Kitchens warms up to expectations
New Browns coach embraces lofty projections
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.”
Browns coach Freddie Kitchens says of projections for the coming season: “I don’t mind them. I want expectations.”