Kitchens warms up to ex­pec­ta­tions

New Browns coach em­braces lofty pro­jec­tions

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

PHOENIX – Fred­die Kitchens knows what ev­ery­one’s think­ing, both the good and the bad.

The first-year Browns’ head coach is well aware of the mas­sive ex­pec­ta­tions that rest on the shoul­ders of ev­ery one of his play­ers, thanks to his team’s promising fin­ish to the 2018 sea­son and an­other round of ag­gres­sive off­sea­son moves, most no­tably the ac­qui­si­tion of three-time Pro Bowl wide re­ceiver Odell Beck­ham Jr.

And Kitchens knows plenty of peo­ple have their doubts. They fear the lofty pro­jec­tions could ul­ti­mately de­rail a ros­ter full of play­ers largely un­ac­cus­tomed to suc­cess. Some also worry about Kitchens’ abil­ity as a first-time head coach to lead a group of play­ers that fea­tures so many col­or­ful per­son­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing the po­lar­iz­ing Baker May­field, the emo­tional Beck­ham, an out­spo­ken Jarvis Landry and an eclec­tic Myles Garrett.

Kitchens has a mes­sage for the skep­tics.

“You guys are wor­ried about me. Don’t worry about me,” he said in his Alabama drawl dur­ing the re­cent NFL coaches’ break­fast at the an­nual league meet­ings. “Be­cause I love the pas­sion and I love the in­tel­li­gence and I love that it’s im­por­tant to those guys, and that’s what you have to have to build a team.”

As far as the ex­pec­ta­tions? Bring ’em on.

“I’ve never seen anybody reach the pin­na­cle of what they’re shoot­ing for with­out hav­ing those ex­pec­ta­tions,” Kitchens said. “I don’t mind them. I want ex­pec­ta­tions. I guar­an­tee you the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, their ex­pec­ta­tions next year is to play in the Su­per Bowl.”

As was the case with May­field, who in the lead-up to the draft dis­played a gen­uine ea­ger­ness to take on the chal­lenge of end­ing Cleve­land’s long-stand­ing los­ing tra­di­tion, Kitchens com­pletely rel­ishes the po­si­tion he’s in.

He once seemed like an un­likely can­di­date for this job. But in lis­ten­ing to him talk, one now feels like he’s the per­fect choice.

He al­ready has proved him­self ca­pa­ble of ex­ceed­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions placed upon him when, af­ter open­ing the 2018 sea­son as run­ning backs coach, he thrived as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor fol­low­ing the fir­ing of Hue Jack­son and Todd Ha­ley.

Kitchens’ great of­fen­sive mind and work ethic paved the way for his suc­cess. But he helped guide the Browns to five wins in seven games in large part due to his fast bond with May­field and the other of­fen­sive play­ers. Kitchens has both a South­ern charm and an in­fec­tious swag­ger to him. Play­ers of all ages and back­grounds found him easy to re­late to. May­field and his of­fen­sive team­mates also fed off of Kitchens’ ag­gres­sive men­tal­ity and play-calling.

There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween di­rect­ing an of­fense and lead­ing an en­tire team. But Kitchens re­mains un­daunted and swears he will not change his ap­proach.

There are two schools of thought re­gard­ing Beck­ham’s ar­rival to the Browns: He ei­ther will make the bur­geon­ing of­fense even more po­tent, or he could cause headaches and dis­trac­tions be­cause of the erup­tions and out­spo­ken ways that are just as syn­ony­mous with the wide re­ceiver as his one-handed catches.

Kitchens dis­agrees with the neg­a­tive pre­dic­tions about the ac­qui­si­tion. His re­la­tion­ship with Beck­ham is in its in­fancy. But Kitchens prides him­self on an abil­ity to read peo­ple, and this was his take­away from his ini­tial interactio­ns with Beck­ham: The re­ceiver oozes with pas­sion for the game and a de­sire to win. Sure, Beck­ham’s in­ten­sity cou­pled with his frus­tra­tions leads to out­bursts. But Kitchens doesn’t want to change Beck­ham, or any player for that matter.

Re­gard­less of any big per­son­al­i­ties on the ros­ter or how­ever many more join the fold, Kitchens be­lieves he is welle­quipped to han­dle them.

“Am I not a big per­son­al­ity? I mean, hell, I think I’m a pretty big per­son­al­ity. I’m just kid­ding,” Kitchens said with a chuckle. “But you know what? I think some­times peo­ple equate the per­son­al­ity they have with their pas­sion for the game and the pas­sion that they have for life.

“I’m go­ing to treat Odell just like I treat ev­ery­body. He’s go­ing to have my trust and I’m go­ing to have his. We all know we’re all in this thing to­gether, and we’re all in it for the same goal, the same pur­pose. It’ll never be a prob­lem.

“Just like I told Baker dur­ing the sea­son, I told him, ‘I want you to go have fun.’ Some­body asked me the other day about the Mil­wau­kee swing­ing — him tak­ing bat­ting prac­tice (with the Brewers). That’s great. I wish I could do that. These guys are still 23-, 25-, 26-year-old kids. That’s their life. It’s never been harder, ever, for these guys to play, per­form and suc­ceed be­cause they’re al­ways be­ing cri­tiqued on ev­ery­thing they do.

“And at the Cleve­land Browns, we want to of­fer them a safe space per se of just do­ing their work and do­ing their jobs and get­ting to know their team­mates, which is go­ing to build their trust and build­ing char­ac­ter in their team. That’s all we’re go­ing to do.”

Kitchens ob­vi­ously places a strong em­pha­sis on X’s and O’s, and he preaches the im­por­tance of fo­cus­ing on and mas­ter­ing the im­me­di­ate task in each meet­ing, each prac­tice rep, each day, each game. (That’s the best way to block out ex­pec­ta­tions, he says.)

But the hu­man el­e­ment of team build­ing car­ries equal im­por­tance.

“I’ve realized — and I don’t have all the an­swers — but I’ve realized this game is more about peo­ple than other peo­ple think, and that’s al­ways been my ap­proach,” he ex­plained.

“There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent coaches in the Na­tional Foot­ball League,” Kitchens con­tin­ued, “but the more the play­ers trust you and the more you trust them, the bet­ter you are, and it’s al­ways been about trust and re­spect and that’s how we’re go­ing to suc­ceed. … You’ve got to make sure you de­velop re­la­tion­ships so they know that you’ve got their best in­ter­est in mind. And as you do that — that you’ve got the team’s best in­ter­est in mind — and in time ex­pect them to do that, and I don’t ex­pect any­thing less from Odell.

“Odell, I guar­an­tee you that the most im­por­tant thing to Odell is win­ning. … All these guys are the same. They care about win­ning be­cause they know their in­di­vid­ual suc­cess is tied to the team.”

Sens­ing the same pas­sion and hunger for win­ning through­out the fan base, Kitchens gushes em­phat­i­cally, “We’ve got a great city, and I love Cleve­land. I wasn’t blow­ing smoke up y’all’s (ex­ple­tive) when I told you that. I. Love. Cleve­land. And (Beck­ham is) go­ing to love Cleve­land. Be­cause him and Cleve­land, they both have tremen­dous pas­sion. And he has pas­sion for the game. So I don’t see why it wouldn’t fit.”

KITCHENS BY TREVOR RUSZKOWSKI/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

CHARLES LECLAIRE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Browns coach Fred­die Kitchens says of pro­jec­tions for the com­ing sea­son: “I don’t mind them. I want ex­pec­ta­tions.”

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