The Cleveland Browns have not been in the playoffs since 2002, they have not won a playoff game since 1994, and they have not had a winning season in more than a decade.
That’s not stopping people from hopping on the Browns Bandwagon entering 2019, however, following the late-year heroics of Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens — an unlikely pairing whose rookie-year succes was profound in part because no one would’ve guessed a formerly unknown running backs coach would be the man to get the best out of the team’s No. 1 overall draft pick at quarterback. Couple all that with Cleveland’s renewed off-field aggression under general manager John Dorsey, who reeled in big fish like Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon just this offseason, and suddenly Cleveland is an actual AFC North favorite.
The biggest question surrounding one of the NFL‘s most hyped teams, however, is how Kitchens will manage his new full-time role as head coach with his calling as Mayfield’s mentor. Are we overestimating an eight-game sample size of the duo’s magic? Are we underestimating how difficult it will be for Kitchens to oversee so many strong personalities and develop Baker and his offense? How, exactly, will Big Fred be able to juggle Hue Jackson’s old post during a season of immense expectations?
Here are three ways Kitchens can make it work:
“Look at two of the last three teams to be in the Super Bowl!” probably sounds like the easy answer on the surface, but it goes deeper than that. The advice isn’t “Follow the New England Patriots model,” after all — and only in part because very few organizations can successfully replicate the kind of operation they’ve got, especially in today’s instant-results NFL. No, the Eagles and Rams are exactly the kind of teams Kitchens should be mimicking because of how similar their coaching staff should be structured.
The biggest and most important basic: Hands off the defense.
A head coach is a head coach, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in and around Philly and L.A. who doesn’t believe Jim Schwartz and Wade Phillips, the teams’ respective defensive coordinators, are in total control of their side of the ball. Doug Pederson and Sean McVay hail from exclusively offensive backgrounds and came into their current posts relatively light on experience, especially in head coaching roles. Kitchens is cut from the same cloth. That doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to be Super Bowl bound by 2020 (his offense still needs to deliver!), but it does mean he’d probably be wise to do what he does best and let someone else — in this case, a more-than-competent Steve Wilks — do the rest.
Let Todd Monken go nuts
This is Kitchen’s ship, and he needs to captain it. But just like Pederson prioritized play-calling groupthink with Frank Reich, Duce Staley, Mike Groh and John DeFilippo and McVay took advantage of Zac Taylor, he’d be wise not to let Monken go to waste — especially before his new offensive coordinator gets his own head coaching offers. If that sounds obvious, just consider how often egos get in the way of coaching competence (see: previous Browns regime).
There’s a whole lot of pressure on Kitchens not only because expectations for the Browns are higher than they’ve been in … decades? … but because of how quickly he helped spark Mayfield — and the team as a whole — late in 2018. Probably the best thing he can do to alleviate some of that pressure, at least in terms of keeping things unpredictable offensively, is allow Monken to have a true voice in the strategy, whether that means influencing play-calling, working closely with Baker or all of the above.
If Kitchens is the former unknown who’s now the face of a potentially over-hyped contender, Monken is the guy who’s not being talked up enough. His resume screams “perfect fit” for Mayfield, who specialized in the type of pass-heavy attack at the foundation of Monken’s background before coming to the NFL, and he deserves a standing ovation for the way he coaxed league-pacing production out of Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick down in Tampa in 2018. If nothing else, granting him the freedom to be aggressive should ensure Kitchens won’t be working with a stale template — complete with shiny, new weapons! — this season.
Be himself in the locker room
Sorry, but we’re not writing this off just because it sounds cliche. At the risk of turning this into a thinkpiece on Doug Pederson, it was clearer than ever during the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII run that being a players’ coach and genuinely fostering locker-room unity can go a long way in preparing a team for the rigors of a season, especially when the stakes are high and expectations are great.
Kitchens is already a beloved figure in his own organization — a true marvel to those who didn’t know the guy’s name a year ago. It’ll be key for him to maintain the persona that elevated him to his current position, which is easier said than done but would conceivably do wonders for a locker room populated with big personalities, from Mayfield and Jarvis Landry to Odell Beckham Jr., all guys who just happen to play for his preferred side of the ball.
It’s impossible to be perfect in this regard, and the odd, undying media circus surrounding Duke Johnson’s relationship with the team is an example of when things don’t go as smoothly as possible. But if Kitchens continues to value his veterans’ opinions even when the going gets tough, he’ll be so much better off. Again, this area, in particular, might sound so obvious it hurts, but we’re living in a world where Adam Gase, who may or may not be a more stringent version of Chip Kelly, is currently employed as an NFL head coach. The Bill Belichick effect can work, but only if you’ve got the skills and the resume to back it up. For everyone else, from Pederson to McVay to Kitchens, there is serious value in cultivating the commitment of your players.