Everything is new for Freddie Kitchens in his first time as a head coach at any level.
The firsts will keep coming when training camp starts Thursday, beginning perhaps the most anticipated Browns season since Bernie Kosar threw to Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne in the late 1980s.
Kitchens, who jumped from running backs coach to coordinator to head coach in less than three months, is charged with setting the tone and staying consistent under the intense scrutiny that’s part of the new gig.
No Browns coach since Bud Carson in 1989 has started with such high expectations, and Carson took over a team that had been to the playoffs four straight years. Kitchens inherited a team that went 7-8-1 last year but 1-31 in the previous two seasons.
The games won’t count for another seven weeks, but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the pressure. And he knows exactly how he wants his team to perform.
“I want to be the most physical team on the field. I want to play great defense. I want to move the ball. I want to be great on special teams,” he said during minicamp in June. “That kind of sums it up. Now in saying all that, these guys have to decide what they want the identity to be. I know what we are going to push and press for and the identity is going to be knowing what to do, knowing when to do it and knowing how to do it, and in everything that we do, do it physically.”
Kitchens, 44, was an NFL assistant for 13 years before getting his chance to be a coordinator when coach Hue Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley were fired last year at midseason. He’s worked for a variety of coaches, including Nick Saban, Bill Parcells, Bruce Arians and Gregg Williams, and has learned what he wants to copy and avoid.
“I am not going to pretend coach. Anybody that asks me, I will tell them we will be here until we get the work done, and when we get the work done, we are not going to be here,” Kitchens said. “I am not going to be up here wasting a lot of time that makes me be here until 2 o’clock in the morning, but if it takes it — ask our offensive staff — we will be here.”
Kitchens likes to tell people he’s blunt, honest and always himself. Quarterback Baker Mayfield buys it.
“There is one thing you guys need to know is nobody is going to change Freddie,” Mayfield said. “That is why he is the man for the job. No matter the scrutiny, first year or whatever it is, he is going to trust his instincts.”
Kitchens earned an interview for the job with eight weeks of rejuvenated offense in his first time as a play caller and by forging a strong relationship with Mayfield.
Kitchens will continue to call plays, but the question is how much different the offense will look. He had the chance to rewrite the playbook he had inherited from Haley and hired veteran coach Todd Monken, who has a history in the Air Raid offense, as coordinator.
“He’s not afraid to bring in other people’s perspective, and that’s what a good coach is,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “Him and Todd and (offensive line coach James Campen), all those guys are really working to put together the best offense possible, and there’s no ego there.
“He wants the best things to happen because he knows as the team goes, his career goes and everybody that’s here’s career goes, but it’s been fun. He’s a really genuine person and I think that shows in his coaching.”
After two-plus months of offseason meetings and practices, training camp is the next critical step in the journey to define the 2019 Browns offense.
“Do I think all of our coaches on offense will have their thumbprints on it? I would hope so,” Monken said. “There have been different pieces of what we have done that everybody has added from the start or has tweaked as we go along.”
Kitchens believes the transition will be smooth for Mayfield and the rest of the guys returning on offense.
“There’s going to be some additional stuff that we’re doing that we weren’t doing last year because we weren’t able to put it in halfway through the year,” he said. “But from a standpoint of the core of what we’re doing, there’s not much different. Now that doesn’t mean we’re not collaborating on everything.”
While the offense may be similar, Kitchens knows the circumstances and team aren’t the same. And not just because general manager John Dorsey traded for receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and signed running back Kareem Hunt.
“If somebody thinks they can just play us the way we played last year, we are not going to be the same team we were last year,” Kitchens said. “We are not going to be the same offense, we are not going to be the same defense and we are not going to be the same special teams. It is going to be all based on what we can do best, and what we can do best this year may be different than what we could do best last year.”
The Browns are counting on Kitchens being the constant.
“I don’t think he even realizes he’s the head coach, he still has the same demeanor, the same personality,” receiver Jarvis Landry said, “and it’s something that I know, personally, I respect.”