Browns coach Freddie Kitchens seems like a great guy. He’s a unique personality. He makes the NFL more fun.
But it’s clear through seven regular-season games that he was not prepared to be an NFL head coach.
It’s not his fault. One year ago today, Kitchens was minding his own business as a running backs coach in Cleveland. He wasn’t being groomed to be a head coach in 2019, and he wasn’t in position to try to groom himself to be a head coach in 2019. He was on no one’s radar screen to be hired as a head coach in the next cycle, or ever.
Even after the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on October 29, installing Gregg Williams as head coach and Kitchens as interim offensive coordinator, it wasn’t obvious that Kitchens would have a chance to become the head coach in 2019. So he focused on being the best offensive coordinator he could be, not thinking about the slim possibility that, within months, he’d be an NFL head coach.
And then it happened. The team improved unexpectedly, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield took a shine to Kitchens, the team listened more than it should have to the opinions and preferences of a rookie quarterback, and the team surely didn’t want to risk losing Kitchens to a head-coaching job in 2020 if his positive results with Mayfield as the team’s offensive coordinator continued.
But Kitchens simply wasn’t, and still isn’t, ready for the job he now has. The fact that he played the “I’m new at this” card earlier in the season proved it. On Sunday, his bizarre handling of a late fourth-down scenario confirmed it.
Kitchens admitted after the 27-13 loss to the Patriots that he deliberately called for a false start in punt formation in order to save a timeout, even though the end result was a fourth-and-16 long-shot to keep the drive alive. On Monday, it became even more clear that responsibility for the gaffe begins and ends with Kitchens.
Speaking with reporters, Kitchens acknowledged that he decided at the beginning of the drive in question, which started with 7:43 remaining from the Cleveland 25 after New England has pushed the score to 27-10, that the Browns would not punt on fourth down. But he also failed to properly convey the message to his coaching staff and players, which resulted in the confusion that led to the punt team heading to the field on fourth and 11, and that prompted Kitchens to choose a five-yard penalty over burning a timeout.
Asked whether his plan should have been better communicated to the staff and the players, Kitchens said, “It should have, yes, which is my fault.”
That’s admirable, but it’s also unavoidable. Once he admits that he made the decision to treat the drive as a four-down proposition before it even began, of course it’s on him to let people know.
The next time that happens, presumably he will. But if he was truly ready to be a head coach, there wouldn’t have been a first time.
So here’s the real question for the Browns: How many other “first times” will bite them in the behind, while Kitchens learns the job on the fly? And how long will it take for Kitchens to be fully ready to not commit fundamental blunders like this?
He continues to bristle at the idea that he should relinquish play-calling duties and focus solely on being the head coach.
“It is not happening,” Kitchens said. “I am calling the plays. I am the head coach. That is not happening.”
Well, it needs to happen. Whether G.M. John Dorsey makes that decision or whether ownership does, Kitchens’ lack of preparation to be a coach is causing him to obsessively cling to one of the main talents that got him there in the first place. And someone needs to explain to him that his stubbornness is hurting the team.
Of course, there’s always a chance that, even if he gives up play-calling duties, the mistakes will continue — without the built-in excuse of working hard to figure out both jobs. At some point, however, the question inevitably will become not whether Kitchens is ready to be a head coach, but whether he’s fit to be one.
He wouldn’t be the first assistant coach to make the dramatic leap from coordinator to head coach and then to learn the hard way that, while he has the skills to be an effective coordinator, he lacks the skills to be an effective head coach. Although the Browns, after too many revolving-door decisions early in the ownership of the team by Jimmy Haslam, presumably are committed to not making rash changes, the fact that a decision can be made quickly doesn’t make it rash.