Faced with few known options in their search for a head coach, the 49ers have turned their sights to Hue Jackson, but it remains to be seen how badly the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator wants them.
On Sunday, Jackson met with team officials for five hours in Cincinnati, where his Bengals team had been eliminated from the playoffs in controversial fashion one night earlier. While the sitdown is said to have been positive, the Niners have not extended an offer to Jackson nor is it certain he would accept one.
Jackson has mutual interest in the Cleveland Browns, with whom he also met on Sunday. He would have more authority in Cleveland, where, unlike with the Niners, he would pick the new general manager and have considerable input on personnel matters.
Yet Jackson almost certainly will want to hear out the New York Giants, who have requested permission to discuss their vacancy as well. They are scheduled to meet with ex-Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith today.
In the market for a known name with an offensive background and head coach experience, the Niners were among the teams targeting New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. But when Payton announced his desire to fulfill the final two years of his contract last week, he no longer was an option.
The 50-year-old Jackson has been a head coach for one season, or one more than Jim Tomsula had when hired a year ago. Jackson guided the Raiders to an 8-8 record in the 2011 season, and they have not had as many as eight victories since then.
Jackson also meets the desire for a coach who demands accountability of his players. In contrast to Tomsula, who went out of his way to protect the players publicly, Jackson is more prone to hold them to high standards.
“If there is an NFL team out there that’s not looking at Hue Jackson in their top three, they are crazy,” Bengals offensive tackle Andre Whitworth said.
“A great football mind,” said ex-Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. “He’s good for football. He demands a lot out of his players, and any team would love to have him.
“Why has it taken [four] years? The way he left Oakland, I think there was still a lot of unknown of how that went down, so I guess that could be some reasoning. But I know he’ll interview well, and hopefully he gets a job somewhere.’’
Jackson served as Raiders offensive coordinator in 2010, but he claimed then-team owner Al Davis had wanted him to become the general manager originally. He declined because of his desire to become a coach.
One year later, Jackson replaced Tom Cable as head coach. The Raiders got off to a 7-4 start and were in contention for a playoff berth before they dropped four of their next five games. At the root of the problems were a leaky defense that ranked 29th in yards allowed and a lack of discipline that resulted in the most penalties in the league.
The Raiders still were in contention in the final week of the regular season before the San Diego Chargers dealt them a 38-26 setback at home on New Year’s Day. They finished in a three-way tie for the West Division lead but lost on tiebreakers.
Admittedly, Jackson did not handle the loss well afterward. Rather than deflect criticism away from the players, he was “pissed at the team” because of its subpar performance and put the blame largely on them.
“At some point in time, as a group of men, you can say whatever you want about coaches, but [players] win the game,” Jackson said. “‘Here’s your time. Here’s your time to make some plays.’ We didn’t get [the Chargers] stopped, and we didn’t make enough plays. So, yeah — I’m pissed at the team.”
After general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired four days later, his first order of business was to relieve Jackson of his duties, although owner Mark Davis had the final call. Davis assumed control of the team after his father passed away three months earlier.
Asked whether Jackson’s post-game rant had a role in the decision, Davis responded tersely at the time, “No comment.”
Later Jackson said that he had learned from the rookie mistake and believed that he was a better coach because of it.
“I think probably the emotions were still pretty raw after talking to the team,” Jackson admitted. “I kind of went in there and said some things that I was saying to the team that maybe didn’t need to be said outside the locker room. So lesson learned by me. I know what I said, I know what I meant. I don’t think I meant it the way that everybody took it.
“I’m still my get-after-you, type-A personality person, but at the end of the day, I knew there were some things that I could have done differently and better, and I’ve learned from that. Everybody learns from their first experience, and I did.”
Early this season, Jackson said it took “probably a year” to get over the rejection.
“It did,” Jackson said. “You look back on the things you could have done better, and then we ended up playing that the next year. So you go through all that process and seeing people you know and respect and love, people who fought with you and all that. And then you move on beyond that. Hopefully, I did all that right in a professional manner. And I know I did.”
After Jackson saw his stock plummet around the league, the Bengals hired him as defensive backs coach in 2012 then promoted him to offensive coordinator two years later. This season the offense ranked seventh in points and 15th in total yards in the league. Despite the loss of injured quarterback Andy Dalton late in the season, the unit remained competitive with rookie AJ McCarron behind center.
There had been doubts that Jackson would be available after the Pittsburgh Steelers stunned the Bengals in their playoff opener. The Bengals rallied from a 15-point deficit to take a one-point lead late in the game, only to have a fumble and two mind-boggling penalties result in an 18-16 defeat.
Speculation was that coach Marvin Lewis could lose his job as a result of the meltdown, in which case Jackson might have been a candidate to replace him. In 13 seasons, the team has yet to win a playoff game under Lewis, whose 0-7 playoff record is worst in league history.
Everyone from CBS commentator and ex-coach Bill Cowher to former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason was critical of Lewis and his team afterward.
“I’m a former Bengal,” Esiason said. “I’m embarrassed by the way that this game ended and by the way these guys carried themselves on the football field today. I feel bad for Marvin Lewis. I’ll tell you one thing, if Lewis can’t control his players, then maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn’t be on the sideline coaching that drek.”
But when the Bengals decided to retain Lewis, it left Jackson in an enviable position on a dwindling list of established candidates.