Where Are We Now With the Browns Coaching Staff?
As the Cleveland Browns find themselves 5-7 after a disappointing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, effectively ending their season as it relates to the playoffs, the expectation for this year, thoughts turn to taking inventory of the season. Much of the talk is about the coaching staff and what should happen, given that the season has become a failure.
I have a number of reservations when it comes to Freddie Kitchens. I believe he has improved overall in terms of the day to day operation and the overall management of the team as he learns on the job. I think the offense he and offensive coordinator Todd Monken have crafted can be very effective, but also has too many situations where it can get distracted or unnecessarily creative. The offense stalls and gets into the lulls that Baker Mayfield has described on any number of occasions and they can struggle getting out of them.
The offense is generally trending in the right direction, but the struggle to implement Odell Beckham has been a season-long issue. Twelve games into the season, it's still not really addressed and the team has largely turned their attention to Jarvis Landry as the primary receiving option, which is good for Landry, but not where the Browns need to be going for the team's betterment beyond just this season.
Defensively, I think Steve Wilks has done a great job for the most part. The results haven't always been as good as anyone would like, but many of these games are being determined by the Browns not doing enough on offense. Losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams where the defense holds the opponent to 20 and lose aren't on that side of the ball. The offense, considering the talent it has, need to be able to come through and thrive.
The game against the San Francisco 49ers was the only game where Wilks got simply outschemed and outcoached. Kyle Shanahan subjected Wilks to a proverbial pantsing on the field. Other than that, Wilks and his staff have come up with very effective game plans this season. There are specific calls in situations that didn't work or left holes, but it's nothing like with Gregg Williams last year where he was so aggressive, when opponents found holes, they would score. Wilks will be aggressive and sends pressure, but he tends to cover his bases enough that ensure he's able to survive for another set of downs.
Even in games where the defense would get beat, most of the time there were players in position to make a play and failed to do so, be it a play on the ball in coverage or a tackle in the open field. That would suggest that the scheme was right and the player needed to execute better. That happened on multiple occasions against the Steelers on passes from Devlin Hodges. Defensive backs were there, but couldn't finish the play.
The scheme Wilks runs, with a 4-2-5 base defense, requires they have the defensive backs to be effective, particularly the safety position, which often has a strong safety, free safety and X on the field. The best strong safety on the team was traded before Wilks got a chance to coach him and the team largely pieced together a group that has since either been released or injured.
Free safety was expected to be a strength for the team simply hasn't been. Damarious Randall, between injury, effectively being grounded for a week and ineffective play, hasn't been the impact player they were hoping for in his second season with the team. They ran out of bodies over the course of the season and seem to placed third round rookie Sione Takitaki in the X position, effectively just becoming a SAM linebacker, making it a 4-3 in base.
As it pertains to Wilks, I believe the issues are more personnel based than as a result of poor scheme. Not only are they trying to incorporate young players, they are having veteran players adjust to this scheme. And for the most part, the veterans have performed well under Wilks. The young players will hopefully continue to acclimate as they develop in the NFL the rest of the year; Greedy Williams, Mack Wilson, Sheldrick Redwine and Sione Takitaki were drafted rookies that played for the Browns against the Steelers. It seems like both Wilks and the players being added to the team can continue to improve and put out a better product.
The addition of Mike Priefer has been a massive boost to the team's performance on special teams. He took the job because of Kitchens' emphasis on that unit and it has proved beneficial. Kickoff returns are still problematic but their coverage units and the kicking and punting games have improved significantly this year.
Right now, I'm inclined to want to keep Kitchens for next season, assuming that means that Wilks and his staff would be staying with him as well as coaches like Priefer and James Campen. I don't know that Kitchens is the coach to lead this team to a Super Bowl, which isn't where I want to be, but I'm also not seeing anyone else out that is and those coaches would then need to hire a staff. That would mean Baker Mayfield would be on his third different offense in three seasons and Denzel Ward would be on his third different defense. It also might be more difficult to hire a staff, given the fact that the pressure is so ramped up and the leash is so short.
I don't know where the upgrade might be in terms of switching coaches intersects with the drop the team would experience from switching schemes again. I'm sympathetic to the argument that if they're going to cut bait, it's better to do it now as opposed to later, but it's very difficult to get any sense of what the Browns have talent-wise in that scenario. And new coaches would mean ushering out players that don't fit the new schemes and trying to find players that do fit, which has helped to create a talent gap on the team.
This also gets to the front office and general manager John Dorsey. I believe he has underperformed two years into the job. Yes, he picked Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb. He also completely blew the rest of that draft, despite having a historic amount of resources at his disposal. Dorsey has made some great moves while mangling others, which might include the head coach.
I think Dorsey and the front office simply have to perform much better in what would be their third offseason with the team. Kitchens was Dorsey's hire at head coach and firing him after a year is an indictment of Dorsey while also serving him up a scapeboat and bailout. It ignores the failures in improving the offensive line in front of the franchise quarterback or the safety group that he assembled which blew up in his face. The team traded away its defensive line depth and was reduced to using street free agents in must-win games.
It's disingenuous to lay the blame solely at the feet of Kitchens when Dorsey has contributed just as much if not more to the failure of this season. And because of that, it seems like the discussion should be more about retaining the entire group, front office and coaching staff, as opposed to replacing just the coaching staff. At the moment, I'm inclined to keep them all and hope they all have a significantly better 2020 than they did 2019.
Right now, today, my opinion is that firing Freddie Kitchens sounds far more attractive in theory than it would be in practice.