a place where it pisses you off because of the person Hue is. You know why he’s doing it, and it’s not done in a way that makes you mad. It’s done in a constructive way.”

Campbell said Jackson would give spot tests. He would walk up to the defensive line in practice and taunt “third-and-2 and you haven’t stopped anybody all day.” He benched Campbell in his first start in Oakland, then went back to him in Week 2.

“We would go to a restaurant or something and he would just be honest,” Campbell said. “He would be 100 percent honest. ‘I need you to do this a little more or this a little better.’ Or he’d be like, ‘Hey you’re good but I need you to do this.’

“He was from L.A.; he was going to give it to you straight up and he was going to tell you, ‘Hey, this is what I'm looking for, this is what I want, this is what I like and this is what I don’t like.’ It was up to me how I was going to respond and how I was going to accept it.”

In Cincinnati in 2014, Campbell saw Jackson take the same approach with every member of the offense.

“He challenged A.J. Green like that. And A.J. Green, he was already a Pro Bowl wide receiver,” Campbell said. “That’s the thing that guys like Hue the most about. He wasn't afraid to challenge anybody on the team.”

Andy Dalton was another player under Jackson’s watch.

“Andy wasn’t a big talker,” Campbell said. “He challenged Andy to become a big talker, to become more of a leader. He challenged Andy to become a little bit tougher in games. He challenged him on decision-making. He challenged him when it came to big games.”

Jackson also stood by Dalton after his worst game. When Dalton had a 2.0 rating in a Thursday night loss to the Browns, the next day Jackson said he was not there to abandon a player who struggled but to help him work through it and get better.

“He tries to instill confidence in you,” Dalton said. “And he wants you to be at your best. He tries to pump you up as much as he can, and he lets you know that’s not the normal way you usually play and that you’re going to get [better] at it next week. I was thankful for Hue during his time here. He was great at that.”

In his two seasons with Jackson as his coordinator, Dalton won 20 games and threw 44 touchdowns, compared with 24 interceptions. His rating from 2014 to 2015 improved from 83.5 to 106.2.

“At first it was kind of tough for Andy,” Campbell said. “He was a young guy who already had a lot of success. It was kind of tough, but then once Andy started catching on to it, his mentality got stronger and he started accepting the challenge. His game really took off to another level.”

“If you get better, we get better,” Hawkins said. “He has a job to do and that’s to turn a program into a winning one. He’s not there to be your best friend. He’s a great guy and will help you in any way he can, but his No. 1 goal is to turn around that organization. Everything you do is with that goal in mind.”

Jackson said he “absolutely” will challenge Kizer the same way he would challenge a veteran.

“He is a starting quarterback in the National Football League, whether he is young, old or whatever, so he has to go play and he knows that,” Jackson said.

Jackson will get angry during a game, and he will express it. But Campbell said that, in the big picture, Jackson made him better as a quarterback.

“The one thing he’s going to emphasize with Kizer is protect the football,” Campbell said. “Protect the football at all costs. If something’s not there, don’t force it. You’re going to make some mistakes. Keep moving forward. We’ll talk about it after the game, go over it. But at all costs protect the football. That’s going to be his No. 1 thing going into this week ahead that he’ll talk to him about.”

In preseason, Jackson intentionally called a pass with Kizer dropping back into the end zone against Tampa Bay. He saw no one open and threw the ball away, which Jackson said was “awesome.”

HBO’s "Hard Knocks" cameras caught Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston giving Kizer similar advice in the preseason.

“Patience is the easiest way,” Winston told Kizer. “Take my word because I’m a risk-taker. Have patience. … Listen to me because they ain’t going to tell you that.”

Kizer called Winston’s advice after that game “very accurate,” but that was preseason. The Steelers will present a whole new level of challenge for two reasons: They’re the Steelers, and it’s the regular season, not practice games.

“Hue’s going to have a limited game plan for him to try to get him off to a good start,” Campbell said. “Get some completions under his belt. Try to keep him not getting overwhelmed. He’s not the type of person who’s going to put a whole bunch of plays in in one week. You pretty much know what you’re going to get when the game comes.”

Campbell’s advice?

“Soak up all the information,” he said. “Go out and play. Play to have fun. Play freely. Just be very detailed. Just pay attention to what he asks you in the meeting room. If there’s anything you ever want to know, just ask him. Because he’s going to give you a one-direction answer. There’s not going to be any guessing; it’s going to be very, very straightforward.

“Sometimes it may not be always what you want to hear. But you know you’re going to get a straightforward answer.”

ESPN's Katherine Terrell contributed to this article.