Monday, March 18, 2019

Pressure cooker 

In the midst of the glee and euphoria surrounding the trade that set the National Football League aflame a few days comes a caveat with regard to the immediate future of the Browns.

There is no question General Manager John Dorsey has cobbled together a roster in just 15 months that qualifies as one of the best in the NFL. The talent quotient is right there with Kansas City, New England and the Los Angels Rams.

The big question is whether the coaching staff under rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens is seasoned enough to handle this vast array of talent, the likes of which hasn’t graced the Cleveland football landscape in a very long time.

Dorsey believes so. “From a planning standpoint, you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels,” he told the Cleveland media last week. “I think we’ve done that. Surround him with a strong coaching staff.”

Kitchens’ star has risen so rapidly, so majestically, the fact he has never been the lead whistle of a football team on any level has been shunted to the background in light of all the personnel moves.

There is no question whatsoever the new boss of the locker room has the chops to handle an offense. That was more than evident in the second half of last season when he transformed the Cleveland offense into one of the league’s most dangerous.

But there is more, a lot more, to being a head coach than shepherding just one side of the football. It is an entirely different world because he now has the ears of the entire team. He is the man who sets the tone for everything going forward.

Initial observations from listening to Kitchens indicate he will be a players’ coach. Instead of separating himself from the players in a somewhat aloof manner, he genuinely cares about them on a personal basis.

The NFL head coaching landscape is dotted with coaches who prefer their relationships with the players to be strictly on a coach-player plane, a business basis. Kitchens is too down home to bend in that direction.

I get the impression he believes his success will be determined on how close he gets to the players, planting seeds in an effort to get them to play that much harder for him because they really want to.

As a neophyte to the head coaching ranks, he has to straddle a fine line as he tries to please his many bosses in the Ivory Tower and, at the same time, maintain a close relationship with his team.

He has to identify and then put out fires that are bound to occasionally erupt in the locker room. With strong and somewhat unpredictable personalities like Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. in that room, anything is possible.

That’s not to say trouble will always be lurking. But part of Kitchens’ job entails sniffing out the fire before it becomes a blaze and snuffing it out. Establishing harmony in a room of 53 players is quintessential to the performance of the end product.

Kitchens obviously has the ringing endorsement of his general manager. “This head coach is very direct, very honest,” Dorsey said. “He’s going to tell it like it is. . . . He will hold players accountable. He’ll let players express themselves as he should do.”

That includes Beckman, whose unpredictability in New York greased the slide that saw him dealt to the Browns. “(Kitchens) will tell Odell like it is,” the GM said. “. . . We really like Odell. He’s passionate, He’s competitive. He wants to be great. You can’t have enough of those guys. . . . We’re thrilled to have him.”

There is also no question Mayfield loves his new head coach. He has made that clear since the appointment in January. It will be interesting, maybe even fascinating, to see how much of an influence he can be on the rest of the offense in that regard.

At the tail end of last season, members of the offensive line practically rhapsodized in their praise of the rookie quarterback. The trickle down effect was astounding. That bears watching in 2019.

This is a football team that is loaded with talent, especially on offense. You can bet Dorsey, along with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III, and the fans expect positive results almost immediately.

All this is new to Kitchens, who will matriculate through his rookie season as a head coach under as much, maybe even more, pressure to succeed than any Browns head coach since, well, since Bill Belichick took over back in 1991. How he handles it will be a determining factor on how successful the 2019 Browns are.

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