Browns turn to former Bama QB to lift franchise’s sagging fortunes
For Freddie Kitchens, the epiphany came a short while after his career as a college quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide came to an end.
Kitchens was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, making good money selling cars during the week and washing FedEx trucks on weekends to earn even more. But it was as he hosed downed a dirty delivery truck on a football Saturday in the South that he realized what path he really wanted to take in life.
Since there was obviously no television in the wash bay, Kitchens had to tune in his beloved Tide on the radio, and as he listened to the distinctive tones of legendary Alabama play-by-play man Eli Gold, the sweet sounds almost brought tears to his eyes.
“That’s when I decided football was going to be my life,” Kitchens said as he was introduced as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns on January 14. “I don’t know that I ever wanted to coach, but I knew I couldn’t live without the game of football.”
So began the odyssey that took the son of an Alabama factory worker to solid college quarterback to the face of an NFL franchise, albeit one now more synonymous with losing than with its four NFL championships from the 1950s and ‘60s.
Since being reincarnated as the NFL’s newest “old” franchise in 1999—the league’s collective “we’re sorry” to the city for allowing owner Art Modell to abandon Cleveland for Baltimore in 1996—the Browns were 88-216 (a .289 “winning” percentage) heading into the 2018-19 season. But the Browns weren’t just losers, they were bad losers, posting double-digit loss totals in 15 of 19 seasons since their return.
In addition to the only 0-16 season in NFL history in 2017-18, they also recorded one 15-loss season, one 14-loss season, two 13-loss seasons, five 12-loss seasons, four 11-loss seasons and one 10-loss season. In that span, they made only one playoff appearance (a 35-31 loss to Pittsburgh in 2001-02), had just one double-digit win total (10-6 in 2006-07) and, including interims, went through 10 head coaches.
The winless debacle in the Dawg Pound as it shall forevermore be known did produce one silver lining—the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft—and the Browns used it wisely on the flamboyant former Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.
At first it didn’t appear adding a new talented gunslinger like Mayfield would make any difference as head coach Hue Jackson held him out of the season’s first two games. Cleveland opened the year with 21-21 tie against Pittsburgh and lost to New Orleans in the second game.
Mayfield finally hit the field in Week 3 at home against the New Jets and amazingly the Browns did something they hadn’t done since December 24, 2016—win a football game. With Mayfield relieving starter Tyrod Tyler that Thursday night, the Browns handed the Jets a 21-17 loss and Jackson one of the only three wins in his Cleveland tenure.
Jackson inserted Mayfield as the starter in Week 4 at Oakland, and though the Browns lost to the Raiders 45-42 in overtime, there was a spark. Mayfield was 21 of 41 for 295 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but hey, at least it was close.
Call it karma or the circle being completed, but Mayfield’s first career NFL win came the next week at home over the Baltimore Ravens, 13-9. The cocky QB put up 342 yards and a touchdown on 25 of 42 passing. He did throw an INT and was sacked five times, but hey, two out of three was almost a winning streak.
Though the Browns seemed to be playing better on the field, there were rumbles of discord in the locker room between, of all people, Jackson and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The guess can only be that it was a disagreement over how to use, or not use, Mayfield. Either way, it apparently boiled to the point that, after a 33-18 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 8, the Browns took the highly usual, an incredibly sensible, step of showing both the door.
Defensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Gregg Williams was named interim, and he promoted quarterbacks coach Kitchens to offensive coordinator. From there things really gelled as the Browns won five of their last eight, including consecutive games twice, something that hadn’t happened since 2014.
Mayfield seemed to take to Kitchens’ down-home, good ole Southern boy style, and in the season’s second half, showed the talent that convinced Cleveland to take him No. 1 when many had their doubts about his future NFL possibilities. Mayfield finished 310 of 486 passing for 3,725 yards and 27 TDs against only 14 INTs and six wins on his ledger as a starter—good enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors from the Pro Football Writers of America.
Most importantly for Kitchens, Browns management took note of the progress, both in Mayfield’s game and in the W-L category. And when it came time to name their new head coach, they bypassed Williams and other vets of the NFL coaching carousel for a guy who in 2013 suffered an aortic dissection, a condition in which the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart, tears and blood surges through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate or dissect as it is called.
It will take plenty of heart for Kitchens to keep the Cleveland ship sailing in the winning direction, but as his phenomenal recovery from that life-threatening condition has shown, Freddie Kitchens in one tough dude.
“The thing that impressed me from Day 1 about Freddie was his toughness,” former Alabama and NFL head coach Gene Stallings said on Cleveland radio station 92.3 The Fan when interviewed about Kitchens’ hiring. “A lot of people who play quarterback are not as tough as some of the other positions, but Freddie was extremely aggressive.
“He was not a finesse quarterback at all. As far as throwing the ball, his leadership was better than his passing ability. When he would step in that huddle and call a play, the players believed in him. His team will be a tough football team. I assure you of that.”
For now, Cleveland’s management believes in him. His coaches and players believe in him. Most of all, he believes in himself. But if he ever has doubts, he has plenty of incredible connections to reach out to for advice.
In addition to Stallings, there’s two-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Parcells, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and some guy in Tuscaloosa who knows a little about winning named Nick Saban to name a few.
“The night before while they were discussing and deciding, (Bill) Parcells called me and asked me what was going on, and he gave me some advice. After he saw it went in my favor, he called me again,” Kitchens said. “(Nick) Saban called me as I was driving in to work. Moving forward, if I don’t have the answers—which there are going to be some answers I don’t have—I have a great support staff here. And I have a great phone that works most of the time so I can figure it out.”
Kitchens claims he was a Browns fan growing up in Gadsden, Alabama, where his father made tires at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant. He said he tried to watch the Browns on TV whenever he could. He said he loved the uniforms and the simplicity of the Browns’ burnt orange helmets sans logos. He said that, just like the crimson beauty he wore at Alabama, he hopes Cleveland never waivers from its simple-is-best philosophy.
“We did not change the helmets at Alabama,” Kitchens said. “And hopefully, it is not in the works anytime soon here. I am a traditionalist. That is the way I coach.”
That all sounds great, but truth is the Browns franchise and its long-suffering fans are most concerned with Kitchens continuing one tradition above all else—winning. That is his plan as well, Kitchens said.
“It drives me crazy that people are happy with 7-8-1,” Kitchen said. “If I was in a different setting my vocabulary would demonstrate that. That is not acceptable. Nobody wants that here. We all understand it was an improvement, but under no circumstances is that ever going to be acceptable. We only have one goal here, and that is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why Kitchens is hot, really hot, in Cleveland these days. H&A