It is both in our psychological and physical nature to desire. The same is true when it comes to NFL teams and their hiring processes.
Teams who are struggling fall into the cycle of hiring and firing coaches because they take a look around their respective leagues and realize they desire something they don’t have. It’s easy to say “Yeah, like wins,” but it goes far deeper than that with the Cleveland Browns.
Success starts with talent, which the Browns finally have. But leadership and character at the most-important levels are arguably just as important, and the Browns have been looking for that for the past two decades. After hitting rock bottom in 2016-17 with Hue Jackson, who seemed to lack both, there could not be a better candidate to lead this team now than Freddie Kitchens.
Typically when teams are searching for a new head coach, they often look for someone who is the opposite of what they had before. And the Browns found that with Kitchens, even though he was already on the staff. That is not often the case. Usually, when a head coach is fired, his entire staff is shown the door, unless the incoming coach has a chance to interview the existing staff and happens to find someone he likes.
What the Browns have found in Kitchens is rare. And it just illustrates how unique and unprecedented of a situation the Browns brain-trust found themselves in after firing Jackson along with then-offensive coordinator Todd Haley in late October.
Let’s examine why it didn’t work with Jackson – and why it will with Kitchens.
Jackson and Kitchens are both offensive-minded coaches, but the similarities in personality and philosophy pretty much stop there.
It finally became obvious to everyone except perhaps Jackson and a few of his friends in the media that the environment he created in his two and half seasons as Browns coach was one of distrust and toxicity. Not to mention the historically putrid 1-31 record he posted in his first 32 games.
After the end of the 2017 season, the Browns tried to put a Band-Aid over the growing wound by bringing in Haley to run the offense. Jackson was seemingly on board because this would allow him to focus more on the leadership and team-building aspect of being a head coach. Clearly, things could not continue as they had and this was seen as a welcomed relief.
However, by the middle of the summer, dysfunction was brewing between the two and it was plain for all to see on the HBO series “Hard Knocks.” One particular scene showed then-little known running backs coach Freddie Kitchens calling an existing policy of Jackson’s into question during a coaches meeting.
Before Haley could expound on Kitchens’ concerns (players taking days off when there was so much work to be done to get ready for the season), Jackson put on his actor’s hat for the cameras and delivered a verbal smackdown of his subordinates that might make Cersei Lannister blush. It was an awkward moment and one that foretold that a real life episode of “Game of Thrones” was taking place within the walls of Berea.
Two months later, after fumbling to a 2-5-1 record, showing no signs of an offensive identity, and rumors of internal discord getting louder, Jackson and Haley were both excised from the now-festering wound and replaced by long time defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Kitchens, respectively.
True to form, Jackson went on a national sports media blitz in an attempt save face following his firing. In doing so, he drew the ire of just about everyone in Cleveland and within the Browns organization, especially Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson then took a golden parachute down to Cincinnati to help out his old friend Marvin Lewis coach the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.
Kitchens, who had never been a full-time play-caller before, picked up the pieces with unexpected success, and Mayfield took flight in the back half of his rookie season.
Per Pat McManamon of ESPN, Mayfield’s completion percentage went from 58 percent over the first eight games to 68 percent in the second half of the season, and his yards per attempt went from 6.6 to 8.6. The Browns averaged 6.9 yards per play with Kitchens — the 2000 Rams are the only team since the 1970 merger to average more over a full season.
That’s not improvement. That’s a quantum leap, in terms of offensive efficiency with a rookie quarterback in Mayfield, a rookie running back in former Georgia star Nick Chubb and a rookie Wide Receiver in the talented, yet inconsistent, Antonio Calloway.
Under Jackson and Haley, Mayfield got sacked 20 times, posted a 8:6 TD:INT ratio and had a total QBR of 36.
With Kitchens’ emphasis on allowing the young quarterback to make easy reads and plays designed to get the ball out quickly, the number of sacks on Mayfield dropped to five over the last 8 games. Jordan Zirm, producer of the popular ThomaHawkShow Podcast featuring former Browns Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins, described another facet of Kitchens’ offense that catered to his young QB… employing a 13 personnel formation that provided maximum protection for Mayfield by having 3 Tight Ends on the field more than any other team in the league.
found this interesting. from Week 9 on, after Freddie Kitchens took over the offense, the Browns ran the most plays from 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs) of any team (72 plays). Baker threw from that formation 18 times, had a passer rating of 129.6 and averaged 12 yards per attempt
— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) January 11, 2019
And if that wasn’t enough of a feather in Freddie’s cap, Mayfield’s TD:INT improved to 19:8 and his total QBR jumped to 70 from weeks 9-17. He also broke the NFL record formerly held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for the most touchdowns (27) thrown by a rookie quarterback despite not playing until Week 3.
When the Browns hiring committee of owner Jimmy Haslam, Executive Vice President JW Johnson, General Manager John Dorsey, assistant General Manager Eliot Wolf, Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, and Vice President, Player Personnel Andrew Berry set out to find the person to lead Mayfield and the Browns into the future, it became obvious that the right man for the job was already in the building.
As other teams began to search far and wide for the next hot-shot, up and coming offensive mind, the Browns didn’t have to look further than the office down the hall.
Freddie Kitchens, for all of his inexperience and relative obscurity in the coaching ranks, is exactly what professional sports organizations like the Browns seek when they embark on their quest to find the person who can finally end the losing and remove the dysfunction that has plagued their organization for years.
He is the anti-Jackson in seemingly every way, aside from cutting his teeth on the offensive side of the ball. And the differences go far beyond the stat sheet. Where Jackson was egotistical and self-serving in his time in Cleveland, Kitchens is humble and self-aware, repeating time after time how he would not campaign for any job other than the one he currently had.
Even his willingness to stick up for Mayfield, who called Jackson “fake” after the win against the Bengals, is real, and he expressed that in a down-home southern accent Browns’ fans have grown to love.
Instead of commanding respect and doing things for show when the cameras are rolling, Kitchens, like Mayfield, earns respect and commands a room by what he does when no one is watching.
Coaching and leading a group of men is far more than just calling plays or outsmarting the opponent on game days.
It’s about leadership and character.
And with Mayfield and Kitchens together for the long haul, the Cleveland Browns should finally be on their way to fulfilling fans’ desires for years to come.
Author: Ryan M Alton