Columnist

Just the other day, amid a training camp that has the Cleveland Browns sprinting to build the chemistry and precision to satisfy their torrential hype, Coach Freddie Kitchens veered off on a tangent. He entertained questions about the recent criticism from former offensive line coach Bob Wylie. Then he gave a bizarre lecture about unnamed sources. It was absurd. It was strangely fascinating. It was a glimpse into the new reality of the Browns in their current state of hope and hysteria.

Most NFL head coaches don’t talk so loosely. Most would rather eat a plate of whistles than acknowledge what they would deem a “distraction.” Kitchens is delightfully and perhaps dangerously different, which is also an apt way to describe this feeling of the Browns emerging as championship contenders. After so much losing and irrelevance, can you trust Cleveland? Will the Browns look as good on the field as they do on paper? Since their bold trade for Odell Beckham Jr. and caution-shunning acquisition of Kareem Hunt, have the expectations gotten out of control?

It’s quite the change, witnessing a football team from Cleveland handle excessive hype. The long-suffering Browns fans deserve this opportunity to believe in something new and promising, but it’s interesting to observe that Cleveland already has legions of outside detractors fighting against its believers. For the past 20 years, the Browns have seldom made any noise. Now people think they’re too loud. Absurd. Fascinating.

The simplest way to describe the Browns right now: They’re a lot. They have a lot of high-end talent, a lot of personality, a lot of expectations, a lot of pressure to make significant strides quickly, a lot of ways to succeed or fail. They are the most interesting team in the NFL this season. They are the league’s greatest experiment. Win or lose, they are destined to entertain and sometimes confound, raising Cleveland to a level of relevance it hasn’t had since the franchise returned in 1999.

There are concerns, however. During a CBS Sports radio interview, Wylie intimated that Kitchens received too much credit for the Browns’ success at the end of last season. Kitchens wasn’t head coaching material until he suddenly was. Cleveland hired him before the 2018 season as its running backs coach. Midway through the year, after a power struggle resulted in the firings of both coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Kitchens was elevated to run the offense under interim coach Gregg Williams. The Browns closed with a 5-3 record in the second half. The offense enjoyed some spurts of spectacular play during quarterback Baker Mayfield’s rookie campaign. Kitchens was elevated to head coach.

Wylie suggested former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese was more influential in the development of Mayfield and Cleveland’s second-half run. Kitchens clapped back, including this line about Wylie: “So sometimes when a person says something, they have to be made to feel relevant, okay?”

Later, he went off on the Browns’ past culture of leaks and declared it a new era of cohesion — or forcing mouths to stay shut — in the organization.

“The days of inside information and the days of unnamed sources and stuff like that have ended,” he told reporters. “So you’re not going to get any information like that, ever. Anybody. And if I ever see it, they’re fired, immediately. And that’s how we’re running this organization. I can take it. [Browns General Manager] John Dorsey can take it. We won’t crack, I promise you.”

So this is the guy who’s going to have to put out the fires when Beckham or Mayfield says something controversial after a disappointing game. That ought to be an adventure. Then again, it’s easier to take a hard-line stance when warning faceless front-office employees. Kitchens figures to be much more diplomatic if any of his star players air their grievances.

The Browns, who made their preseason debut Thursday night against the Washington Redskins, have been called combustible because of their star power and egos. But I don’t think they will have many problems in their locker room. Their greatest opponent is something more subtle: time.

I’m all in on the Browns making the playoffs or possibly winning the AFC North division. They finished 7-8-1 a year ago without Beckham and Hunt, who will be suspended for the first eight games of this season. It seems that 10 or 11 wins is a natural, steady and realistic progression. Their talent indicates they’re capable of even more, but the New England Patriots are still around to put a quick-rising AFC team in its place. The Kansas City Chiefs are a contender that has been through much more than these Browns. While teams sometimes burst into prime contention quickly, it’s a lot to ask for a team with a young quarterback and a first-time head coach.

The biggest challenge for the Browns will be to avoid letting the hype swallow them and distort any success that they have.

In pro sports, the great anticipation for teams on the ascent often arrives one year too soon. It happens all the time. The 2019 Browns could — and probably should — be a little up and down, especially in the first half of the season. If there are no disasters and the team develops with patience and purpose, the 2020 Browns will be the squad capable of living up to all the current wild expectations.

Can Cleveland stay solid and focused amid all the chaos? That is the first question. Here’s a second: Is Kitchens the right fit as an under-the-radar coach? Or did the Browns just give a Maserati to a student driver?

This season is as much about his leadership as it is the team’s talent.

The Browns must focus on progress, not winning it all. Since the franchise’s reboot, it has waited 20 years to have this much hope. It can’t blow it. You know the depressing recent history. No playoff appearances since 2002. Two winning seasons since 1999. Since they finished 10-6 in 2007, the Browns haven’t won more than seven games in a season. Just two years ago, they were in a 1-31 funk.

But while losing, they took advantage of high draft picks, made smart decisions to acquire more draft assets and managed the cap so that they would have space for the right free agents to grow with them. They’re a team that could add defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon to assist their young star end, Myles Garrett. They have a balanced collection of weapons around Mayfield with Hunt and Nick Chubb at running back; Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway at wide receiver; and immensely talented 23-year-old David Njoku at tight end. And with Mayfield in only the second year of his rookie contract, Cleveland has the flexibility to add major talent or depth after this season.

If all goes right, the Browns are built to captivate now, then dominate later. There will be a rush to combine those steps, and certainly they should maintain their urgency. But the hype can’t factor into their timeline.

Premature hype has ruined plenty of promising teams. The Browns can revel in their newfound status, but they must be careful not to get lost in it.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer