To quote Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption: “…Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Cleveland Browns fans have clung to hope on a weekly basis this season that the right head coach was finally found, the team was going to make the playoffs, and the “same old Browns” mantra would finally sink deep into Lake Erie.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case, as we are once again at a crossroads of Robert Johnson proportions, falling down to our knees and asking for mercy by the football gods.
Hindsight can be a useful tool in assessing how we’ve arrived at this impasse.
In hindsight, maybe Freddie Kitchens was not the correct choice for the head coach. No one can accurately predict the success of a head coach in the National Football League. Psychologists will evaluate the state of mind as a well-being predictor. Football experts will evaluate scheme, player utilization, and culture expectations. Fans will evaluate the résumé. Sometimes the best of prospects do not equate to on-field success.
Kitchens was at the helm of the second-best offense in the league from Weeks 9-17 of the 2018 season. The offense hummed like the straight block engine of a Duesenberg J, averaging 6.86 yards per play, which was the 2nd-most in the post-merger era. Quarterback Baker Mayfield broke the rookie passing touchdown record and running back Nick Chubb was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded ball carrier on the heels of creative and innovative play design. The team won five of its last seven games with all signs pointed toward a reckoning of the prior team and player mismanagement.
Flash forward to 2019 and that simply has not been the case. Players are continuously out of place or not being utilized correctly/at full potential. The team has a serious lack of discipline, as a result of a cultural influence that starts at the top. Attitude reflects leadership and this team’s attitude borderlines unlikable.
Have there been improvements over the second half of the season? Sure. But the coaching blunders, most recently the infamous t-shirt incident and completely abandoning the running game in the second half vs. the Steelers, are continuing to pile up in an unfavorable way.
I have been an avid supporter of not firing head coaches after one season. It takes time for a culture change. It takes time to implement schemes and systems. But, you have to ask yourself if Kitchens possesses the necessary aptitude, leadership, and prowess required to coach in The Land. Continuity is not necessarily advantageous only for continuity’s sake.
General manager John Dorsey has made some remarkable moves during his tenure with the Browns thus far: drafting quarterback Baker Mayfield with the number one overall pick, trading for wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. for pennies on the dollar, drafting Nick Chubb in the second round, signing Kareem Hunt, etc. However, in hindsight, the complete decimation of the offensive line cannot be ignored. After all, what’s the worth of all of these toys if your franchise quarterback is continuously running for his life?
First, former Pittsburgh Steeler rotational starter Chris Hubbard was signed to a five-year, $37.5 million contract and immediately became the starting right tackle. He has been nothing short of a liability since earning the starting role. In fact, he ranks in the bottom ten of all right tackles in pressures allowed (31), pass block grade (59.6), and penalties (8) in 2019. Not great protection, especially for a quarterback that is known to habitually escape the pocket to the right side.
Second, there was the failed (and laughable) Desmond Harrison experiment at left tackle. Undrafted out of West Georgia, the rookie was named starting left tackle and guardian of Mayfield before the 2018 season opener. After a disastrous first half of the season, he was replaced by reclamation project Greg Robinson. Harrison was subsequently released by the Browns after a missed flight caused him to miss mini-camp and was later claimed by the Arizona Cardinals, only to be released after assault allegations and a felony arrest warrant in North Carolina.
Third, there was the Austin Corbett pick in the 2018 NFL draft, which has become a sort of folklore in the Browns community. Corbett never found his spot after multiple rotations and was later traded to the Los Angeles Rams for a fifth-round pick. In hindsight, maybe guard Will Hernandez out of UTEP would have been the correct pick.
Last, we come to the trade of right guard Kevin Zeitler to the New York Giants for pass rusher Olivier Vernon. Zeitler was a pivotal member of a Browns offensive line that ranked second by Pro Football Focus and, specifically, the best interior line in football that only allowed 39 total pressures. Vernon has underwhelmed during 2019, with a nagging knee injury that caused him to miss multiple games. He has only generated three sacks and a 37.7 tackling grade, leaving a lot to be desired from a perennial star at the position. I understand the concept of having a force at both edge spots in order to disrupt opposing passers, but protecting the quarterback is priority number one and Dorsey has failed in this regard.
So, where do we go from here? Do the Browns go head-hunting once again for the man that can lead this team to the Promised Land? Does the team draft or sign at least one highly regarded offensive tackle this offseason? One thing is for certain: a losing record is simply unacceptable with a team of this talent.
Maybe I am being too harsh and this is just all part of the growing pains of one of the National Football League’s youngest teams. Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe this is the start of a three-year plan that Dorsey hinted at earlier this offseason. Maybe this was the year before the year. Time will tell, but as Bob Dylan said: “Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore.”