BEREA — Coach Freddie Kitchens has a vision for how he wants his team to conduct itself on the field.
“We’re going to play with class. We’re going to play with pride,” he said Monday. “We’re going to play to the whistle, but we’re not going to do anything after the whistle.”
The players fell miles short of living up to that Sunday in the embarrassing 43-13 loss to the Titans in the season opener. The Browns committed 18 penalties for 182 yards, including six 15-yarders, in Kitchens’ first game as a head coach at any level.
Left tackle Greg Robinson became the embodiment of the lack of discipline and composure when he committed the most egregious of the infractions, kicking safety Kenny Vaccaro in the head to earn an ejection. He will avoid suspension, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram, but the incident is being reviewed by the league for a fine, which seems likely.
At the end of a run play in the second quarter, Robinson (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) was pushed backward by Vaccaro (6-0, 214) at the edge of a pile of bodies and fell to the ground. Robinson kicked up and out with both legs, missing with the left but landing the right.
“During the play, I was just trying hard. But I ended up bumping into a guy and he braced himself and pushed back on me as I was trying to make sure the pile didn’t fall on me,” Robinson said. “But as I fell, he was coming forward and I kicked him in his helmet.
“I had no idea I would be ejected, but the referee explained everything to me as I was walking off and that was the case. It’s something you hate to see. I hurt the team, honestly, and I feel like if I could have it back, I would do things differently. But it was basically just a reaction. I couldn’t help myself.”
Robinson said he wasn’t trying to kick Vaccaro.
“I think it looked worse than it was,” he said.
“Greg is very remorseful,” Kitchens said. “It doesn’t do us any good now. He understands what he did was wrong, and that won’t happen again.”
Kitchens spent much of training camp talking about the need for discipline and telling the media his players won’t “practice penalties.” He changed his message during joint practices with the Colts in Indianapolis.
“I just know that we’re not going to take nothing from anybody and at some point you’ve got to stand up for yourself,” Kitchens said after the first of two practices. “If it’s a penalty, it’s a penalty.”
The second practice was filled with fights, including one involving dozens of players, and Kitchens didn’t rebuke his team publicly. He was asked Monday if some of the penalties against the Titans came from that mindset.
“I would hope not,” he said. “I would hope that we would play between the whistles, not after.”
He stressed the team can’t overreact to one loss while expressing his disappointment in certain areas, including the 15-yard penalties. Safety Jermaine Whitehead and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson hit quarterback Marcus Mariota late, defensive end Myles Garrett struck tight end Delanie Walker in the face mask after being shoved, defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence swore at an official and Robinson had a blindside block in addition to the kick to the head.
“We are going to continue to make corrections in how we prepared from the discipline standpoint and a lack-of-composure standpoint,” Kitchens said. “It is about maintaining your composure and being the smarter football team. We understand that problem, and we will work on fixing that problem.”
The Titans, who were bothered and motivated by all the attention paid to the unproven Browns, tried to get under the skin of Cleveland’s players.
“That will continue to be the case, but it is understanding what is going on in the moment and refraining from doing those sorts of things,” Kitchens said.
He believes his team will quickly learn from its mistakes.
“Very comfortable, very confident that they will not carry over,” he said. “Here is what makes me say that. The men we have in that locker room, they are going to rally together and they are going to be accountable to each other.”
“We’ll get it cleaned up. We’re good,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “We’re not going to make a big deal of it. We just know we’ve got to settle up and be disciplined.”
Robinson said he didn’t watch much of the game in the locker room because he was “frustrated” by his first ejection. He felt even worse once his replacement, Kendall Lamm, joined him inside with a knee injury.
“I don’t ever want to be labeled as a dirty player,” Robinson said. “I work hard and I try my best to keep the game clean, because I know we are targeted based off reputation.”