The news that the Cleveland Browns have found their new head coach in interim offensive co-ordinator Freddie Kitchens has been met with optimism from one of the most loyal and fervent fanbases in the NFL.
The optimism of the Dawg Pound is powered by a late season surge in form from a revitalised offence that had become stagnant and inefficient under the auspices of the much-maligned Hue Jackson and Todd Haley.
The resurgence of the offence under Kitchens’ watch has been impressive, in his short spell they have improved to 23.75 ppg, had 70 more passing yards/game and over 400 total yards more over the final eight weeks.
This understandably has led to some rival teams to request interviews with the Alabama native for open offensive co-ordinator jobs, requests that were blocked by the Browns who were on their own recruitment drive.
Has this interest in their unlikely hot commodity led to the Browns perhaps overlooking their long-term prospects and promoting Kitchens to the hot seat prematurely? Kitchens doesn’t have much experience in calling plays, in fact the interim post at the Browns was Kitchens’ first time calling plays, surely it would have been wise of the Browns to try to develop their star coach further before throwing him into the deep end?
So, how could the Browns have kept their hot prospect and promoted his development?
One possibility would have been to have Bruce Arians as the head coach. It is well documented that Arians was interested in the vacancy at First Energy Stadium, even going so far as to claim it would be the only job he was willing to come back to work for.
This would have allowed the Browns to groom Kitchens’ ability as a play caller, retaining his positive working relationship with franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield and allowing him to learn the intricacies and media politics of being a head coach from one of the best in recent times, all without the intense pressure of the “win now” philosophy that exists in the NFL and has seen the demise of many a 1st year head coach. Just look at Arians’ replacement in Arizona, Steve Wilks, as a prime example of the ruthlessness.
The big question is whether this type of forward planning can work in the NFL and if the two personalities would be able to work together?
Well, Arians and Kitchens have previous, with Kitchens being the Cardinals quarterback coach during Arians’ tenure. This was the first time Kitchens started to get national recognition, as together they guided Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offence to franchise record in;
Passing Yards: 4,671
Passing touchdowns: 35
Passer rating: 104.6
Most yards per pass attempt: 8.7
Most passing yards per game: 291.9 Yards
Most 300+ Passing yard games in a single season: 10
Kitchens’ career thus far has all been on the offensive side of the ball, and he will most definitely require some experienced assistance. It will be the key to general manager John Dorsey’s bold decision is how he works with Kitchens in hiring coaching staff.
If we look at how this may have been handled had the team opted for Arians, who has since taken up the mantle in Tampa Bay and appointed his long-time collaborator Todd Bowles as his defensive co-ordinator. Presumably this may have been one of his first moves had he been appointed in Berea also, Bowles defence in Arizona was one of the fiercest in the league built around an athletic pass rush in Calais Campbell and secondary stars Patrick Peterson, Justin Bethel and Tyrann Matthieu. His unit finishing 7th and 5th in key areas such as points/yards allowed per game in his spell before leaving for head coaching duties in New York.
Cleveland, with their glut of picks in recent years, have managed to collate defensive stars in a similar mould such as Myles Garrett, Jamie Collins, Denzel Ward and Jabrill Peppers. In 2018 they managed to improve from 31st to 21st as a unit. This young nucleus stepped up to the plate down the stretch for Gregg Williams and will be key to the success of the franchise in the near future while they still have their stars on rookie contracts.
The Browns have been lurching from one disaster to another for several years now, and the bonus that would have come with hiring Arians is the ability to have a succession plan in place. Arians left the Arizona Cardinals after the 2017 season stating that his declining health meant that he felt he couldn’t keep up with the rigours of the job. Having the intention of Kitchens being groomed as his successor would allow for Arians to pass on as much of the day-to-day grind as he would deem necessary. The outward view of the Browns also then changes from an organisation that is frantically treading water to keep afloat to a stable franchise with a young roster and a clear plan for sustained success in the future.
Cleveland were bold in taking Baker Mayfield at number one in the 2018 draft, it appears as though that gamble has paid off. However, they have taken another gamble with the future of the organisation in Kitchens that has the potential to be spectacular, or to go spectacularly wrong.
Time will tell if a safe pair of hands may have been the better path, and as always the Dawg Pound will be worth watching for the drama that unfolds, only this time there is genuine hope amongst the success starved fanbase that they are on the right track.