Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Amid their budding galaxy of stars, the Browns’ 2019 training camp has been, really, all about Freddie Kitchens, the first-time coach who rules his team with equal doses of southern charm and common sense.
Kitchens has taken a no-holds-barred approach to toughening his players physically and mentally with relentless full-pads hitting.
They have been in pads 11 times in 14 practices, always for more than two hours and mostly closer to three. Kitchens has not ended a single practice early and most have gone longer than scheduled. Their practice the day after their first game was not in pads but probably the longest session under the hottest sun of the entire training camp.
And now, the Summer of Freddie takes to the road for the first time to find out where the Browns stand.
They will engage in two days of full-pads practices against the playoff-caliber Indianapolis Colts, beginning Wednesday afternoon, followed by preseason Game 2 in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.
“I think it is always good to see what else is out there,” Kitchens said before departing. “This has been a pretty tough camp for these guys. I think it has been kind of a culture shock, but I think they have embraced it.
“We have a lot of guys that are willing to pay the price. We understand that now. A lot of guys have bought in to what we are trying to do. Now, it is just a matter of going in and seeing what you got against someone else.
“Wednesday and Thursday are not going to make or break our season, but it is going to give us a little barometer of where we are at from a physical standpoint.”
A welcome break: When they were good under Marty Schottenheimer in the 1980s, the Browns always held joint practices, mostly with the Buffalo Bills because of the proximity of their camps.
In the 1990s, Bill Belichick lined up joint workouts according to the preseason schedule. In 1995, Belichick took his team to Arizona for two days prior to an exhibition game against Buddy Ryan’s Cardinals, partly because the Super Bowl that season was scheduled in Phoenix and the Browns were considered contenders.
This practice has subsided in the expansion era due to the fact the team has changed coaches so frequently. In recent years, the Browns have practiced against the Bills in Rochester, NY – where Buffalo players derided Terrelle Pryor and openly taunted Browns defensive backs – and in Tampa against the Buccaneers.
“The Bills, there were a ton of fights and we didn’t get as much practice time as we wanted to,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “And the Bucs, it was like 110 degrees. I just remember it was the one time in my life when I thought, ‘I just need to get through this practice.’”
Joint practices have a long history and most likely a long future. If Commissioner Roger Goodell has his way and the preseason is reduced from four games to three, or two, joint practices will be standard for every team.
“I think it’s good for those guys out on the field,” said GM John Dorsey. “Right now, they’re probably sick and tired of lining up against the same guys. I think they’re ready for a new challenge. To me it’s invaluable. [Why not] change the venue, break up the monotony?”
Friendly foes: This pairing of Browns and Colts was set up by Dorsey and his former Kansas City Chiefs protégé, Chris Ballard, GM of the Colts. Kitchens mapped out an itinerary and ground rules with Colts coach Frank Reich in the offseason.
The beauty of this pairing is the Colts are a formidable team, though under radar and overshadowed by the national hype engulfing the Browns.
The Colts will be without franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, who has practiced sparingly this summer because of a mysterious calf injury that has now been termed by Ballard as a high ankle sprain. Ballard told Indianapolis media on a conference call that Luck will not play in the preseason and will use the remaining four weeks to rehab for the season opener.
What had to be a little concerning to Colts fans was Ballard talking up Luck-backup Jacoby Brissett.
“One of the first things we talked about when building a team that it wasn't going to be about just one guy,” Ballard said to the Athletic. “ I understand the importance of Andrew Luck. This guy is one of the top-five quarterbacks in the league, but we also got another quarterback we like in Jacoby Brissett. So to me that's part of building a team. You got to be able to handle when things don't go how you planned them to be.”
The good news for the Browns – for competition sake – is that the Colts’ formidable left side of their offensive line, featuring tackle Anthony Costanzo and guard Quentin Nelson, is healthy and ready to go. That should make position drills against Myles Garrett one of the headline matchups of the week.
Kitchens sees further value in practicing against the Colts.
“I want to see how we react to going on the road for the first time,” he said. “It is just simply you are sleeping in a hotel in a different city, you are playing against different people and you are practicing against different people. Just that aspect in itself can go a long way to giving you practice when we travel.
“We travel the second game of the year [against the Jets. I do not have any problem with the competition. I think the competition is going to be there. If it is not, we have some of the wrong people. What I am looking forward to is how do we respond to distractions.
“Everybody wants to talk about distractions and expectations. Well hell, let’s see how we do under some distractions.”
Whoopty-hell, bring it on.