Life is full of decisions.
From the college that best fits one’s career goals to the type of house to buy and car to drive, everything starts and ends with a decision.
For Cleveland Browns inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, when the time came to make a decision about where he would spend the next part of his career after a 2011 season in which he registered 158 total tackles and a career-best 116 solo stops, the decision was easy.
Jackson wanted to finish what he started with the Browns, who drafted him in second round of 2006, and decided to sign a long-term contract extension rather than test the free-agent market.
“I don’t think words can describe the feelings and emotions that I have for this community, for this team,” Jackson said. “It was a place I was drafted to in 2006. We had our ups and downs. We had a remarkable team in 2007 where we won 10 games. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the playoffs that year, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve learned a lot from the coaches that have come through this organization.
“I’ve developed a lot of good relationships from those coaches and players, and right now, we couldn’t be in a better position with the coaching staff that’s in place by (chief executive officer) Joe Banner and (general manager) Mike Lombardi. This organization has always been a hard-hat organization, a first-class organization. I think guys are starting to believe it. The community’s starting to believe it, and it’s starting to show on Sunday.”
For Jackson, wanting to stay in Cleveland was a way to payback the organization that gave him a chance to come back from back-to-back pectoral tears that cost him 26 straight games through most of the 2009 and all of the 2010 seasons.
And the veteran linebacker answered the bell by registering 158 total tackles, the second-highest single-season total of his career. He also collected a career-high 3.5 sacks for 25 lost yards, one interception, three passes defended and three fumble recoveries, also a personal best.
Jackson followed up the 2011 season with 119 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a 27-yard touchdown in the 2012 regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“A lot of people didn’t give me a chance to come back,” Jackson said. “I don’t think a lot of people thought I could come back and play at a high level. The Cleveland Browns did. Thank goodness they did.
“From that point on, I took it as a personal challenge to myself that, ‘I was able to come back. I was able to play healthy. I’m going to give this organization every ounce of me.’ That entails being a good leader, being a good captain, doing what I’m supposed to do on and off the field, and making sure I do what it takes to put a better brand of football on the field on Sunday.”
LEARNING TO PREPARE
During those 26 straight games on the sidelines, Jackson remembered what made his older teammates so effective: the preparation that goes far beyond studying film of upcoming opponents and on-field work.
Jackson said that his time away from the game helped him learn “a lot had to do with the mental side of it.”
“Your sense of playing the game never leaves you,” Jackson recalled. “I’ve always felt like I was going to be competitive as long as I was out there. It took some maturing on my end to realize what I was putting into my body, taking care of my body, being a better pro.
“That was the one common equation. (The veterans) took very good care of their bodies. They got the proper sleep. They did things that would allow them to be successful on Sundays, and I think that was the most important thing that I learned from being out those couple years, to play the game above the shoulders. What I mean by that is being a smarter player, taking care of your body and just being a better pro.”
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Following the 2012 regular season, the Browns made a coaching change, the fourth during Jackson’s eight-year career in Cleveland.
In early January, owner Jimmy Haslam and Banner selected Rob Chudzinski to be the 14th full-time head coach of the Browns, and the first-time head coach made quick work of filling out his coaching staff.
Chudzinski wanted the Browns to be aggressive on special teams, offense and defense, and with that in mind, he chose Ray Horton to be the defensive coordinator.
Horton previously guided the Arizona Cardinals to the NFL’s best passer rating allowed (71.2) and interception percentage (4.4 percent) in 2012. Under Horton’s direction last season, the Cardinals finished top 10 in interceptions (second, 22), third-down efficiency (second, 32.9 percent), red-zone defense (third, 44.4 percent), takeaways (fourth, 33), passing defense (fifth, 200.8), first downs allowed (fifth, 288) and points allowed per drive (fifth, 1.42).
“It’s a perfect marriage,” Jackson said. “It really is a perfect marriage with the players that we have combined with his mentality of how to attack opposing offenses. It starts with the guys in this room. Mike Lombardi did a great job of orchestrating a great defense, putting the right guys in the right position.
“What Ray does is maximize the potential in all of us, including myself. There’s always something to be learned. Coach (Ken) Flajole has taught me so much about protections, reading the centers and how we can manipulate what the offense is doing.
“I’ve learned a great deal, and if I’m learning a great deal, I know these young guys are like sponges, soaking up all the information they can. They may not realize it now, but three or four years down the road, they’ll realize with the information that they’re getting, they’re light-years ahead of where I was when I was in their position years ago.”
By taking on the aggressive mindset of Chudzinski and Horton, Jackson believes the future is now for the Browns.
“We’ve had successful fakes in the kicking game,” Jackson said. “We’ve gone for it a ton on fourth down. We’ve answered the bell on defense versus a sudden change. That’s our mentality. We don’t have anything to lose. We’ve been the stepchild in this division for a long time, and you see the tide slowly changing. We’ve positioned ourselves to be right where we want to be at this point in time.”
PREPARING FOR SUNDAY
When preparing for games, Jackson leaves no stone unturned.
Whether it is watching film while in the cold tub recuperating from a week’s worth of practice or spending extra time with coaches, Jackson works to eliminate any and all surprises that could arise on game day. And it is because of that preparation that Jackson has earned the respect and admiration of his position coach, Ken Flajole.
“He’s a nine-year veteran and he’s been through a couple of different schemes,” Flajole said. “He prepares in the meeting rooms like he’s a first-year rookie, and that’s rare in this league. A lot of times, with guys that have been in the league as long as he has have a little bit of, ‘Hey coach, show me the formations. Let’s watch a little tape and I can figure this thing out on my own.’ He’s not that way. He’s very receptive to coaching.
“He prepares and studies like it’s all new to him, which I think gives him a leg up, and I think the young guys feed off of it as well. They see how he prepares as a veteran. The younger guys know that that’s just how it is in the National Football League. He’s been a great mentor, particularly, for the young guys in our meeting room. He’s a great leader, unquestionable. He’s a guy that rallies the troops when things aren’t going well, and he’s just a real steady force for us.”
CHANGING THE CULTURE
With the aggressive mindset of the coaches and players coupled with young and upcoming defenders at his sides, Jackson feels the Browns are on the verge of something special.
“Everything is right there on paper for us,” Jackson said. “We have to continue to get better, continue to make the corrections that we need to. This is an ‘Any Given Sunday’ league. Everybody’s beatable, but we have to understand we have to play team football.
“It’s fun winning, and we know how good we can be. We’ve battled with the defending Super Bowl champs (in the Baltimore Ravens) and that gives us a ton of confidence. We’ve faced those guys year-in and year-out. For a long period of time, the AFC North has been that division where around this time of November and December, you put your hard hat on, strap your chinstrap tight and you get ready for a dog fight. That’s what it’s going to come down to in these next few weeks.”