This was the year of “the turnaround.” The Cleveland Browns were finally going to be relevant again. A 10 win season was almost guaranteed by experts with aspirations of 11 or even 12 notches in the win column were assumed possible after General Manager John Dorsey pulled the trigger on the Odell Beckham, Jr. trade.
And now, here we are. Again. Stuck in reality. December blues.
There are lots of questions as to what went wrong, and what is wrong. Questions that need answers.
Unfortunately, those answers aren’t coming this season. As “Charlie in the Box” surmised when he realized that Santa Claus was not coming yet again, “Might as well go to bed and start dreaming of next year.”
And when NFL teams fail, the most obvious clue to the fall is the head coach. Freddie Kitchens is in his rookie year at the helm of a professional football club. He has worked as a coach for seven different teams from the college ranks to the pros, and the Browns’ gig is his first as a head coach at any level.
Some point to his achievement last year as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator, and yes, he had success then. As a coordinator – which by the way was his first job as a coordinator at any level. To be factual, the beginning of last year he began as the running backs coach. When then-head coach Hue Jackson was finally fired, management slid defensive coordinator Gregg Williams into the head slot, then shifted Kitchens into the offensive coordinator position when he ran the offense for eight entire games.
Eight. This isn’t high school - this is professional football. Big boy football.
Worst case scenario for 2019
The Browns this year have shown flashes of greatness. They have also flopped when they needed good games with positive results. The club had won three in a row and was talking about playoffs around Week 12. The switching point was the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that did not play their starting quarterback, their stud running back, their exceptional wide receiver and their starting center. Yet, the Browns could not beat a third-string quarterback and lost 20-13. A win here would have propelled Cleveland into the Wild Card stream, but instead regulated them to feeding off the crumbs at the table from other teams from that point on.
Where was this offensive juggernaut we were promised this year? Kitchens is an offensive mind and the play caller. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has looked great in games and mostly lower tier in others.
When the Browns traded for the gifted wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., the internet broke. OBJ was considered one of the game’s biggest playmakers, and now he was being paired with Mayfield and perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry?
Last season Mayfield was ninth in passer under pressure rating. This year – 28th. You name a quarterback category for this year and Mayfield has declined in all of them. His regression is so obvious this season over the latter part of the 2018 season.
The main complaint is the offensive line. The rightside has been such a disaster for much of the year and yet very little can be done until training camp. First, the Browns traded away a very good right guard in Kevin Zeitler. That one trade is the bookmark for the regression of the O-line. Zeitler worked well with center J.C. Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio and presented Cleveland with an exceptional core.
The reason Dorsey thought he could dump Zeitler was the need on the defensive line for a premier pass rusher and traded for Olivier Vernon straight up. Where the trade backfired was the fact that Vernon has been injured for as many days as he has been healthy, and the right guard situation is in shambles. When Austin Corbett, the 33th player selected in the 2017 NFL draft didn’t pan out, Dorsey knew he was in trouble with the position. He then brought in Justin McCray and Wyatt Teller through trades to help give some positional competition in the hopes that one would stick and pan out. Eric Kush won the job but was temporarily inserted with his bad performance. Teller was then given the job and currently holds down the position, but only from a lack of quality line play – which Zeitler gave each week.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard will be the first player replaced next year while left tackle Greg Robinson initially played horrible and has a notable rebound in the second half of the schedule. Perhaps if a good left tackle is obtained, Robinson could return to right tackle where he played while with the Los Angeles Rams.
Odell Beckham, Jr. had the worst statistically year of his career. In fantasy leagues, you began to see his name on waivers around Week 7 and has found a home there. Nobody cares about OBJ anymore. First round pick tight end David Njoku has been hurt and really hasn’t done much of anything as a pro. Running back Kareem Hunt has been a good compliment, but so far is all he has shown. Landry again made the Pro Bowl, but some games he is barely relevant.
The wheels to the Browns have officially come off by not making the post-season tournament. The keys to the franchise were basically handed to a position coach.
However, starting over does not necessarily compute to success. And sometimes what you have already is the best choice eventually.
Bill Parcells was hired by the New York Football Giants as linebackers coach then defensive coordinator before graduating to head coach. After his rookie campaign produced a 3-12-1 record, over 80% of the fan base called for his head. Instead, he and GM George Young built the team into a rock solid defense, a capable yet productive offense and exceptional special teams play. The club captured two Super Bowls and was one of the league’s best teams for over a decade. Today, Parcells has a permanant home at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sometimes patience is indeed the virtuous beholder of doing business.
Lack of Discipline
What NFL team can win that commits 148 penalties? Stupid penalties at inopportune times in games are the keystone of this team. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week One, they received 20 penalties in a single game.
At one point, their best player slammed an opposing player in the head with his own helmet and was subsequently suspended for the remainder of the year. There are 32 NFL clubs, yet this only happened with one team. And the head coach is wearing a “Pittsburgh started it” shirt?
It seems apparent Kitchens has lost the respect of his best players, who have gone on record that this is not true but in game action are definitely at odds with the head coach. When you have lost the locker room, the damage is usually an area that you cannot go back to and fix.
The media set the expectations way high for this club before the first snap was taken. There was talk of winning the division, maybe a Super Bowl appearance, but certainly a playoff caliber football team. No question. Realistically, the expectations were to win double-digit games. And now, they are guaranteed yet another losing season – their 12th in a row.
The Browns are also one of the worst tackling teams. Hand grabs and waist clutches are a staple each game. Rarely does a defender actually take out an opponent’s legs or even try to slow them down with grabbing legs. Missed tackles in a Cleveland uniform is a formality and a weekly statistic. And jumping on a player with a multi-yardage gain is standard procedure.
The Browns should be constructed as a running ballclub. They are not. Cleveland possesses one of the best running backs in the league with Nick Chubb and has a very good compliment back in Hunt. The offensive line should be built on how to get Chubb constantly into the second level. The tight end should possess a blocker-first-then-catch mentality that a lot of teams possess.
Over his head
It is not like Kitchens labored as a coordinator for years until he finally got his chance to be the head guy this year. He was a running backs coach early last season and has never been the head coach at any level.
The first year, guys usually learn on the fly and acquire experience from their mistakes. After the second stanza, improvement is usually shown and by year three the club is making the post-season a reality. Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took on a Buffalo Bills team in 2017 that needed an infusion on the defensive side. In his third year, the Bills are a bonafide playoff team and currently 10-5-0. He had been a defensive coordinator for eight years among two NFL clubs. He knew what to expect, and had been successful at what he was good at.
One of Kitchens mistakes right off was the fact that he would become the one who called all of the offensive plays. It is difficult enough to be the head man of the entire organization and the game manager much less the pressure to add play calling to his game day regimentation.
But Kitchens has shown a lack of football strategy. He doesn’t even seem to appear to know his own player’s weaknesses or assets to properly game manage and adjust as the contest unfolds.
Against the three-win Arizona Cardinals, Chubb was utilized only eight times in the first half against the league’s worst rushing defense. How can Ricky Seals-Jones look like a Pro Bowler one game and have a single catch the following week? Why wasn’t Hunt and Chubb used in the same backfield more often? The overall passing attack for this roster was mostly pedestrian for many games most of the year. If your rightside offensive line cannot run block efficiently, why do you continue to run to the right on crucial downs? Is there a reason 6’, 7”, 230 pound former basketball player Demetrius Harris is not a viable option inside the Red Zone?
If Kitchens is retained, does he continue to call the offensive plays? Could offensive coordinator Todd Monken take over this responsibility? He has experience and is an intelligent coach who has coached in the Big 12 and SEC at a high level. He has been the offensive coordinator with four major colleges, plus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three seasons before joining the Browns’ staff. However, Buccaneers’ head coach Dirk Koetter was the play caller, not Monken.
As far as the Browns offensively in 2019, let’s look at the hard data.
Team offense statistics – Total yards 18th; Total points scored 22nd; Best average yards per game 18th; Best average points per game 22nd; Best third down conversions 20th; Best fourth down conversions 25th; Best average yards per play 15th; Fewest fumbles 6th; Fewest fumbles lost 11th; Most penalties 3rd; Most penalty yards 3rd.
Individual statistics - Overall passer ratings: Baker Mayfield 15th; rushing ratings: Nick Chubb 1st; receiving ratings: Jarvis Landry 17th, OBJ 25th; Scoring leaders: Austin Seibert 17th, Chubb 50th. Mayfield is 28th in completion percentage and owns the 30th passer rating. But hey, he leads the league in product endorsements.
Other than Chubb having a grand year and the sixth fewest fumbles, there is nothing that screams this offense is elite. Far from it. The data suggests and confirmation that the Browns are a below average franchise.
If you took out Chubb, center J.C. Tretter, Landry and left guard Joel Bitonio and inserted all new players at every position, what would change next year?
What is better for the long-term future of the Cleveland Browns? Kitchens is either the answer, or he is not. He is either prepared for this job, or he isn’t. 14 months ago he was a position coach.
Who would replace him?
Black Monday is approaching. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Football Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers will certainly be seeking new coaches. Washington and Carolina already fired their head guy. Maybe also the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals and the Browns? Right now that is a toss-up.
If indeed management does let go of Kitchens, the Cleveland and Dallas jobs would be tops on the list of desirable coaching positions because of their existing rosters.
Former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is coming off an unemployed year and has built his clubs on discipline and basic techniques. Under McCarthy, the Packers went to the playoffs nine seasons, played in the NFC Championship Game four times and won Super Bowl XLV. He is also a quarterbacks coach and an offensive guy.
Two unsung names to consider is current Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Roman is a 22-year veteran coach that has been an offensive coordinator with three NFL clubs. Bieniemy is in his second year as the OC with the Chiefs and was the OC with the University of Colorado for two years.
The biggest name this offseason should be San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. He is in the third season of coaching the defense which has progressed into the league’s second best defensive unit.
Then there is Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale. The Browns could use a good defensive mind who would rebuild a unit that needs a lot of attention. Currently the Ravens are the fifth best defense and have allowed the third fewest points per game.
Ron Rivera is another defensive coach who has had success and drives home discipline. His philosophy was to bring in a strong offensive coach to take care of that side of the ball, and then he would direct the defense and fix the holes – which the Browns defense has plenty of holes that need mending. His Carolina Panthers rosters went to the playoffs four times in his eight seasons including losing Super Bowl 50 while he was named NFL Coach-of-the-Year twice.
And then there is always Jim Harbaugh of Michigan and former Ohio State boss Urban Meyer. At some point Harbaugh is going to have to realize that he cannot out-recruit Ohio State nor defeat them and head back to the NFL where he built the 49ers into a league powerhouse. During his four years with the Niners, the franchise made the playoffs three times, played in the NFC Championship Game all three years and lost Super Bowl XLVII. He was NFL Coach-of-the-Year in 2011. Meyer is from Ohio and would be a natural fit. He won three National Championships and was named Coach-of-the-Year twice. Sports Illustrated voted him Coach-of-the-Decade in 2009.
All of these coaches would add something the Browns have not had for a long time – stability.
Should the Browns retain Freddie Kitchens?
This poll is closed
Keep him, but take away play calling duties