Fans gathered in downtown Cleveland’s Public Square in late May to celebrate the announcement that the city would host the 2021 NFL Draft, and as officials from the city, NFL and Cleveland Browns took turns speaking from a stage beneath a tent, a man in the crowd suddenly shouted “JOHN DORSEY!”
Browns fans considered Dorsey to be their Football Moses, the man appointed in late 2017 to lead them out of 20 years of irrelevance through a parted AFC North sea into contention. Cleveland spent the entire offseason projecting wins for its team, remade by the general manager who implored everyone available to help “reawaken this sleeping giant.”
They were most awake in Week 1, when a raucous FirstEnergy Stadium crowd welcomed its heroes to begin their quest for glory. They fell asleep at the start of that game’s fourth quarter, stirring intermittently before finally giving in to hibernation. After a 6-10 finish that extended the team’s streak without a playoff berth to 17 seasons, you can cancel the reservations at The Clevelander in Miami. These Browns aren’t going south for the winter, unless it’s for their own vacations. Freddie Kitchens might be on that list after he was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Browns on Sunday.
Dorsey selected the little-known, longtime assistant to lead his assembly of talent, calling Kitchens the “right fit” for the job with a “great vision” in January after a lengthy search pointed the GM nowhere but inward. Kitchens had, after all, established a rapport and rhythm with Dorsey’s handpicked franchise quarterback, Baker Mayfield. The Browns rattled off five wins in their final eight games in 2018, feasting on lesser opponents but never acknowledging the voyage may have been more downhill than taxing.
Dorsey then provided Kitchens, previously a pilot of a fully loaded Ford Fiesta, with a Lamborghini when he traded for Odell Beckham Jr. in March. Visions of the Browns reaching breakneck speeds through the curves of the NFL season, racing past opponents en route to a triumphant trip to the winner’s circle, danced through the minds of fans.
As a staff writer for the Browns earlier this year, I observed each of Kitchens’ physical, pounding training camp practices. Soft thuds didn’t exist in Berea, nor did days in shells or just jerseys and shorts, with few exceptions. Kitchens even had the team back at the facility practicing the morning after its dominant preseason performance against the Washington Redskins, stressing the importance of toughness and how valuable it would be in September and beyond.
The Browns came out of the most difficult part of preseason preparation with plenty of positive momentum. They’d “been through the fire” of camp and forged a team, Kitchens said, and they’d exerted their will on the Indianapolis Colts during joint practices.
Mayfield took plenty of shots to Beckham and Jarvis Landry and even lesser names like Derrick Willies, producing viral highlights from the practice field on a near-daily basis. The Browns raced out to leads in the practice games, taking down Washington, Indianapolis and Detroit.
But even then, the cracks were slightly visible.
Mayfield’s accuracy was a bit off throughout camp, and the offense ran into a roadblock during the third preseason game, failing in the red zone before the starters were pulled vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A minor bump, many thought at the time.
However, those same struggles surfaced again in a crucial moment in Week 3 on national television against the Los Angeles Rams, when the Browns had four chances to tie the game late in the fourth quarter from the L.A. 4-yard line and failed to do so, losing 20-13. They appeared repeatedly in Weeks 2, 5 and 6, and again in Weeks 9, 10 and so on. They never went away and were a microcosm of an offense that was clogged all season.
Mayfield targeted Beckham plenty, but never got on the same page with the superstar. The offensive line protecting him regressed significantly after the loss of guard Kevin Zeitler in the Beckham trade. Kitchens made changes at right guard, right tackle and left tackle, seemingly grasping at straws. The only two linemen to start all 16 games were premier blockers Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter. Mayfield rarely appeared comfortable and his slight inaccuracy dragged into the season, throwing 21 interceptions in a variety of fashions.
The lone silver lining was the play of Nick Chubb, who entered Week 17 as the league’s rushing leader and finished six yards shy of 1,500. That wasn’t enough to save Kitchens’ job.
Kitchens was hired because of his play-calling ability, as well as his understanding of Mayfield’s skill set and how to use it in concert with Chubb, Landry and Co. Adding Beckham was only supposed to make the offense even better.
But too often, instead of celebrating their latest touchdown, fans were greeted by commercials starring Mayfield during a break that followed Mayfield’s latest interception. Kitchens appeared to struggle to balance the duties of head coach and play-caller, making a remarkably befuddling decision on a near-weekly basis, be it clock management, play-calling (i.e., running three receivers 18 yards downfield on third-and-8) or ill-fated challenges. Onlookers watched Browns games waiting to witness the latest miscue from the sideline.
All the while, Kitchens remained outwardly steady, refusing to blame problems on officiating — even when it seemed warranted — and mostly backing his players in the face of adversity. The questions mounted, with “last year” finding its way into far too many of them. Why doesn’t this offense resemble that of last year’s? It seemed so much easier last year. What’s missing from last year?
Last year is what got Kitchens his first head-coaching job. Last year is what set expectations unbelievably high. Last year is what drove fans to buy every last one of the team’s season tickets and to purchase countless Mayfield and Beckham jerseys. Last year is what directed the nation’s attention to those wearing brown and orange along the shore of Lake Erie.
Last year — plus this year — is what got Kitchens fired.
A record of 6-10, 7-9 or 8-8 in a coach’s first year in Cleveland typically would be lauded as a building block, the first step toward a winning season and a bright future with a young leader on the sideline. This was, after all, a franchise that posted a winless season just two years ago.
But 2019 was not a typical season. Anything less than contending for a playoff spot would be seen as a total failure.
These Browns had their chances, even after losing Myles Garrett to an indefinite suspension and Olivier Vernon to a persistent knee injury. They were still alive a couple weeks ago when Kitchens visited the place he called home for a decade as an assistant coach. His team promptly fell flat on its face, losing 38-24 to the Arizona Cardinals, a brutal defeat for a team clinging to playoff hopes. Cleveland topped that backbreaking loss by falling to the one-win Bengals in the season finale.
The Browns are left to pick up the pieces in an offseason that will surely be filled with swirling rumors regarding the trade value of Beckham and Landry, the clear need for upgrades on the offensive line and how the new staff might try to push Mayfield back on track toward becoming a true franchise quarterback. That’s plenty to handle in a period that will see the high hopes of Browns fans float back down toward the surface of Erie.
Many of those associated with the Browns will speak of how much they like Kitchens and hate to see his run as head coach end like this. In my time working for the Browns, I grew to like Kitchens for his honesty and sharp wit, often hidden beneath his layer of southern charm.
But likeability doesn’t carry much weight in a league that is about wins and losses more than anything else. For Kitchens, that reality was what ultimately did him in.