The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year ago, Freddie Kitchens was a position coach. Now he’s carrying Browns’ Super Bowl hopes.

Cleveland is anticipating this Browns season like few before, and it's up to Freddie Kitchens to make the pieces fit. (Ron Schwane/AP)

BEREA, Ohio — At this time last year, Freddie Kitchens had started his first training camp with a new team. He was the last coach the Cleveland Browns added to their staff, hired to coach running backs. He was a blip on the NFL radar, a mid-level assistant who got along with co-workers and quickly gained trust from players. The greater football world knew him, if he was known at all, as a slightly chunky, gunslinging Alabama quarterback from the mid-1990s.

In the middle of a sweltering training camp practice Tuesday, Kitchens stood at the center of a practice field and called for about 90 players to gather around him. They included some of the NFL’s boldface names: Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Myles Garrett. He wanted to reiterate a point he had made at a team meeting the night before, about an oversight from Monday’s practice. The football world knows him now as the coach of the Browns, the man in charge of the NFL’s buzziest team.

The Browns will unveil their refurbished roster — or at least part of it — for the first time Thursday night in a preseason game against the Washington Redskins. The Browns boosted expectations in the final half of last season after firing coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley and going 5-3 down the stretch behind Mayfield. Those expectations skyrocketed this winter when they traded for Beckham, adding him to the stockpile of high-end talent acquired through years of lousy seasons and high draft picks.

All that talent has accomplished precisely nothing, but its potential is undeniable.

“Paper don’t win us the games,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “But if guys step up and make plays and trust each other, we could have a hell of a year.”

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In Cleveland, belief in the Browns is so thick it has acquired a kind of cosmic transference. Over the weekend, Mayfield attended an Indians game. The video board at Progressive Field showed him sitting in a box, resplendent with backward cap and newly cultivated mustache. Mayfield ripped open a beer can with his teeth, chugged its contents, turned around and showed the crowd his Francisco Lindor jersey. “Impressive,” Kitchens said later. The next inning, the Indians scored five runs.

On Monday morning around the Browns’ facility, cars parked on lawns and fans in orange and brown shirts — a surplus of them with Beckham’s No. 13 on the back — streamed toward Browns headquarters at 9 a.m. — 90 minutes before the start of an early August practice. It made a visitor wonder: Anything special going on?

“Those are just our fans,” one Browns staffer said of a group that endured a 1-31 stretch in the seasons before Mayfield’s arrival via the first pick in the 2018 draft. Those fans have waited for next year forever, and next year is finally here.

“In 2008, we came off a 10-win season and everyone was really excited,” former Browns tackle Joe Thomas said. “But nothing compares to this. There’s a really good feeling now the Browns have found their quarterback, their head coach that they can get behind for the next 10 to 15 years. That’s a good feeling. This roster is young and super-talented. Everybody feels like we’re on the cusp of doing something great.”

‘It’s not too big for him'

Those boundless hopes and expectations lay at the feet of Kitchens, a rotund, homespun Alabama native who possesses zero head coaching experience and just a half season of running an entire side of the ball on his résumé. He realized things were different when staffers started asking him what color to paint spaces in the parking lot and how he wanted players arranged on the team flight seating chart.

“It’s changed a lot from the standpoint of responsibility,” Kitchens said. “But at the end of the day I’m still just a football coach, and I’m never going to be anything other than that.”

Assistant coaches, especially ones such as Kitchens with the talent of relating to players, can serve as sounding boards for players to express desires and frustrations they would never share with a head coach. Kitchens does not mind remaining someone players can lean on, he said, as long as they understand his new authority. And anyone who supposes he is overly player-friendly has not watched one of his thumping practices, which tend to run past the scheduled two hours.

“He’s the same person,” said Nick Chubb, a second-year running back. “What he told us in the running backs room, he still holds himself and holds us up to that standard.”

Kitchens has done his best to tamp the hype around his team. He has pointed out that the Browns’ core has yet to put together a winning season and that the team’s big-name acquisitions, headlined by Beckham, have never won much of anything in the NFL. He rejected the idea that Cleveland’s second-half turnaround created a significant change.

“I don’t think two years are ever the same,” Kitchens said. “You start over every year. I don’t care if you bring back the same players. They’re going to be different. They’re going to be at different points of their life. They’re going to be at different points in their career.”

In early January, the Browns’ assemblage of talent meant they would have their choice of head coach. General Manager John Dorsey surveyed candidates and landed on Kitchens — and not interim coach Gregg Williams — despite his dearth of experience. The trust Kitchens had engendered from his team, particularly Mayfield, won him the job.

“When you get a chance to interview him, you learn certain things,” Dorsey said. “You learn that he’s got leadership skills within him. He’s got no ego. He’s got a worker’s-like mentality. He had his résumé on full display for the last eight games, and what that was, you saw an offensive unit galvanize together and actually make really nice strides. He’s got the player trust. He’s a very good communicator. There’s a confident ease of how he goes about his business. I’ve seen some pretty good coaches, and he had the qualities it takes. And it’s not too big for him.”

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Navigating challenges

Once the Browns acquired Beckham, the team became perceived as both a Super Bowl contender and a cauldron of difficult personalities. The idea of Cleveland having a troubled locker room is likely overblown. Mayfield’s teammates have raved about his charisma and leadership since college. For all his turbulence in New York, Beckham always has been viewed by teammates as a diligent worker. There is a difference between players who say provocative things in interviews and players who cause locker room headaches.

“As long as they keep the focus on the team, I haven’t seen any indication of that,” Kitchens said. “That’s something for people to write about. It makes a good story in the summer. But until I see that, I’m going to go about it like everybody’s here to win.”

The weekend presented a public test of Kitchens’s authority. In a radio interview, former Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie scorched Kitchens and the Browns. He suggested Dorsey hired Kitchens because he would be easier to control than Williams, claimed the real brains behind Cleveland’s turnaround was since-dismissed quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and said he learned the Browns were not retaining him from his daughter while recovering from an injury in a hospital.

How would Kitchens respond? Asked about Wylie’s comments in a Monday news conference, Kitchens first stated he wouldn’t delve into it because, “I know Bob Wylie to be a good person.” And anyway, his comments were irrelevant to the Browns’ cause. “Bob doesn’t wear orange and brown anymore,” Kitchens said.

He then immediately broke his own vow. Kitchens implied he had not rehired Wylie because he believed Wylie to be a source of leaks.

“The days of inside information and the days of unnamed sources and stuff like that have ended,” Kitchens said. “So you’re not going to get any information like that, ever. Anybody. And if I ever see it, they’re fired, immediately. That’s the way we’re running this organization. And I can take it. John Dorsey can take it. We won’t crack, I promise you.”

Kitchens stated he was done talking about the issue, but he later circled back to make another point. It was insulting and counterproductive for coaches to squabble over credit because the players are the only ones who deserved it. He ended with a forceful rejoinder: “Bob didn’t play a down.”

In a few minutes, Kitchens had used controversial comments to emphasize the culture he seeks to create, sever a tie between this year and Cleveland’s woeful past and back his players.

“Every organization I’ve been around, the one thing that was a constant was single mind-set, single purpose, single objectives,” Dorsey said. “That was everybody within the building. We have that here right now."

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