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The Cleveland Browns promoted Freddie Kitchens to head coach Wednesday, which means they hope to get better by hiring from within the organization.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The Browns, the Factory of Sadness, the team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002 or won a postseason game since 1994, thinks it can solve its own problems. The most inept franchise in professional sports found the perfect head coaching candidate, and it just happens to be one of the guys sitting in his office in team headquarters.
The Browns, as first reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, are hiring from within the organization after a season marred by one of the most epic coaching-staff power struggles in recent memory.
Let that sink in, too.
Head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley battled through the offseason and into the season—through contradictory press conferences and prestige cable television programming—until both of them tumbled over a cliff to their deaths like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.
Kitchens, a lowly running backs coach and “associate head coach” (Jackson assigned titles the way Michael Scott did in The Office), was just supposed to throw together some weekly game plans after both experienced play-callers were fired and sweep up the wreckage of another doomed season.
Now, Kitchens is expected to turn around—or at least finish the process of turning around—a franchise that has been awful for as long as nearly anyone can remember.
Kitchens isn’t some veteran coordinator who spent years waiting for his chance. He’s not even one of the Mini McVays, with their short but sparkly resumes, who are all the rage in the NFL these days.
Kitchens spent the first chunk of his NFL career as the tight ends coach for the Cowboys and Cardinals from 2006 to 2012. You probably cannot name a single NFL tight ends coach. You probably cannot name a single Cowboys or Cardinals tight end from that era, either. (Do Leonard Pope or Ben Patrick ring a bell? Didn’t think so.)
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Tight ends coaches are rarely on the fast track to becoming NFL head coaches. They are usually on the slow track to becoming older tight ends coaches.
Kitchens eventually slid over to coaching quarterbacks and running backs for the Cardinals before Bruce Arians left Arizona in January 2018, and Kitchens, who worked with Haley in 2007-08, joined the balkanized Browns staff this year.
Kitchens had not been a coordinator or play-caller, let alone a head coach at any level, until he took over the Browns offense after the Jackson-Haley double-TKO in October. He’s 44 years old and in his second NFL decade, but when it comes to upper-tier coaching responsibilities, new hot-shot head coaches Matt LaFleur (Packers, two seasons as an offensive coordinator) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals, nine years of college head coaching or coordinating) are graybeards compared to Kitchens.
So the Browns sifted through the rubble of yet another organizational civil war, dusted off the designated survivor from the coaching staff and handed him the keys to the franchise at just the moment when optimism and expectations are higher than they have been since at least the 2010-12 Mike Holmgren era.
The Kitchens promotion may be the Brownsiest thing the Browns have ever Brownsed.
Or it could be the move that signals the Browns really are finally ready to do things the right way.
Kitchens made the most of his October battlefield promotion, of course. Baker Mayfield went from a chip in the Jackson-Haley high-stakes Texas hold ’em game to the odds-on Rookie of the Year on Kitchens’ watch. Running back Nick Chubb, banished to the bottom of a three-headed backfield for reasons only Jackson could comprehend, ended the season with 1,145 scrimmage yards.
The Browns won five of their last seven games with Gregg Williams acting as interim head coach and calling the defense in his usual aggressive yet erratic way while Kitchens designed creative, unpredictable game plans that were fun to watch and difficult to defend. Mayfield, the Browns and Kitchens became three of the buzziest stories of the NFL season’s second half.
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But late-season hot streaks don’t erase decades of futility. And a few weeks of impressive playbook squiggles, with minimal expectations and opponents who were ready for a watered-down Jackson, do not transform a guy who was supervising running back drills until mid-October into Bill Walsh.
The Kitchens hire is a big risk. But at least the Browns are not once again searching for another savior.
The Browns love saviors. Often, they’ve looked for the next visionary who possessed the magic formula for transforming the team into perennial champions before they bothered to get rid of all the coaches and administrators hired by the last visionary. That’s why the Browns have been in the preliminary stage of a rebuilding process since the team was re-established in 1999.
Holmgren was a savior when he took over the organization for a few years and made Pat Shurmur his coach and herald. Eric Mangini still held the “Man-genius” label when the Browns scooped him up in 2009 after the Jets tired of him. Romeo Crennel was the first of the Belichick Buddies in the mid-2000s. Butch Davis thundered in as a college coaching legend. Even Jackson and Sashi Brown’s Moneyball Gang were would-be saviors, albeit with different, conflicting theologies.
Owner Jimmy Haslam was expected to once again go for the big, splashy coaching hire, so names like Mike McCarthy, Bruce Arians and Peyton Manning‘s pal Adam Gase were always in circulation. All of them worked with great quarterbacks in the past. Who better than one of them to shepherd Mayfield through his career?
Perhaps the coach who took Mayfield so far in so short a time this year.
The Browns may finally have figured out that they don’t need a savior after all. They just need stability and a steady hand; a coach who knows Mayfield, one who has seen the organization at its worst and demonstrated some of the things he can do to make the situation better.
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The decision to retain Kitchens appears to have been spearheaded by John Dorsey, the general manager who replaced the Moneyball extremists, drafted Mayfield, Chubb and others instead of hoarding draft picks in perpetuity, and sent Jackson and Haley rowing away on the same lifeboat.
Dorsey cleaned up a lot of messes this year. Convincing Haslam that he didn’t need to win the head coaching news cycle to win football games may have been his greatest act of decluttering. Dorsey now runs the football part of the organization, Haslam signs the checks and Kitchens will coach the team: no warring factions or shadow cabinets.
It may turn out that the Browns overrated and over-promoted Kitchens based on a handful of go-for-broke game plans. But promoting a young coach they know makes as much sense, maybe more, as grabbing the latest Sean McVay look-alike to ace an interview.
The Kitchens promotion could also finally end the never-ending rebuilding cycle and state of emergency in Cleveland. The Browns have a solid roster, a favorable cap situation (the Moneyballers did a few things right) and a tightly run front office. It’s a great environment for a young coach like Kitchens and a budding superstar like Mayfield to grow up in.
The Browns don’t need a big-name coach to make people take them seriously, because they are no longer a joke.
Now that’s going to take a while to sink in.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.