Should the Browns keep Kitchens? The complexity behind the idea

On January 12, 2017, the Los Angeles Rams made the controversial hiring of Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay aa their head coach. At the time, the Rams were going through a crucial franchise transition with their first overall pick quarterback showing signs of struggle and the organization feeling the pressure to succeed fast after moving to Los Angeles. Many questioned the hiring of then 30-year old McVay, but after leading the Rams to a 23-9 record in nearly two seasons and resuscitating Goff to be one of the NFL’s best young passers instead of a bust, every team with a head coach vacancy since are looking for the “Next McVay.”

For example, the Chicago Bears hired Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy (40 years old), after just two seasons as a coordinator in Kansas City. The Bears previously endured a 5-11 record under the leadership of John Fox and rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. Under Nagy, Trubisky has been resuscitated and the Bears are currently 11-4 and winners of the NFC North.

Like the Rams and the Bears, the Cleveland Browns should be looking for the next McVay and Nagy, except they may have accidentally already found him in their own home.

The 2018 season has essentially been a season divided into two for the Browns. “Season one” would refer to the first half of the season, when the Browns were under the leadership of Hue Jackson — posting a 2-5-1 record in eight games. “Season two” would be the final eight games, where the Browns collected a 5-2 record (and counting) under the leadership of Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens.

Despite being the first overall pick and regarded as the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2018 rookie class by multiple draft analysts, Jackson refused to give Mayfield any first-team reps until late September. It was not until Mayfield relieved an injured Tyrod Taylor on Thursday Night Football against the Jets and threw for 201 yards on 17-of-23 passing and led the Browns to their first victory in 635 days, that Jackson decided it was finally time to give the best quarterback on the team first-team reps.

In “season one” under Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Mayfield threw for 1,471 yards, eight touchdowns, and six interceptions on 58.3 percent passing — posting a passer rating of 78.9. In that span, Mayfield won one additional game and performed well but a change was necessary.

Mayfield did not exactly need “resuscitated” like Goff/Trubisky but the Browns most definitely could have been getting more than what they were out of their first overall quarterback — and they did.

With Kitchens as the offensive coordinator, the Browns have become one of the most consistent offenses in the NFL. The Browns are averaging 23 points per game and have won five of their last seven games. Part of the reason the Cleveland offense has found so much success on the offensive end is that they are receiving elite play from the quarterback position.

In seven games under Kitchens, Mayfield has thrown for 1,594 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions, while completing 70.7 percent of his passes (fifth best in the NFL). Additionally, Mayfield has posted a passer rating of 109.3, also fifth best in the NFL. The Browns rookie quarterback has been lights out in “season two”, clearly elevating the talent around him.

Now going back to my previously made comment — Yes, the Browns have found their McVay in Kitchens and Browns general manager John Dorsey has a decision to make because of it.

I cannot say for certain that the Browns saw something in Kitchens when he came to Cleveland after spending the last 11 years in Arizona, but obviously, he was valued. Kitchens was hired as the running backs coach on January 24, 2018, but was also named the team’s associate head coach as well. The Browns also made Kitchens the offensive play caller in their fourth pre-season game against the Lions. Maybe the Browns knew in January of 2018 what we now 11 months later.

Kitchens has been praised as the man behind the success of Mayfield but little do people know, Kitchens was promoted from tight ends coach to quarterbacks coach in 2013 when Carson Palmer joined the Arizona Cardinals. Kitchens has also been credited with the success of Palmer in Arizona, following a previous lackluster career with Cincinnati and Oakland.

Now, let’s have some real fun.

Jackson spent one year as head coach with Palmer in Oakland in 2011 and went 4-5 with the veteran quarterback. Palmer threw for 2,753 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions while completing 60.7 percent of his passes — registering a passer rating of 80.5. In 2013, Palmer’s first season with Kitchens in Arizona, they led the Cardinals to a 10-6 record, throwing for 4,274 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, posting a passer rating of 83.9 on 63.3 completion. Palmer eventually went on to have a career year in 2015, after working with Kitchens for two additional seasons.

There is no telling to what Dorsey’s plan was when he and owner Jimmy Haslam fired Jackson following a loss against the Steelers, but one thing is for sure: Kitchens sure threw a wrench into the whole thing.

One idea is that the Browns could hire former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who has a relationship with Dorsey, executive vice president Alonzo Highsmith, and assistant general manager Eliot Wolf from their time in Green Bay. Another idea is hiring Bruce Arians, who retired with Palmer after their time spent in Arizona with the Cardinals and has said on several occasions that he would only come out of retirement to coach the Browns.

Dorsey could also look to hire Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub or offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who Dorsey both spent time with while in Kansas City. Or, he could look towards the college route and try to lure Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. I have also not ruled out the Browns possibly looking towards former Sooners head coach Bob Stoops or at least giving Urban Meyer a ring.

Dorsey has a real dilemma on his hands, as Gregg Williams has made himself a strong case to wipe the interim tag of his name and become head coach after leading the team to a 5-2 record. There is the idea that the Browns are playing “loose” but they are winning football games and doing so consistently, something that has not been done in years upon years.

Williams previously only spent three years in Buffalo as head coach of the Bills from 2001-03. He is 60-years old and a defensive mind, possibly two things the Browns could be looking away from and looking towards the opposite (young and offensive).

Then, there is Kitchens — aka the Browns’ McVay. He is young(er) and already has a strong relationship with Mayfield. If you look throughout the landscape of the NFL, the league’s best quarterbacks that win on a consistent basis have a great relationship with their head coach/tenured offensive coordinator — i.e. Drew Brees and Sean Payton, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels.

The ideal situation for the Browns would be to plug in McCarthy or Arians and keep Williams (defensive coordinator) and Kitchens (offensive coordinators) in their current roles. With that idea, the Browns run the risk of losing Kitchens to another team to another head coaching gig and kicking themselves in the back for doing so.

The NFL is always evolving, and it currently has evolved to a model of the pairing of young quarterbacks and young(er)/fresh offensive-minded head coaches. Just like the NFL is evolving, the NFL is a copycat league; the Rams and Bears are winning with their duos and the Patriots and Saints have won (Super Bowls) in year’s past.

Will the Browns do right by Williams and keep things the way they are? After all, the Browns are winning and have clearly bought in, so why change things now? Will the Browns secure their franchise duo of Mayfield/Kitchens? Or will they hire a brand new coach and let him hand pick his staff and maybe hope Kitchens is in his plans?

I am glad I am not making the decision because it is not easy. However, at this point in time I think if the Browns would like to maintain elite success from the quarterback position the answer is easy, Kitchens is the head coach. If it is not broke don’t fix it.

Now, moving on from Williams is the hard part. How do you tell a guy to move on while he has led your team to a 5-2 record while elevating the offensive guy in-front of him? I doubt that Williams would like to be “demoted” back down to defensive coordinator just to secure Kitchens as Mayfield’s guy.

It truly is a tough decision and one that I am glad I am not making. The Browns have fallen into a situation that is great but making it right among all parties for the best interest of your football team is the hard part. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

For now, I would like to see Mayfield to keep Bakin’ in Freddie’s Kitchen. It is up to Dorsey and company to make it happen. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.