Hue Jackson might be spark offense needs

CINCINNATI -- If you ever happen to meet Hue Jackson, the version of the Cincinnati Bengals' new offensive coordinator that you're most likely to encounter will be a quiet, polite, even-tempered and unassuming one.

Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and other Bengals offensive stars should be so lucky.

When players start returning to Paul Brown Stadium for offseason workouts beginning in late April, they will be seeing in meeting rooms and on the practice fields a form of Jackson who operates very differently from the one the rest of us might more readily see.

They will instead be taking guidance from a man whose intense, hard-coaching style is reminiscent of former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Like with Zimmer, thick skin, open ears and an open mind will go a long way in helping them prepare for the challenges Jackson will present; challenges his predecessor, rightly or wrongly, didn't always provide.

"I don't know any other way to coach," Jackson said last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. "I was asked to be the offensive coordinator here, and I'm going to be who I am. I think the players understand that, but I think they know I come from a good place. It's nothing personal. I want to make you the best player you can be. That's my job."

A new sheriff is running the offensive side of the Bengals' locker room. For players like Dalton and Green, that is a good thing. With Jackson in charge, the two young superstars who haven't yet endured much internal flack during their three seasons with the Bengals, might finally get the spark they so desperately need.

You won't hear Jackson admit to that, though. Nor will you hear any of his players own up to it. But it is apparent the Bengals' biggest stars were able to skate by under the previous offensive staff. One of the dirty little secrets about Cincinnati's offenses the past three seasons is that while good and quite talented, the unit was missing the type of brash, in-your-face coaching that was often needed.

That is not meant to slam former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, now the head coach in Washington. On the contrary, it seemed he did everything he could to get the very best out of his players. He did, after all, help coach a quarterback few believed in as a rookie and turned him into a playoff-contending signal-caller in each of his first three seasons. The Bengals' 2013 offense was the league's 10th-best. Gruden coached his players the best way he knew how.

The thing is, Gruden didn't have the meanest of mean streaks in him. He wasn't Zimmer, and he wasn't the coach Jackson will be.

When Green would embarrass his quarterback by inexplicably cutting off a route during a game, leading to an interception, Gruden wouldn't repeatedly needle him the rest of the season. That just wasn't part of his persona. Green's occasional sluggish route finishes might have been addressed when they happened, but apparently that wasn't often enough. Had they been addressed as often as needed, then perhaps he wouldn't have continued dragging through routes even as late as the playoff loss to San Diego. If he continued running through a "Go" route deep in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, he might have caught a touchdown pass that would have put the Bengals right back in the contest. Instead, he slowed up, and the ball fell just out of reach. Cincinnati went on to lose 27-10, extending its postseason winless drought to 23 seasons.

When Dalton would force turnover after same odd turnover in the same game, he wasn't getting scolded for it the next six days. But again, that's OK, it's just not how Gruden coached. If Gruden did all of a sudden try to exhibit the tougher temperament that might have been needed, he likely wouldn't have been taken seriously. It wouldn't have been genuine. Players can see behind what's real and what isn't, and he genuinely would have lost all control of the offense at that point had he tried to be someone he wasn't.

To his credit, though, Jackson really is an old-school, hard-on-players type of coach.

If Green cuts off a route once this season, don't expect him to do it again. If Dalton has a multi-turnover game this season, it would be surprising to see him come back and have another the next week. If he does, then Jackson hasn't done his job.

"If a guy's not performing at a high level, there's a reason," Jackson said. "We have very good players here, and our players are here to help us win a championship from the classroom to the practice field to game day. They have work to do, but it's my job as leader of the group, along with the head coach, to create that environment to be all they can be. That's what I think about all the time."

Much has been said the past six weeks about Jackson's plans for employing a more physical offensive attack this season. As beneficial as a more efficient running game will be for the Bengals, their greatest success this season might rest in what happens in the meeting rooms this offseason, and what happens in the film room on Mondays through Saturdays during the season.

Cincinnati's offensive stars have talent. But the intensity Jackson brings them off the field might be just the spark they need to turn their talented unit into possibly a great one.