The reincarnated Cleveland Browns have just finished their 21st season, and they will now be looking for head coach no. 12. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam fired head coach Freddie Kitchens on Sunday. The Haslams confirmed the move with a statement:
“We thank Freddie for his hard work and commitment to this organization but did not see the success or opportunities for improvement to move forward with him as our head coach. Our focus is on hiring an exceptional leader for this football team and we will take a comprehensive approach to this process. We are excited about the core players we have to build around and develop and we look forward to bringing in a strong head coach that will put this group of players in the best position to succeed.”
We should have suspected that Kitchens would be overmatched running the Browns. He entered last season as Cleveland’s running backs coach but was promoted to offensive coordinator when head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired in October 2018. In the offseason, Haslam and GM John Dorsey picked Kitchens to coach the team for the most anticipated Cleveland season since the franchise was reincarnated in 1999. Even in the post–Sean McVay NFL, that rise is eye-popping.
Cleveland’s hype (partially fueled by The Ringer, we regret the error) was immediately deflated in Week 1, when the Titans rocked the Browns 43-13 and the team committed 18 penalties, their most in a game since 1951. That game set the tone for the season. The Browns went 6-10, quarterback Baker Mayfield looked worse than he did as a rookie, and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had the worst season of his career. To be fair, Kitchens isn’t the only reason the team did so poorly: Beckham played through a sports hernia that Mayfield said was not treated properly by the team’s medical staff. Last week, fellow receiver Jarvis Landry also revealed he played the season with a fractured vertebra. The team also saw injuries to tight ends David Njoku and Ricky Seals-Jones, and receiver Rashard Higgins.
But injuries don’t excuse Kitchens and the Browns’ failure to compete for the AFC North. The offense was below average in efficiency according to Football Outsiders DVOA, a sharp shift from Cleveland’s outstanding offense in the second half of 2018. That turnaround helped Kitchens land the head coaching job, but it’s now not even clear if Kitchens should get credit for that surge.
Cleveland’s 2019 offense lacked much of the creativity from late in 2018, when the Browns were using a lot of deception and quick passing. In Week 3, Kitchens called a draw run play on fourth-and-9, the first such play call since at least 2006. Kitchens explained after the game he was still new to calling plays. In Week 10 against Buffalo, the Browns had eight chances in a row to score from the goal line but failed. Over and over, the Browns returned to the ineptitude we thought they had left in their past.
Kitchens didn’t help his case off the field. When the Browns played the Steelers two weeks after Myles Garrett hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with Rudolph’s helmet, Kitchens wore a T-shirt saying “Pittsburgh started it.” The Steelers were amazed the opposing head coach would provoke them.
“I thought it was pretty stupid,” Pittsburgh guard David DeCastro told Cleveland.com about Kitchens’s shirt after the Steelers beat the Browns. “That’s a lot of bulletin board material. I don’t know why you do that as a coach. I just don’t get that. Of course it’s going to motivate us. What are you thinking? It’s just not smart.”
After the game, Kitchens said he would wear the shirt again.
Kitchens’s firing was not a surprise, but it does leave the Browns in the all too familiar spot of starting over. In 21 seasons since they returned to Cleveland, the Browns have had 11 head coaches and nine general managers. Their three division rivals—the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals—have had eight head coaches and five general managers in that span combined. On average, the Browns have replaced their head coach every 28 games, and their general managers every 34 games.
With that level of turnover, it’s impossible not to look upward into the owner’s box. Owner Jimmy Haslam has employed five general managers in just over seven years of owning the team, and it’s not even the most chaotic business Haslam has run. Haslam has turned the head coach and general manager offices into that Simpsons clip of Grandpa Simpson walking into a burlesque show and then immediately leaving.
“The fact that this franchise has not done better … the blame lies squarely with me,” Haslam said after Cleveland’s 2015 season. “Because ultimately it’s the head person who’s responsible for everything.”