By Ed Meyer
After the Browns beat Denver 17-16 last week for their first win over the Broncos in 28 years, one part of the puzzle in General Manager John Dorsey’s coaching search might have fallen into place.
Jay Glazer of Fox Sports said on his pre-game show the next morning that the milestone victory makes Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens a “lock” to return as coordinator next year, “because of the job that he is doing with Baker Mayfield.”
Kitchens responded in the buildup for this afternoon’s home finale, a sellout against the Bengals (6-8 for last place in the AFC North), by saying he is no campaigner.
“No, sir. Not at all,” he said. “I do not think I have since the day I started coaching. I learned in this business, you put your head down and you work, and you try to get better each and every day.
“That is what I have tried to do throughout my whole career, and look at where you’re at 10, 12, 15 years from now, not to mention even next week or tomorrow.”
Kitchens is a lock to return, because the rookie quarterback’s performance and the offense’s overall development saved the 2018 season from total ruin.
The Browns had lost three games in a row, got crushed 33-18 by the Steelers on Oct. 28 in Pittsburgh, and had a 2-5-1 record when Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were jettisoned the next morning.
Since then, with interim coach Gregg Williams taking over and giving Kitchens the freedom to draw up the game plan and call plays with no apparent meddling, the Browns have:
- Won four of their last five games and are 4-2 overall under the Williams-Kitchens combo.
- Mayfield operating with deadly effectiveness in the red zone on 29-of-44 passing for 224 yards, a 65.9 completion percentage -- second only to Drew Brees of the Saints -- with 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
- Rookie tailback Nick Chubb closing in on a 1,000-yard season with 860 yards rushing, already fourth among rookie runners in team history, even though he was elevated into the starting job only in Week 7.
- Their ball-hawking defense ranked second in the league with 30 takeaways (17 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries), after only 13 takeaways in the 2017 abomination when they were 0-16 under Jackson.
Until this past week, it was not clear about who wanted Kitchens, who had been coaching the team’s running backs, to become coordinator.
Williams said soon after the Jackson-Haley firings that it was the front office’s decision, but Kitchens explained exactly what happened in his easy-going manner after Thursday’s practice, saying: “Mister Jimmy and John. They did.”
He was referring to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Dorsey, the head of Haslam’s braintrust.
You can see why Mayfield and the rest of the offense have formed such a tight bond with Kitchens by how he handles himself. If you can’t relax and have fun playing for him, you had better “get out,” as Mayfield so aptly warned when he said everyone should be focused on winning the last two games.
“I probably was not Gregg’s first choice (for the coordinator job), but hell, I am here,” Kitchens said, adding that Williams “wasn’t mine either.”
“I am just kidding,” he said. “I think both of us were put in tough situations. I think we both have done fairly well. It goes back to, it is all about the players. It is the players making plays and the players being good in critical situations.
“Sometimes as coaches, we put a little more emphasis on ourselves than we do everybody else. More importantly, it is those other people that make you successful or not.”
Rookie tailback Nick Chubb should be a focal point of the Bengals’ defense after what he did in Cincinnati last month. He rushed for 84 yards and scored on a one-yard run. He also had three pass receptions for 44 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown catch.
The Bengals have to know what’s coming today, but that won’t stop quarterback Baker Mayfield from getting the ball to Chubb. He needs 91 yards in the last two games to break the Browns’ rookie rushing record of 950 yards set by Trent Richardson in 2012.
The Browns went on the attack early in the first meeting with the Bengals. There is no reason to change that strategy in the rematch.
Mayfield threw three of his four TD passes in the first half in the 35-20 victory and completed passes to eight different players. The same approach could produce a series sweep.
Matchups to watch
Browns FS Damarious Randall vs. Bengals QB Jeff Driskel.
Driskel replaced injured Andy Dalton (hand) in the second half of the first game between the Browns and Bengals. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 155 yards and one TD using short drops and quick throws. The Browns will know what to expect this time.
Browns WR Breshad Perriman vs. Bengals CB William Jackson.
Perriman isn’t the No.1 receiver on the Browns’ roster (Jarvis Landry is) or even No. 2 (rookie Antonio Callaway is), but Perriman is a player Mayfield has looked to more and more. The same thing could happen today. Mayfield is confident that Perriman, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, has separating speed and can win jump balls.
By the numbers
The Browns have 23 passing touchdowns through 14 games this season. They had 15 in all of 2017