For eight games, Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens called plays, strengthened his bond with quarterback Baker Mayfield and laid a track for himself. And on Wednesday, that two-month journey delivered him from a positional coach who had never run his own offense (college or pro) to the Browns’ head coaching position.
The move says a lot about where the Browns are heading and who is calling the shots.
With that in mind, let’s break down some of the details from this process, which ultimately led to a choice between Kitchens and Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Some revelations, in no particular order …
In success or failure, the responsibility for this hire ultimately rests on team owner Jimmy Haslam and GM John Dorsey — with an assist from Baker Mayfield.
Considering the number of head coaches in Cleveland over the years and the debate over who should shoulder the responsibility, this is an important point. If it’s 2021 and you’re either celebrating or lamenting Kitchens’ hire, it’s always good to be able to draw a line to the most responsible parties. In this case, it’s going to be Haslam and Dorsey as the two most directly responsible.
It’s also worth noting: Browns leadership didn’t ask Mayfield who he wanted, but their ears were wide open when it came to his thoughts on Kitchens. Not surprisingly, Kitchens got a resounding endorsement from Mayfield. It would be wrong to say Mayfield named his coach. But it would be right to say his thoughts certainly laid a portion of the foundation for Kitchens in the process.
With the three most responsible parties in mind, the natural question is going to be “Did chief strategist Paul DePodesta and the analytics crew get shot down in this process?”
It’s a complicated question to answer because there are a few vantage points. First, I believe DePodesta thinks the Browns can win and build with Kitchens. Second, I don’t think this search developed into a “turf war” hire between Dorsey and DePodesta, with Haslam sorting out the drama.
Taken as a whole, there were some solid collaborative aspects that involved a lot of people, with Dorsey and DePodesta playing pivotal roles in the candidate list and interviews. Beyond that pair, there were differing (and shared) opinions gathered from all corners of the personnel department and executive branch, by virtue of a search group that included Haslam, Dorsey, DePodesta, vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry, assistant general manager Eliot Wolf and executive vice president JW Johnson.
The input of that field and a litany of first-round interviews ultimately drilled down on two candidates being worthy of the job — Kitchens and Stefanski. And while it’s clear that the collective consensus came down in favor of Kitchens, it’s also worth noting that Stefanski had some strong support.
So what ultimately tipped the scales?
It was a variety of factors. Mayfield’s bond and comfort level with Kitchens was one. Haslam’s familiarity with Kitchens over the past eight games was another. And finally, Dorsey’s strong endorsement of Kitchens helped push the consensus in his favor.
Kitchens will report to Dorsey. While Dorsey and DePodesta will continue reporting separately to Haslam.
The hire brings some clarity to a muddled power structure inside Cleveland. Critics of the Browns’ system — like former head coach Hue Jackson — have made the point that Haslam needs a more streamlined structure that puts either Dorsey or DePodesta as the clear No. 2 in charge. With Kitchens reporting to Dorsey, it at least answers one key question of how the pyramid works. That said, it still doesn’t clarify DePodesta’s power, which now seems akin to him being a top-level adviser who answers only to Haslam. It’s imperfect and appears to be asking for future drama or complications. But that’s the family, and some NFL families can invite some dynamic tension and still work.
Kitchens will name his own offensive staff and is putting it together now.
Part of the potential ascent of Kitchens was the question of whether it facilitated bringing back the majority of the offensive staff. After all, the group had a fair amount of success over the final eight games. But it appears there will be a solid amount of turnover under Kitchens, who has full authority to fill out his staff as he sees fit.
Gregg Williams was never coming back.
Maybe Williams will expound on this down the line, but he and Dorsey weren’t a good fit — despite the 5-3 finish down the stretch. Frankly, Williams didn’t have an overwhelming amount of support anywhere in personnel, although there was some gratitude for how he rallied the team down the stretch. That respect earned Williams a shot — but his age and Mayfield’s work with Kitchens was working against him from the start.
Ultimately, he was going to need more allies in the building to mount a meaningful campaign for the head coaching job. And he didn’t have them where it mattered most.
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