Tuesday, December 31, 2019

They're at it again

As unbelievable as it seems, Dee and Jimmy Haslam III, the clumsy owners of the comically dysfunctional Cleveland Browns, keep topping themselves.

From the team that brought you two head coaches fired after one season and a third who was retained after compiling a 1-31 record over two seasons comes this little nugget.

Taking the trope “the more things change, the more they remain the same” to a level well off the charts, the Tennessee billionaires fired General Manager John Dorsey Tuesday, a mere 48 hours after dismissing head coach Freddie Kitchens.

It was couched as a “mutual parting of the ways” after the Haslams sought to reduce Dorsey’s power and relegate him to a lesser role in the front office. Stinging from his unfortunate choice of Kitchens to head the team a year ago, he naturally declined.

In other words, he was fired after losing what appeared to be a battle for power with Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, who heads the analytics arm of the franchise.

Ever since purchasing the Browns from the Lerner family in 2012, the Haslams have rewarded Browns Nation with six double-digit losing seasons, eight single-digit winning seasons and a 33-94-1 record.

They have been searching for the right culture now for eight arduous years and keep hitting all the wrong notes. In that time, they have fired six coaches and five general managers, a pace that should send up warning signals to anyone seeking those positions.

The Browns are currently in the midst of interviewing candidates to replace Kitchens. DePodesta, who has a strong baseball background, is believed to be a part of that search with the Haslams, who yearn for stability but don’t practice it.

Given what has transpired over the last few days, if not the last eight years, you have to wonder who in his right mind would want to become the head coach of this slipshod franchise? Probably someone just desperate enough to take the job no matter what because he would become a member of an exclusive club, that’s who.

Josh McDaniels, one of nine (at last count) candidates the Haslams seek to interview, is reportedly the favorite to become the new head coach. The Canton native has been the highly successful offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots for many years.

The New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, teams with stable managements, decent personnel and strong ownership, also want to talk with McDaniels. Why would he want to step into the quicksand Cleveland job?

The only possibility that comes to mind is he might want to replicate his time in Denver in 2009-10 when he bombed while in compete control of the Broncos. Working so long for Bill Belichick, who runs a similar operation with the Patriots, might embolden him to try it again.

The son of legendary Ohio high school coach Thom McDaniels is a graduate of John Carroll University in the eastern Cleveland suburb of University Heights and is said to be interested in returning to his home area.

Others on the list of candidates are Robert Saleh, Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel, all assistant coaches with the San Francisco 49ers; offensive coordinators Eric Bieniemy, Brian Daboll, Kevin Stefanski and Greg Roman; and veteran NFL coach Mike McCarthy.

Even though he is expected to get an interview, don’t look for McCarthy to venture beyond the first round, not with the dysfunction whirling furiously around 76 Lou Groza Blvd. He has been around long enough to know the next stop should not be Cleveland, where coaches (and general managers) go to die.

Dorsey departs a shade more than two years since signing on with the Browns. He took an awful roster and craftily made it respectable with numerous savvy moves in less than a year. He drafted wisely, judiciously signed free agents and swung a few good trades.

But then he slipped badly on his first shot at appointing a head coach in Kitchens, a journeyman position coach who sort of auditioned for the job, as it turned out, with a strong eight-game stint as interim offensive coordinator in 2018.

What he did not take into consideration was how ill prepared Kitchens was for a job that required a whole lot more than Xs and Os.  He was overwhelmed at almost every turn and never recovered. He just didn’t know how to be a head coach.

The Haslams correctly blamed Dorsey for his strange choice and overacted as they have done so many times in the past. They also need to look inward and start putting a lot of the blame on themselves for this fecal show.

Culture, it is said, begins at the top. The trickledown in Cleveland has had a deleterious effect on this franchise for the past eight years. And there does not seem to be any relief in sight.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Monday leftovers

The 2019 season started and concluded with a thud for the Browns. And it wasn’t much different in between the 43-13 thrashing by the Tennessee Titans in the season opener at home and the 33-23 embarrassment in Cincinnati Sunday.

The improbable 40-25 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore in week four, which forged a tie at the top of the AFC North, now seems like such a long time ago.
Little did Browns Nation, or anyone for that matter, realize the Browns had peaked.

It was clearly the highlight of a season that careened out of control in the rugged first half, regained its balance midway through the softer second half and resumed careening down the stretch.

It culminated with embarrassing losses to the Arizona Cardinals and Bengals, teams that finished with worse records, teams they should have defeated. You can add losses to Denver, the Los Angeles Rams, New England, the second Pittsburgh game and Seattle to that list.

Each of those games was winnable and bumbling coaching by the inexperienced Freddie Kitchens was a major factor. Losing two games to undrafted quarterbacks who had never started a National Football League game was inexcusable.

Kitchens’ stubborn insistence that he call all the plays for the offense during the game served as a hurdle, catering the offense to suit his philosophy and not the personnel.  Most successful coordinators choreograph offenses and defenses around players’ strengths.

The same situation occurred on defense with coordinator Steve Wilks opening the season with a 4-2-5 look (the nickel) to offset the pass-happy league the NFL has become. It was, as was Kitchens’ unorthodox approach to crafting his offense, an abysmal failure.

The sum total of their efforts was Kitchens’ dismissal, albeit sloppily handled by the team, late Sunday. It was inevitable that would be the conclusion to this disappointing season along the lakefront.

Fans of this football team deserve better. Much, much better. This rabid fan base has maintained remarkable resilience through the past two decades and will be rewarded one of these years with stability to match their increasing core of talent.

The challenged Browns front office, which embodies Murphy’s Law on a daily basis, edges closer to the day when the light will come on and it will finally do the right thing.

It must avoid, as General Manager John Dorsey did not, making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. Dorsey chose the untried and nowhere-close-to-being-qualified Kitchens because he connected to Baker Mayfield last season while serving as interim offensive coordinator.

Truth be known, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese helped shepherd Mayfield through his rookie season last season. Kitchens received just about all the praise because the offense perked up significantly when he took over fired coordinator Todd Haley’s offense.

Dorsey apparently did not factor that into the equation when making his final decision, never taking into consideration his talented roster needed a firm hand, a role the undisciplined Kitchens never embraced.

The problems that cropped up early in the season never disappeared. In fact, the new coach never got a handle on them and they worsened. Poor game management and strange play calling joined lack of discipline on that list.

It all added up to what happened down the stretch – four losses in the final five games, including the last three in a row – and the ultimate removal of Kitchens to prevent further damage to the product.

Now it’s on to a new head coach. Another possible question, at least according to rumors, involves the front office and whether there will be a reconstruct with Dorsey’s position speculated in those rumors.

Unlike last season, when only the head coaching position was unsettled, this season promises to produce more fireworks as the Haslams continue their struggle to find the magic that will turn this franchise in the right direction.
*       *       *
Nick Chubb can thank his ex-head coach/playcaller for losing out on the league rushing title to Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans on the final Sunday of the regular season.

Chubb, who either led the league or ranked in the top three in rushing all season, had a 124-yard lead (1.453-1,329) on Henry entering the final weekend. Kitchens, who often second-guessed himself for not using Chubb more, called his number just 13 for a mere 41 yards against a Bengals defense determined to stop him.

Henry, meanwhile, carried the ball 32 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a big victory over Houston, ending the season with a 146-yard margin over Chubb for the rushing title. Kitchens fed Chubb just 28 times for 86 yards in the final two games.

Chubb managed to maintain his lofty position among the rushing leaders despite working behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Henry was fortunate to play behind one of the league’s best units.

A telling stat that enabled Chubb to challenge for the rushing title was his incredible number of yards after contact, piling up 1,051 of his 1,494 yards, or nearly 68%, after initial hits. Henry racked up just 893 yards after contact.

Chubb’s seven games with 100 yards or more was one better than Henry, who rallied to win the title with 896 yards in his last six games and scored 18 touchdowns overall to Chubb’s eight.

It’s safe to say with an improved offensive line, which should be the club’s top priority in the college draft and free agency this offseason, Chubb will have a better shot at the title next season.
*       *       *
It’s also safe to say to say now that the 2019 season is history that Baker Mayfield was humbled. And that’s not easy to do. This season knocked an awful lot of brashness and cockiness out of the brash and cocky second-year quarterback.

The 2020 season will see him enter with a brand new and rather large chip, more like a boulder, on his shoulder. And based on previous seasons, he responds quite well to that situation.

In order to be rebound from his nightmarish season, he has to drop the notion that he knows what went wrong and knows how to fix it. No he doesn’t. Playing in the NFL is a constant learning experience. The sooner he realizes that, the better off he’ll be. He is not, nor will he ever be, a know-it-all.

The most grizzled veterans in the league learn from their mistakes on an annual basis. Mayfield needs to hear that from the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, championship quarterbacks who can provide a greater understanding of where is headed.
*       *       *
It will be interesting to see whether Kevin Stefanski interviews again for the vacant head coaching position. The Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator was a semifinalist a year ago when Dorsey opted for Kitchens.

It makes no sense for him to do it all over again with the likelihood of being rejected twice by the same team. Unless, that is, he is absolutely assured the job is his before he sits down with the Browns.

He certainly is not going to interview any differently than he did the first time. The Browns know all about him based on that interview. What else can be gleaned that they don’t already know?

Besides, the field of candidates his season will be larger and much more experienced than last year’s crop. Which means the odds work against Stefanski being the man more now than then.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Comparing some season stats with last season: Mayfield completed just 59.4% of his passes this season with 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, Last season, he threw a league rookie record 27 touchdown passes with 14 picks and a 63.8 completion percentage. . . . The defense this season surrendered 2,315 yards on the ground (145 a game), compared to last season’s 2,163 (135). . . . The defense picked off 17 passes last season, three more than this season. . . . The much more opportunistic defense last season produced a +7 turnover ratio compared to this season’s -8. . . . This season’s pass rush produced 38 sacks (only four in the last five games, just one on the last three)) to 37 in 2018. It obviously would have been much higher this season had Myles Garrett not crowned Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph with the quarterback’s helmet. . . .  And finally, the offense this season totaled 5,445 yards (340 a game), far worse than last season’s 5,900 (369).

It could have been handled better

What the Browns did to Freddie Kitchens Sunday was inexcusable. Not firing him. It was the way they fired him.

Kitchens addressed the media after the season-finale loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday as if it was business as usual. He had no idea he would be waylaid and become an ex-head coach within hours.

“I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve got meetings scheduled through next week and I’m looking forward going to work tomorrow. You know I don’t really buy into the speculation stuff. (that foreshadowed his fate). I’ll work and show up tomorrow and do the best job I can do for the Browns tomorrow.”

That’s four tomorrows in those remarks, almost as if Kitchens had an inkling that his version of tomorrow would never come. But I don’t know that for certain.

What I do know is the Browns should be ashamed of themselves for handling the firing so poorly. They couldn’t have waited until the traditional Black Monday purge of National Football League head coaches to pull the plug? What was their hurry?

At least have the decency to treat the man, whose loyalty to the company in the face of all kinds of adversity throughout the season was admirable, with some respect.

Did they think that poorly of him to release prepared statements from General Manager John Dorsey and owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III prior to telling him? Why did a national reporter have to be the one to tell him?

Tweeted Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network: “Just for off the phone with an emotional Freddie Kitchens. He believed he had organizational support. He did not.”

Remember when the top men at 76 Lou Groza Blvd, said before the Arizona Cardinals game in week 15 that they had Kitchens’ back barring a disaster ending? The Browns were 6-7 at the time.

Three straight losses obviously qualify as a disaster. But there is a right way and a wrong way of handling such matters. Kitchens did not deserve to exit in such an embarrassing manner.

Yes he was an embarrassment as a neophyte head coach. Learning on the job proved too difficult. His learning curve took numerous hits along the way. But don’t blame him. Blame Dorsey, the man who elevated him to the post.

That brings to mind an old Paul Brown story. The famed Hall of Fame coach and one of his old Browns teams were traveling by bus to the destination of the next game and the driver got lost. He apologized to Brown.” I don’t blame you,” the coach responded. “I blame the person who hired you.”

Dorsey gambled on Kitchens and lost. Made the wrong decision for the wrong reasons. Outside of his prepared statement, he has remained conspicuously silent about that decision.

There is an ongoing culture problem with this still-dysfunctional franchise. It needs to first be recognized and then fixed. Until it is, this clueless regime and the ones that follow will continue to spin their wheels.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

See ya, Freddie

Well that didn’t take long. Freddie Kitchens was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Browns just a few hours after his club lost the season finale to the Bengals in Cincinnati Sunday afternoon.

He joins Rob Chudzinski as the only Cleveland head coach since the resurrection in 1999 to be fired after just one season

The move became inevitable in the last month of the season when the club lost four of its last five games. Kitchens needed a strong second half to survive a 2-6 start and failed.

His 6-10 team was plagued with discipline problems on the field and personality problems off it. It was a situation he never got a handle on and paid the ultimate price.

Dorsey elevated the former interim offensive coordinator to the top spot a little less than a year ago to the surprise of many who questioned Kitchens’ relative inexperience. He was a career position coach and served as a coordinator for only eight games following the firing of Hue Jackson.

Dorsey, in a prepared statement, said, “I would like to thank Freddie for his dedication and efforts this past season. We are disappointed in our results and feel a change is necessary. Freddie is a good man and good football coach. We wish him and his family nothing but success.”

Right out of the standard form for firing coaches. Only the name changes. Same with the following prepared statement from owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III:

“We thank Freddie for his hard work and commitment to this organization, but did not see the success or opportunities for improvement to move forward with him as our head coach. Our focus is on hiring an exceptional leader for this football team and we will take a comprehensive approach to this process. We are excited about the core players we have to build around and develop and look forward to bringing in a strong head coach who will put this group of players in the best position to succeed.”

Until the Haslams (and Dorsey) actually mean what they say and follow through with these announced plans, those statements are nothing more than words. Fans want deeds, not words. 

The owners say they want an exceptional leader, a strong head coach. All well and good. They had a chance to do that least season and failed. What will be different this time? Your guess is as good as mine.

This ownership has been one major fail after another since purchasing the team seven years ago from the Lerner family.

The next Browns head coach will be No. 6 (not including Gregg Williams, who served as interim after the Jackson firing) to serve under the Haslam roof following Pat Shurmur, Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Jackson and Kitchens. That’s six head coaches in seven years. Enough said.

This gives a whole new meaning to the word instability. Is it any wonder the Browns remain one of the most hopeless franchises in sports? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

If you’re looking for candidates to replace Kitchens, start with NFL former head coaches Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera and Josh McDaniels; college football head coaches Lincoln Riley, Matt Campbell, Urban Meyer, Matt Ruhle and Jim Harbaugh, who has coached at the college and NFL levels; and NFL coordinators Greg Roman, Kevin Stefanski, Dan Campbell and Dave Toub.

Don’t let the door . . .

Let the record show the Cleveland Browns, the most hyped National Football League team in 2019 by far, finished the season with a 6-10 record after Sunday’s 33-23 loss in Cincinnati.

In what clearly classifies as one of the most disappointing seasons since the NFL graciously permitted Cleveland back into the league in 1999, this iteration of Browns football underachieved for a major portion of the season.

Why disappointing when so many other campaigns in the last two decades concluded on numerous occasions with records far worse than 6-10? Because this is not a 6-10 team from a talent standpoint.

Yes, I know what they say about that – that you are what your record says you are. There are exceptions to that notion and the 2019 Browns are the poster boys for that exception.

The team many pundits and veteran NFL observers had winning the AFC North championship at the very least and advancing as far as – seems extremely silly to even type this – the Super Bowl must have bought all that love.

What in the world were they thinking?

What they did not factor into the equation was a coaching staff incapable of handling and maximizing all that talent on both sides of the football, most notably the offense.

And that, in the end, should be good enough to usher Freddie Kitchens out of town and on to a coordinator job somewhere else on the NFL landscape.

A more experienced, savvy and well-prepared head coach, someone who knows how to handle difficult personalities, would not have compiled such a record. That one falls on the shoulders of General Manager John Dorsey, who stunned everyone by elevating Kitchens to head whistle.

A combination of not-even-close-to-being-ready-for-prime-time and some bizarre play calling on offense by the head coach himself is what ultimately caused the short circuit on that side of the football. It was hit and miss all season long.

The loss Sunday to the 1-14 Bengals serves as a microcosm. Baker Mayfield was alternately spectacular and puzzling with some of his throws. He completed only 12 of 27 passes, but for 279 yards and touchdowns to Damion Ratley, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.

He spoiled that with three more interceptions – that’s 21 on the season, five against the Bengals – and six more sacks (40 for the year). He experienced far more than a sophomore jinx. He experienced a sophomore nightmare and a frightful beating in the process.

He threw picks in every game except back-to-back victories over Pittsburgh and Buffalo; touchdown passes (22) in every game except two; and was sacked in all but two games, surviving games of at least four sacks on five occasions.

He was a season-long victim of shoddy coaching, unlike his rookie season in 2018 when he was spectacular and anointed the right choice by Dorsey as the overall No. 1 selection in the college draft.

My how quickly things change in the NFL. The brash golden boy of 2018, who carried the hopes of Browns Nation that the bright future they longed for had finally arrived to save this moribund franchise, was humbled week after week by the opposition.

The passes that sped through tight windows and resulted in completions last season, the ones that helped win five of the last eight games, found opponents’ hands instead this season. The loss Sunday exposed Mayfield for his flaws, many of which are connected to his inability to read defenses correctly.

The Cleveland defense was another major contributing factor in the club losing its final three games and four of the last five to drop out of sight. Ever since losing Myles Garrett for the season, coordinator Steve Wilks’ men haven’t stopped anyone.

In the final five games, that horrible defense permitted 412 yards a game, 222 yards through the air, an inexcusable 190 yards on the ground, 25 first downs a game, 28 points a game (34 per in the last three) and dropped quarterbacks four times. That's FOUR TIMES!!!! IN FIVE GAMES!!!! Few offenses, let alone the Browns’, can overcome such underachieving.

It moved Fox commentator Robert Smith, the former Euclid High School, Ohio State and Minnesota Vikings standout, to call them out after Joe Mixon scored his second touchdown of the game with ridiculous ease from the two-yard line in the fourth quarter to give the Bengals a 30-16 lead on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Mixon, who tacked on another 162 yards and a couple of touchdowns to his 146-yard performance in the first-game loss earlier this month in Cleveland, met no resistance whatsoever, prompting Smith to decry, “You have to play defense with attitude. They certainly didn’t have it right there.”

Another microcosm in a season loaded with them. 

The Browns’ came back to make a game of it, so to speak, Mayfield leading them to the Cincinnati five in nine plays on the subsequent drive. At that point, however, the offense slammed it into reverse on the next three plays – two sacks and an incompletion.

It was reminiscent – here comes another microcosm – of the red-zone problems that plagued the offense all season. Except this time, Mayfield hooked up with Beckham deep in the right corner near the sideline on a fourth and goal from the 20.

The wide receiver, who caught three passes for 81 yards, leaped high above cornerback Darius Phillips, secured the football with both hands and toe-tapped both feet in bounds in balletic fashion to complete the amazing play.

That was as close as the Browns got as the Bengals stopped a three-game losing streak in this intra-division series. The loss extended to 17 season the Browns’ and NFL’s longest active streak of failing to make the postseason.

Now all that remains is determining which direction the front office decides is the best for the future, Unlike other seasons, however, there is a core of talent on this team on both sides of the football that portends brightness for that future.

A major portion of that depends largely in the direction it chooses. It paid the price for one major mistake this season. The current ownership can ill afford to make it two in a row. Those who make the critical decisions owe it to their faithful constituency to do it the right way this time.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

A bitter end

The Cincinnati Bengals the Browns face Sunday in the season finale in the Queen City are quite a bit better than the ones they knocked off in week 14.

That 27-19 victory kept the Browns’ flickering playoffs hopes alive for a nanosecond and could represent the last time the 2019 version of this still dysfunctional franchise celebrates a triumph.

Since that victory, the Browns flamed out at Arizona and the season ender at home against Baltimore and drag a 6-9 record into the last game of this extremely disappointing and eminently forgettable season.

In reality, the Browns did not play well enough to win the first game against the Bengals. The final stats sheet of that game lied.

The Bengals rang up 451 total yards (they average 320 a game), compiled 27 first downs, ran an astounding 72 plays to the Browns’ 52 and controlled the football for 34½ minutes.

Baker Mayfield completed only 11 passes for 187 yards  for the Browns and threw two picks; the offense rang up just 333 yards; and Odell Beckham, Jr. caught only two passes for 39 yards (on five targets).

The defense couldn’t get off the field, but managed to stiffen when the Bengals entered the red zone, where they were only one for five, forcing Randy Bullock to kick four field goals. Joe Mixon ran roughshod for 146 yards and scored the only Cincy touchdown.

The only thing Browns fans could get excited about were Denzel Ward’s 61-yard pick six and Nick Chubb’s 106 yards on the ground. Other than that, it was a struggle to emerge victorious.

But that was then and this is now.

The Bengals are coming off their most exciting game of the season outside their lone victory over the New York Jets in week 13 even though it was their 14th loss last Sunday in Miami.

They trailed, 35-12, with less than 10 minutes to play against the Dolphins, but scored three touchdowns in a five-minute span, including the game-tying touchdown on the final play of regulation and a two-point conversion.

The improbable comeback fell short, though, the Dolphins winning on a field goal in overtime with no time left on the clock.

If nothing else, it gave the Bengals added incentive to finish on a winning note as they close out what will be their worst season in their 52-year history with a loss. A victory would enable them to match the 2-14 team in 2002.

Andy Dalton is coming off a four-touchdown performance against Miami in what might be his final game as a Bengal as the club is in the midst of a roster shakeup with new coach Zac Taylor.

The Cincinnati defense that pretty much shut down Mayfield earlier this month should be even better for Sunday’s affair. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who missed the first game with a knee problem, is back and loves to play against the Browns.

Maybe it’s because the former Ohio State standout was on the board in the third round of the 2018 college football draft and the Browns, picking third, selected another edge rusher, Chad Thomas. Hubbard, who leads the Bengals in sacks with seven, was taken 10 picks later by Cincinnati.

The Browns, meanwhile, are just stumbling along as the vultures hover over 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in anticipation of the club making a move regarding the future of Freddie Kitchens.

The rookie head coach seems to be whistling past the graveyard, believing he has nothing about which to worry when it comes to coaching this team against next season.

His sputtering offense hasn’t played a consistent game in months. And his injury-ridded defense, which somehow managed to help him win four games in a five-game stretch, is too beat up to help him now.

Add his oftentimes and perplexing bizarre play calls to the equation and you have a better understanding of why the end of this season is collapsing in spectacular fashion.

The Bengals are playing better football right now and much more incentivized than the Browns. The Browns are flattening, a trend that by now has captured the attention of the front office and ownership.

The big question in this one is not who will win. It’s whether Kitchens’ head coaching career in Cleveland will end around 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati., if not soon after.

A final record of 6-10 should be enough of a shove for the poobahs in the Ivory Tower to make a move. A victory might give them pause. That’s not going to happen. The Bengals are the better team now. That’s why they will win. Make it:

Bengals 27, Browns 20

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Mid-week thoughts

Casting a quick glimpse at the immediate coaching future of the Browns . . .

This is, of course, predicated on the firing of Freddie Kitchens sometime between the conclusion of Sunday’s game in Cincinnati and the beginning of the New Year.

The gamble General Manager John Dorsey took when he surprisingly hired Kitchens last January has turned out to be an abysmal failure and slammed the brakes on whatever progress was made after the 2018 season.

Unless he refuses to admit he made a huge mistake in elevating someone with no head coaching at any level and just eight games as a coordinator, and retains him, Dorsey (and the Haslams) will cashier their second head coach in two seasons.

This team has not improved the least little bit with Kitchens at the helm. The stunning lack of discipline that pockmarked the season, as well as the eyebrow-raising play calling on offense, were just two of the major contributors.

It called into question early on whether Kitchens had what it took to take control of the team and become its CEO. He didn’t come close at any time. This was a team with no direction.

Players, most notably on the side of the football he commanded, outwardly disagreed with him during games. He either did not know how to quell it or was too fixated on other things to shut it down.

His teams were rarely ready to play on game day. He labeled just about every week of practice throughout the season as either great or very good. And then the players went out and proved they were better practice players than gamers.

Suffice it to say, it’s about time this franchise gets it right with its top football position. A second swing and a miss by Dorsey will not warrant a third opportunity. He’s got to get it right this time.

At the same time, Dee and Jimmy Haslam III must allow their general manager to make the pick himself. They have a savvy enough front office to offer advice, but not a vote. The selection of Kitchens, according to reports, was made following voting with at least one other name besides Kitchens in the mix.

National Football League general managers should pick their head coach. That and shaping the roster is what they are hired to do. Most owners around the league put their faith in them. Their job status depends on their successes and failures.

It is incumbent on Dorsey to sound out all in whom he has trust and then make the final decision by himself without any kind of vote. The Haslams must trust him implicitly.

The Browns need someone with a strong NFL background littered with success. This team is too talented and headed in the right direction to be headed by a neophyte like Kitchens. They don’t need another coach learning on the job.

There will be many strong candidates in that group. Some are former NFL head coaches, a few of whom have achieved success. Several are successful coordinators in the league, while a few more are currently associated with college football.

Once the plug is pulled on Kitchens, I’ll dive into those who might become the next – and hopefully last for a long time – head coach of a franchise that craves for one.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Monday leftovers

From the department of “Did He Really Say That?” comes this gem from Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens . . .

“We’re really close. Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle, but we know how close we are. Our players understand how close we are and our players understand how they can do better and coaches understand how they can do better.”

Yep, Kitchens really said that in his weekly post game-day session with the media on Monday. Hard to believe he honestly believes that after losing three of the last four games. He is either not paying attention or lobbying to keep his job.

Two questions: If that’s the case, that the Browns are really close, (a) what are they close to and (b) why aren’t they doing better? Fifteen games are in the bank and only six were winners.

In the four games following the three-game winning streak they put together last month, the Browns have played anywhere from mediocre (at best) to downright awful football. Are they improving? Not unless you change the meaning of the word.

Are they – and that includes the coaching staff – still making mistakes? Uh yes. Week after week, game after game and sometimes play after play. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point.

There has been nothing this season on which fans can hang their hats with regard to the future of this franchise except maybe the exploits of Nick Chubb, who has been superb despite running behind a bad offensive line.

Kitchens went on to say he has the backing of the most important people in the organization. “I have not gotten anything but total support from those guys,” he said, referring to owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and General Manager John Dorsey.

That’s a little hard to believe, too, considering reports that at least one member of that troika was reportedly more than mildly upset after the last two games.

The rampant conjecture he would be a one-and-done head coach didn’t seem to bother him. “I don’t care about the speculation,” he said. “I don’t care about anything that is out of my control.”

Interesting choice of words considering how poorly his team, which is very much under his control, has played for him for the major portion of the season.

Kitchens also pronounced himself satisfied with his learning curve. “My learning progress is continuing to go upward,” he said, “When you get in a situation where it goes downward, then you’re in trouble.”

Considering the course his team has traveled the last month or so, he might want to think about reevaluating the difference between upward and downward because very little is working now on both sides of the football.

Perhaps the rookie head coach has lost touch with reality as the day of reckoning nears. It shouldn’t be long after the Browns wrap up this dismal season in Cincinnati Sunday that a determination of Kitchens’ status in Cleveland will be announced.

If he bucks the odds – remember this is a franchise that has had a long and flirtatious relationship with making wrong moves for the wrong reasons – and is given a second chance, nothing will change.

As a wise philosopher once said, “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” The Browns have been guilty of it numerous times and are teetering on possibly doing it again.
*       *       *  
When he goes shopping again during the offseason in an effort to strengthen his team, three areas of concern should top Dorsey’s shopping list with the trenches occupying the top two slots.

The offensive line needs a major, major overhaul if the offense is to experience any degree of success. The talent is there at the skill positions with Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt (if he comes back), Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.

They need the horses up front. They’re not there now, a major factor in the struggles that side of the ball has experienced this season. They need solid starters at both tackles and right guard.

If he’s honest, Dorsey would probably admit trading guard Kevin Zeitler to the New York Giants in that blockbuster deal that brought Beckham and defensive end Olivier Vernon to Cleveland was a mistake. Zeitler was the club’s best offensive lineman last season. His absence has been sorely felt throughout this season.

The defensive line also needs an overhaul, mainly on the edge. The pass rush has all but disappeared since the suspension of end Myles Garrett. Tackle Sheldon Richardson has been the steadiest member of that unit.

Fellow tackle Larry Ogunjobi and Vernon, when healthy, have underperformed. Most of the strangers at end currently won’t be back next season based on their substandard performances.

Dorsey also must address the situation at safety. Morgan Burnett and Damarious Randall are all but gone. Sheldrick Redwine and possibly Eric Murray will be back. That should be on Dorsey’s shopping list as well.

One more item on that list: A veteran and reliable wide receiver to complement Landry and Beckham. No one in the current wide receivers room has stepped up like Breshad Perriman did last season.
*       *       *
What in the world did tight end David Njoku do to deserve what seems to be permanent status for the rest of the season on the inactive list? He’s made it the last two weeks despite being healthy and figures to be there again in Cincinnati.

Is the former first-round daft choice on Kitchens’ fecal list? And if so, why? Reports label it a coaching decision. Kitchens brushed it off. “David has been working hard, trying to get better,” he said, “continuing to try to put his best foot forward and see what he can do.”

The man sure has a way with words.
*       *       *
At first blush it appeared as though free safety Randall was the main culprit when Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews ran uncontested and caught his 39-yard touchdown pass for the first Ravens score in Sunday’s 31-15 loss.

Looking a little more closely at it, it sure looked as though nickelback T. ]. Carrie blew the coverage, sliding to his left to help on the outside instead of picking up Andrews down the seam.

Randall, once he noticed Andrews running his route by himself, quickly recovered, but it was too late. He then turned and pointed at Carrie, almost as if to say, “What are you doing?”
*       *       *
A word or three about defensive coordinator Steve Wilks: He won’t be employed by the Browns next season. His style of defense has become extremely offensive and is best suited elsewhere.

Of the 15 games the Browns have played, opponents scored 24 or more points on nine occasions. NINE!! On five of those occasions, opponents scored 30 or more points, including the last two games against Arizona and Baltimore.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Chubb needs 147 yards Sunday against the Bengals to reach 1,600 yards for the season, or 100 yards a game. Quite a feat considering his offensive line. There’s a good reason he leads the NFL in yards after contact  . . . Mayfield will become the first Cleveland quarterback since Tim Couch in 2001 to start all 16 games. Derek Anderson (2007), Brandon Weeden (2012) and DeShone Kizer (2017) came close with 15. . . . The 243 yards on the ground the defense allowed against the Ravens was not a season high. The San Francisco 49ers pounded out 275 yards in their 31-3 victory back in week five. . . . In the last two weeks, the defense has been shredded for 469 yards infantry style. . . . Oddly, the pass defense has not allowed a 300-yard game this season. That’s probably because opponents didn’t have to given their success on the ground.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

It's almost over

If it hadn’t been for the tardy appearance of their offense Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens might have knocked off the Browns by more than a couple of touchdowns Sunday in their home finale.

It took the better part of the first two quarters before the Ravens, who clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs, unlocked their offense in the 31-15 victory, a margin that in no way reflected their dominance in this one.

The loss dropped the Browns to 6-9 and eliminated them from the postseason, as if they really had a shot after a poor showing in the first half of the season. It moved head coach Freddie Kitchens a little closer to what many hope is his departure date.

Avenging the how-in-the-world-did-that-happen 40-25 loss to the Browns at home in week four, the Ravens’ offense struggled in their first four possessions against a surprisingly feisty Cleveland defense.

That patched-up defense forced two punts, a takeover on downs and the first Baltimore turnover in the first quarter all season when quarterback Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram missed connections on a handoff, defensive end Porter Gustin recovered the fumble.

Nine plays, 45 yards and three costly Baltimore penalties later, Baker Mayfield hooked up with Demetrius Harris from the one-yard line to give the Browns their only lead of the afternoon at 6-0. Two of the flags were tossed on fourth down, the other on third down.

Referee Alex Kemp’s crew tried to help the Browns with yellow laundry in key situations, five of the Browns’ 17 first downs the result of penalties. It was that kind of afternoon for the stodgy Cleveland offense.

After being shut out and held to just 120 yards on the first four series, the vaunted Ravens offense, averaging 37 points a game in the last seven games, suddenly – and impressively – Rip Van Winkled with 110 seconds remaining in the first half and pounced.

And just like that, the visitors took not only a 14-6 lead, but control of the game on both sides of the football. It happened so quickly, many fans may have missed the momentum switch.

It took the Ravens two plays and 32 seconds to move the ball 63 yards, tight end Mark Andrews taking advantage of a blown coverage to score with ridiculous ease on the back end of a 39-yard Jackson strike.

At that point, heading into the locker room down by only a point against the National Football League’s best team seemed to be the prudent move at the time. That’s not what went through the puzzling mind of Kitchens.

Oh no, the Cleveland playcaller wanted more even though his offense, the one he stubbornly insists on directing on the field, was hitting and missing with missing taking the lead as the game wore on. Why there were 78 seconds left to inflict some more damage., he must have thought.

So he dialed up three pass plays with a quarterback who was struggling instead of running out the clock, Three incomplete passes and a meager 23 seconds later, the Ravens had the ball again, this time 75 yards from the Cleveland goal line.

This time, it took Jackson 46 seconds of the 55 remaining to matriculate down the field, connecting once again with Andrews – one of Mayfield’s favorite receivers at Oklahoma – from 14 yards out six plays later.

It took Jackson & Co. just 101 seconds to move the football 138 total yards, throw a pair of touchdown passes and thoroughly demoralize a team, Once he got his rhythm with his feet and arm, there was no stopping him.

The Cleveland defense was baffled as the Ravens’ offense scored on every possession in the second half except the last, which was executed in victory formation.

Jackson ran for 103 yards to lead the Ravens in that department, many of them designed runs against a defense not nearly as fast and quick. Through the air, he threw for 238 more yards and three touchdowns, the third to Ingram.

His ability to control the pace of the game resulted in a gassed Cleveland defense in the second half. The Ravens owned the ball for 21½ of the half’s 30 minutes and ran 40 plays to Cleveland’s 22. Some people call that total dominance.

The Browns somewhat miraculously actually narrowed the margin to 24-15 midway through the fourth quarter with a critical penalty flag again affecting the drive.

After veteran Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was flagged for grabbing Odell Beckham Jr.’s facemask on a fourth-and-goal from the Baltimore 6, Mayfield connected with OBJ on a three-yard fade on the next p[lay,

Instead of kicking the extra point and keeping it a one-possession difference, Kitchens mystifyingly opted for a two-point attempt. Failing to do so kept it a two-possession game. Considering the way the defense was playing at the time, though, it probably could be considered moot in retrospect.

The Browns were a little more engaged against the Ravens overall than they were last week against the Arizona Cardinals, which isn’t saying much since they were almost totally disengaged in the desert.

The Ravens’ defense was clearly determined to shut down Nick Chubb, who burned them in the earlier game for a season-high 165 yards and three touchdowns. The running back never got untracked and was held to a season-low 45 yards.

All that’s left now is the season-ender down in Cincinnati next Sunday against the one-victory Bengals. The dagger on the 2019 season that was plunged even deeper by the Ravens still has a little room left near the hilt.

Even if that dagger does not move in Cincinnati, 7-9 is not the record a vast majority of Browns Nation expected at this juncture of the schedule. But if it does move, a distasteful 6-10 could just about ensure a punched ticket out of town for a certain head coach.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Get ready for some ugly

Oddsmakers, those purveyors of sports betting wisdom, say the Baltimore Ravens are 10 points better than the Browns Sunday afternoon.

Yes they did. The winners of 10 straight National Football League games are a mere 10 points better than a team rife with problems and closing out the 2019 season with more questions than when they started.

Maybe the odds boys know something we mortals do not because the 10 points seem a wee bit on the low side, even in Cleveland.

Never mind the Browns humiliated the AFC North champions on their home turf way back in week four to forge a tie with the Ravens for first place. That’s ancient history.

And never mind the Browns easily qualify as the most disappointing team in the NFL this season by a significant margin.

The Ravens have clinched just about everything but home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That is their goal Sunday as they help the Browns wrap up the home part of their schedule.

Oh. . .  and one more goal. The Ravens have not forgotten that late September Sunday back home when the Browns administered a 40-25 beatdown in front of the stunned hometown folks.

That’s the afternoon Baker Mayfield threw for 342 yards and a touchdown, Nick Chubb ran for 165 yards – remember that 88-yard burst for one of this three touchdowns? – and Jarvis Landry caught eight passes for 167 yards.

With three minutes left in regulation, the Browns owned a 40-18 lead, exploding for 30 second-half points. It was a victory that, in retrospect, made absolutely no sense.

No one can adequately explain why the Browns were so much better that day than any other throughout the season. It, again retrospectively, was very much an aberration.

Spoiler alert! That’s not going to happen again Sunday on the lakefront. They are teams clearly heading in opposite directions.

The Ravens are playing the best football in the entire league behind the wizardry of Lamar Jackson, who has emerged as unquestionably the best quarterback of the 2018 draft class.

The Browns, meanwhile, are plunging in a southerly direction in the AFC North.  The only reason they don’t occupy the basement for the umpteenth time in the last 20 years resides in Cincinnati with the hapless Bengals.

After what happened in the desert a week ago, Freddie Kitchens desperately needs a victory against the Ravens to save his job. Anything less – and that includes a decent showing in defeat – pretty much would signal a departure for the rookie head coach.

The likelihood of that eventuating ranks somewhere between “are you ready for a miracle?” and “are you kidding me?”, the wisdom of the oddsmakers notwithstanding.

No, the best shot Kitchens had at wearing the top whistle next season evaporated against one of the weakest teams in the NFL last Sunday in the desert in what qualifies as the biggest surprising loss of the season.

As the losses pile up for this franchise, the anger and disappointment in the Ivory Tower in Berea have risen. This is not even close to what they envisioned this season.

The shocking lack of progress and improvement have become stultifying to the followers of this talented football team. One has to wonder whether Kitchens has lost this team.

What happens Sunday is almost certain to add another demerit to his head-coaching portfolio. This team has not played competitive football as a team for more than a month.

More and more, at least through this lens, they seem to be playing more for themselves than their coach. Sure they were 4-1 in one stretch, but the soft schedule had a lot to do with that.

Injuries and a key suspension to a star performer have hurt, especially on defense. But other teams have similar problems and somehow survive.

Sunday’s game represents the ultimate litmus test for this team. The Ravens will arrive spitting angry after that embarrassing loss in the first game, You can bet every member of that team circled Dec. 22 in red on their schedule.

They don’t have to be reminded. Here they are 10 straight victories later against a struggling team tightly in their crosshairs, clearly focused.

In Berea this week, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Landry denied reports they solicited players on other teams to get them out of Cleveland. Hard to concentrate on the Ravens with all the other distractions.

That shouldn’t be happening at all regardless of the time of year. Keeping a lid on such matters has proved difficult for Kitchens. It will be interesting to see if the focus is there come game time Sunday.

No need to go over the statistics for this one. The Ravens are flat out the better team, excelling in all three phases of the game. It doesn’t take much to figure out they are far superior to the Browns, who are badly limping toward the finish line.

There will be no upset. Not even the most ardent sycophant can honestly say they believe the Browns can win this one. Hope they win, maybe. Hope is all they’ve got.
That’s why it’s a bit confounding oddsmakers are spotting the Browns only 10 points.

One prediction outside of the final score: Garrett Gilbert will take his first meaningful snaps of the season after the Ravens’ pass rush manhandles the Cleveland offensive line and abuses Mayfield to the point where Kitchens has to remove him in the fourth quarter to protect his health. Make it:

Ravens 40, Browns 13

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Monday leftovers, Part Deux

It didn’t take long for Freddie Kitchens to realize his comments regarding his job status with the Browns in the news conference following Sunday’s loss in Arizona could be misconstrued.

“I don’t care about my future as Browns coach,” he said at the time, perhaps stinging from the 38-24 shellacking the Cardinals administered to his team. “I’m going to do the best job I can do Monday. That’s the only thing I can control.”

Well, Monday rolled around and Kitchens took the opportunity to walk back those remarks, which exploded on line, prompting ESPN talking heads Rex Ryan and Dan Orlovsky to seize the opportunity and call for him to step down.

“Let me clarify,” said the beleaguered coach, who talked about “getting this team to play to the best of their ability today . . . Dee and Jimmy Haslam and John Dorsey would rather me be worried about getting our team ready to play than be worried about my job security.”

Later on, he said, “I care about my job. . . . Of course, I want to be back.”

That probably doesn’t sit well with the constituency that follows the Browns zealously, more than a few fed up with the job Kitchens has done this season. That much was reflected in a new poll conducted by Cleveland.com.

More than 12,000 responded to the following question: Should Freddie Kitchens return as Browns head coach in 2020? Nearly 80% overwhelmingly indicated he is either “not ready to be a head coach” (50%) or “shouldn’t have been hired in the first place” (29%).

That’s a stinging indictment on the team’s performances this season, which filter  down from the head coach. It will be interesting to see whether Dorsey and/or the Haslams take note of the fans’ anger and move in another direction with next season in mind.

No matter what happens in the final two games, this has been a deeply disappointing season for a team many, obviously incorrectly, believed was ready to take the next step and move up to at least a competitive level.

The fact the words Super and Bowl worked their way into conversations as far back as training camp in August looks ridiculous now. How can anyone ever think that would be the case?

What they did not factor in was a head coach who had no experience at that level and proved it on a weekly basis beginning with an opening-game thrashing by the Tennessee Titans. And then it got worse.

The worse it got, the worse the team played. It snowballed into a 2-6 start and Kitchens, no matter how hard he tried, had no idea how to stem the flow of losses. Only the safety of a relatively soft second-half schedule has saved him.

Or has it? He needs to win out against Baltimore – good luck with that – and Cincinnati to finish at .500. Not exactly the kind of record Dorsey and the Haslams expected when this all began back on Sept. 8.

He might “want to be back” next season, but the notion that if he was allowed to return it still wouldn’t be any different seeps into thoughts off the future. Bringing back a coach who talks at times without thinking is asking for it. What this team does not need right now is a head coach who is a work in progress.
*       *       *
There is something about the shovel pass that seems to intrigue Kitchens. He has called plays with a shovel pass somewhere in the execution and they almost always fail.

It happened again in the Cardinals loss, shortly after rookie linebacker Mack Wilson intercepted a Kyle Murray pass midway through the second quarter and gave the offense great field position at the Arizona 28-yard line with the Browns down, 14-7. Short field and momentum.

They had scored their first touchdown of the afternoon on the previous possession when Nick Chubb singlehandedly accounted for 69 yards of an 83-yard drive, romping the final 33 yards for the score.

So where was Chubb on third-and-2 at the 20 two plays into the drive? On the bench watching the offense fail again on a shovel pass, this one from Baker Mayfield to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, motioning on what was to be an inside run.

One problem. The Cardinals’ defensive line blew up the play and Landry had nowhere to run. He stopped, spotted Mayfield all alone several yards away and left-handed the football back to him. The quarterback was dropped for a six-yard loss.Austin Seibert’s 44-yard field goal trimmed the deficit to four.

All Chubb could do was look on hopelessly as his hapless coach made yet another stupid play call, left to wonder what would have happened had that coach called his number instead of a dialing up a high risk play that should be ripped out of the playbook and shredded.
*       *       *
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out what will happen in Sunday’s home finale against the Baltimore Ravens.

The runaway champions of the AFC North shredded the Cleveland defense with 173 yards in the first meeting in a losing effort in week four. And that was when everyone along the Browns’ front line was healthy.

Now with Myles Garrett suspended for the rest of the season and Olivier Vernon hobbling around, only Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi report for duty on a weekly basis with a bunch of relative strangers manning the edges.

If the Ravens don’t blast past the 200-yard mark on the ground alone – maybe in the first half – against that line, consider that a victory for the defense. Running backs Mark Ingram (963 yards and 10 touchdowns) and lesser-used Gus Edwards (515 and two scores) are worrisome enough.

Then there’s quarterback Lamar Jackson with 1,103 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns, not to mention almost 2,900 yards through the air and 33 more touchdowns to deal with.

That offense has averaged 37 points a game in the last six games and surrendered 13½ a contest. A long Sunday looms. For the Browns, that is.
*       *       *
From the department of things you rarely, if ever, see at a football game comes this little gem from Sunday’s loss in the desert:

Early second quarter: Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake scores the second of his four touchdowns on the afternoon to give his team a 14-0 lead. Dontrell Hilliard returns ex-Brown Zane Gonzalez’ kickoff to the Cleveland 17-yard line. So far, so good. And then things got a little weird.

Mayfield lines up in the shotgun on the first play from scrimmage. But before center JC Tretter snaps the football, a flag comes flying in from the back judge.

False start? No. Illegal motion? No again. Illegal shift? Uh uh.

Referee Bernie Allen intones the verdict: Delay of game, offense, five-yard penalty, still first down.

Delay of game. On the first play of a possession. What!! Just another breakdown in communication from a head coach/playcaller who in game 14 still has occasional problems communicating with his quarterback.

No harm came of it, though. That’s the possession during which Chubb led the Browns to their first touchdown of the game. Still, a delay call on the first play is embarrassing.
*       *       *
Finally . . . Mayfield’s season interception total rose to 17 against the Cardinals, counterbalancing his touchdown total of 17. . . . It took the Browns 19 plays and almost four minutes to travel 91 yards for a last-minute score to make the final score  a little more respectable. . . . . During that drive, Mayfield attempted 18 of his 43 passes and connected on 11 of his 30 completions. . . . Odell Beckham Jr. caught five of those passes for 36 yards, swelling his game total to eight receptions and 66 yards. He was targeted 13 times overall.  . . . The possession culminated with tight end Ricky Seals-Jones scoring his second touchdown of the afternoon on a one-yard toss. . . . Kareem Hunt caught eight of his nine targets for 62 yards. . . . Tight ends have caught eight of Mayfield’s 17 scoring throws. . . . There were only four punts in the game, two by each team.