CLEVELAND -- Who really is ready to be a head coach?
The Cleveland Browns believe that Freddie Kitchens is ready.
After a lengthy and exhaustive search, the Browns confirmed Kitchens’ meteoric 12-month rise on Wednesday, hiring him as their head coach.
In January, Kitchens was hired by Hue Jackson as running backs coach and assistant head coach. In November, he was the surprising choice to succeed Todd Haley as offensive coordinator. Kitchens himself joked that nobody knew who he was when he was promoted.
When the notion of eventually becoming the head coach was mentioned to him, Kitchens even joked that he’d read he wasn’t ready, which led to his retort: "Who the hell’s ready to be a head coach?"
In eight games, Kitchens transformed the Browns' offense to the point that when the season ended, general manager John Dorsey conceded he would give Kitchens an interview, saying the organization needed to get to know him a little better.
They liked what they saw.
Which is common with Kitchens. He is liked and respected around the league. Folks from Bill Parcells to Bruce Arians respect and support him, and players from Carson Palmer to Baker Mayfield enjoyed being coached by and playing for him.
Kitchens’ role in Mayfield’s improvement can’t be underestimated. With plays that called for quicker throws and decisions, Mayfield’s completion percentage went from 58 percent over the first eight games to 68 percent in the second half of the season, and his yards per attempt went from 6.6 to 8.6. The Browns averaged 6.9 yards per play with Kitchens -- the 2000 Rams are the only team since the 1970 merger to average more over a full season.
The record also turned around, from 2-5-1 to 5-3.
That Kitchens jumped defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who guided the Browns as interim coach during the turnaround, speaks to the way Kitchens was promoted, and to the league.
Williams did not make the decision to promote Kitchens; Dorsey and owner Jimmy Haslam informed Kitchens and Williams it would happen. That meant he had the backing of the organization all along.
The NFL also is becoming much more of a pass-first, offense-emphasis league. Kitchens fits that mold.
That being said, the step up is not insignificant. Kitchens, 44, now will have to deal with disciplinary and administrative matters he did not have to handle as a position coach or interim coordinator. How he handles the extra duties along with the duties he retains from his previous job will be important.
For Mayfield and the offense, the most important thing is that retaining Kitchens maintains continuity. Mayfield and the offense can learn and grow in the same system, a reality that can’t be underestimated. Had the Browns opted for a complete overhaul, the offense would have been set back. Now it can pick right up, refine, develop and improve.
That is hugely significant to Mayfield’s second-year growth, and to the Browns’ improvement.
The Browns have their guy, a guy who earned the spot with his work ethic.
It’s safe to assume Dorsey arrived in Cleveland with a list of potential coaches he’d like to hire. He no doubt interviewed some. Kitchens may or may not have been on the list, but he earned the job, and he probably passed some of the top guys Dorsey may have been considering.
The Browns have hired a football guy who worked his way up the ranks. A December statement by Kitchens about staying with the Browns seems more meaningful now.
"Cleveland and I get along well," he said. "I didn't have a dad as a coach, OK? I didn't have a starting point in this league. I grew up the son of a tire maker at Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Benjamin E. Mays said: 'Those who start behind in the game of life must run faster to catch up,' and I feel like I've been running fast my whole life."
In the end, the Browns had their guy all along.