No NFL head coaching vacancy during this firing-and-hiring cycle was more attractive than that of the Cleveland Browns.
Yes, those Cleveland Browns, who are no longer the same, old Browns. Not any more. Not with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and other promising young players around him.
And now the Browns have filled that vacancy in an interesting way, promoting Freddie Kitchens from offensive coordinator to head coach while never seriously pursuing former Green Bay Packers Coach Mike McCarthy and passing over a group of other candidates that included interim coach Gregg Williams.
In hiring Kitchens, the Browns are recognizing the good work that he did late in the season with Mayfield, and acknowledging that whatever is best for Mayfield will be best for the organization as a whole going forward.
Make no mistake about it: This is a very good job to have right now. The rebuilding of the Browns is going well. They had a record of 7-8-1 this season and maintained playoff possibilities until late in the regular season. They are a laughingstock no longer. The stench of their combined 1-31 record over the 2016 and 2017 seasons is lifting. Cleveland is no longer the place where NFL quarterbacking and coaching careers go to perish.
General Manager John Dorsey has pushed the right buttons. Taking Mayfield with the top overall selection in last year’s NFL draft was not automatic. Many talent evaluators would have gone with Sam Darnold. But Mayfield, as he demonstrated throughout his rookie year, is a star in the making, if not a star already formed. He’s a dynamic playmaker. He’s a reliable pocket passer and he has improvisational skills when plays break down. He’s an honest-to-goodness leader. His teammates seem to genuinely like and respect him.
The Packers also had a coaching vacancy during this cycle, after firing McCarthy, and they have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. But when people in and around the league spoke in recent weeks about which job opening was the most desirable, most pointed to the Browns. Mayfield is young. The talent around him is improving rapidly. Dorsey is good at what he does. The fans are hungry for a winner. Expectations remain relatively in check even with this season’s progress.
The Browns’ selection of Kitchens is in keeping with what most teams are doing during this hiring cycle. It is an offense-first league and teams are looking for offensive minds to get the most out of quarterbacks.
Kitchens’s ascension through the coaching ranks in Cleveland was rapid. He was promoted from running backs coach to offensive coordinator in late October when previous coordinator Todd Haley was dismissed along with Hue Jackson, the head coach who had overseen the 1-31 calamities. That coincided with Williams being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach.
The question facing the Browns, then, was which coach to give more of the credit for the team’s late-season blossoming, Kitchens or Williams? Williams also was interviewed for the head coaching job along with a group of other candidates that included Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who appeared to have emerged as a finalist and was reported to be in line for a second interview before Kitchens was hired.
Clearly, Dorsey and the Browns became convinced that Kitchens was the one most responsible for what happened down the stretch in the regular season, and that he was someone the franchise could not afford to lose if, say, Stefanski was hired as the head coach and wanted a different offensive coordinator.
It’s all about Mayfield these days in Cleveland. And what the Browns are doing with Kitchens is, in their view, what’s best for Mayfield.
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