The Browns interviewed a two-time head coach who’d been to the Super Bowl. They considered a Super Bowl winner. They went to New Orleans, New England and Indianapolis to meet with the league’s top assistants.
They found their next coach in the building.
Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens was picked Wednesday as the ninth full-time coach since the Browns returned in 1999, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram. The official announcement could come as early as Thursday morning.
Kitchens, 44, has never been a head coach and became a coordinator for the first time Oct. 29 after coach Hue Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley were fired at midseason. But Kitchens quickly impressed as a play caller, earned the trust of the players and clicked with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Kitchens ascended from little-known assistant to fan favorite in eight games and emerged as a strong candidate to take over a team on the rise. The Browns went 5-3 after the coaching changes, primarily because of an improved offense directed by Kitchens and Mayfield.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and general manager John Dorsey led a search committee that interviewed six other candidates, including interim coach Gregg Williams.
Williams was relieved of his duties, a league source confirmed Wednesday. It would’ve been a difficult dynamic for him to return as defensive coordinator. Williams put together the defensive staff and most of the coaches are expected to be let go.
While keeping Kitchens provides a degree of continuity, he will make changes on offense, including dumping quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, a source confirmed. Running backs coach Ryan Lindley could take over for Zampese, and receivers coach Adam Henry is likely to be retained.
Williams said goodbye in a statement.
“I want to personally reach out to all the Cleveland Browns fans and the people of Cleveland to say thank you for your support,” he wrote. “It has been an honor to coach this team and we loved living in this community with the finest, most passionate fans in the world. I am proud that we were able to help get the Browns back to the winning tradition the fans deserve. I am humbled to have worked for such a storied franchise and will always love the city of Cleveland, this city deserves a winner!
“Please continue to support this team and the incredible group of men. I wish you all the very best and always remember #Comegetsome!”
Vikings interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was the other finalist. He returned to the Vikings as full-time coordinator.
Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores were the other candidates to interview. Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy was considered.
“Yeah Freddie!!!!! Congrats #DawgPound,” defensive end Chris Smith tweeted.
As the Browns’ search lingered, Fox Sports Radio host Jason Smith took a shot at Mayfield.
“Coaching Baker Mayfield is not something that appeals to successful head coaches,” he said.
Mayfield responded on Twitter with a simple “Lol.”
Kitchens was an afterthought when he arrived Jan. 24 as associate head coach/running backs coach. He had spent the previous 11 years with the Cardinals and was brought on board by Haley.
Many fans were introduced to Kitchens during “Hard Knocks” when he questioned Jackson’s policy of resting players during training camp. The discussion in a coaches meeting showed a bit of what Kitchens believes in.
When Jackson and Haley were fired after a 2-5-1 start, with Haslam citing their “internal discord,” management chose Kitchens as coordinator to pair with Williams. Kitchens’ only experience as a play caller was in the final preseason game, but Dorsey had seen something he liked.
The positive impression continued to grow as Kitchens gained responsibility.
He listened to the players when finalizing the game plan, used a variety of personnel packages and formations — including a full-house backfield with all three running backs — and consistently showed creativity with the calls. Mayfield, rookie running back Nick Chubb, left tackle Greg Robison and receiver Breshad Perriman flourished.
The Browns blocked teams from interviewing Kitchens for coordinator jobs, and his hiring continues a leaguewide trend of bright offensive minds making the jump.
“He has a great personality,” left guard Joel Bitonio said during the season. “He’s not afraid to call big plays when he needs to. He’s not afraid to put us in positions to win.
“It’s been fun to be around him and we’ve won a lot of games with him.”
Kitchens, who survived a life-threatening aortic dissection in 2013, has always had a zest for life. He enjoys golf, watching his daughters ride horses and is consistently described as selfless by friends and players. He dressed up as Santa Claus to surprise quarterback Carson Palmer’s kids in Arizona and visited backup quarterback Drew Stanton when he was stuck in the hospital for Christmas.
“He’s a great guy to play for and a dear friend,” Stanton, who followed Kitchens from Arizona, told The Chronicle-Telegram during the season. “He’s a big reason I came here.”
Kitchens coached in college for seven years before making the jump to the NFL in 2006. He’s coached tight ends, quarterbacks and running backs. He said last month his goal’s always been to be a head coach.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) January 9, 2019
“Definitely. No doubt,” he said. “I heard the other day somebody say something about I wasn’t ready to be a head coach. I mean, who the hell’s ready to be a head coach?”
Kitchens will be the fourth coach Dee and Jimmy Haslam have hired since buying the team for $1 billion in 2012. Rob Chudzinski went 4-12 in his lone year, Mike Pettine 10-22 in two years and Jackson 3-39-1 in 2½ years.
The Browns are counting on Kitchens to stop the carousel.
“People are now starting to realize how good a coach he is,” Stanton said. “And he’s not just a former Alabama quarterback who sounds like a hillbilly.”