After being promoted from running backs coach to interim offensive coordinator to head coach over the course of a year, Freddie Kitchens has been fired by the Browns. The team closed out their disappointing 6–10 season with a loss to the Bengals, the worst team in the NFL this season.
Kitchens was hired to coach the running backs at the beginning of 2018, and was then elevated to offensive coordinator, his first-ever coordinator gig, just a few months later when the team fired former head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
After those coaching changes in 2018, Cleveland finished the season 5-3, and with Kitchens calling the plays in the latter half of the season, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield made significant progress. In Mayfield’s first six games of the season with Haley calling the plays (starting five of those six), the QB completed 58.3% of his passes for 1,471 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. In the last eight games with Kitchens calling the shots, Mayfield completed 68.4% of his passes for 2,254 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Despite his lack of play calling experience, Kitchens’s connection with Mayfield gave him an advantage over other coaching candidates. GM John Dorsey took a risk on hiring the inexperienced coordinator, but the strategy made sense. He hired the coach who had already proven he could get the most out of Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, and the team’s most important player in determining Cleveland’s future success.
But Dorsey also admitted that Kitchens was not on any of his lists of head coaching candidates that he brought with him when he took the GM job in Cleveland in December 2017. Kitchens acknowledged the criticism that he was too inexperienced to land a head-coaching gig and that he was not the popular choice among more established candidates.
“Am I ready or not? I do not know,” Kitchens said, after being named head coach. “I mean, were you ready to be a parent? I know this, they had confidence enough in me that I would figure it out and I would get the job done.”
But after a disappointing 2019 season of questionable play calling and a lack of control over his players, it looks like Kitchens wasn’t quite ready for that jump.
When Dorsey traded for Odell Beckham Jr., the expectations for Kitchens and this Browns team grew exponentially. And one of the biggest critiques of Kitchens is that he failed to maximize the most talented roster that Cleveland has seen in years, with the frustration between the star players and their coach visible throughout the season in public spats between some of the star players and the head coach.
Receiver Jarvis Landry was caught arguing with Kitchens on the sideline during a loss at Arizona. Landry explained that he was asking Kitchens to get him the ball, because he’d only caught two catches for two yards at halftime.
A few weeks ago, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported that Beckham is unhappy in Cleveland and has been going up to opposing coaches and players before games saying, ‘Come get me.’ Beckham later refuted that report, but he’s also had a strangely quiet season on the field, his worst season statistically.
In Kitchens’s first outing as head coach, an embarrassing 43-13 home loss to the Titans, his team committed 20 penalties. Those penalties continued to add up as the season wore on, peaking with the infamous meleé on Thursday Night Football when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped off Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and then swung it as Rudolph’s head and hit him with it. The team ended the season with the third-most penalties in the league.
A few weeks after that brawl, Kitchens was photographed wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Pittsburgh Started It.’ Sure, it’s just a t-shirt, and there are plenty of other choices Kitchens made to seal his fate. But the head coach of a team wearing that shirt in public (and allowing a picture to be taken!) embodies the lack of discipline that became the identity of Kitchens’s leadership. And it reflected even worse on Kitchens when compared to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the coach on the other side of that fight, who refused to answer press conference questions about it. The Kitchens experiment lasted only one season, and that shirt will be his legacy.
On the morning of the Browns game at Arizona team in Week 15, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that, “barring a horrific collapse or circumstance to end the season, it appears the Browns will be moving forward with Kitchens.”
But in the final three games of the season, Cleveland lost 38-24 to Arizona, 31-15 to Baltimore and 33-23 to Cincinnati. The final loss was particularly humiliating, against a one-win Bengals team, as Mayfield threw three interceptions to finish the season with 20 interceptions and 20 touchdown passes. Yep—that certainly checks the box for an end-of-season collapse.
Since owner Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns in 2012, he has hired four different full-time head coaches (not counting Gregg Williams as the interim coach last season). Four coaches in eight seasons.
Consistency would probably do the Browns some good, but Kitchens joins Rob Chudzinksi as the second one-and-done Browns coach in Haslam's tenure. One season isn’t nearly long enough for a head coach to prove himself, but the Kitchens era is over. With a quarterback on a rookie contract and expensive, talented pieces around him, the Browns don’t have any time to waste.
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