What a unique situation this is — and not in a good way.
The situation is this: Freddie Kitchens clearly cannot control his team, which raises huge questions about his ability to be an NFL head coach. Not just here, but anywhere.
I don’t know how we can interpret the Browns’ season-long lack of discipline as anything other than the players don’t respect Kitchens or his authority. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem.
Freddie’s a good guy. On the surface, he seems like a warm and friendly guy, not hung up on himself. A hard worker who’s paid his dues without, it seems, making a lot of enemies.
There’s a cliche in sports that a team is a reflection of its coach.
The 2019 Cleveland Browns have blown that cliche out of the water.
Nothing could be further apart than the personality of the Browns and the personality of their head coach. One is warm and fuzzy and respectful. The other is loud and brash and out of control.
The closest Kitchens has come to publicly criticizing his team was a few weeks ago when he said it was “a group” and not “a team.”
Thursday night against the Steelers, it looked more like a mob.
That was a vicious, hard-hitting, head-hunting collision-dominant NFL game.
And that was before the game-ending street fight.
This particular season-long dysfunctional dynamic reached a horrific crescendo when Myles Garrett used the Steelers quarterback’s helmet as a blunt instrument on the Steelers quarterback’s head.
For sheer, singular rage, rancor and grossly unrestrained, undisciplined out-of-controlness, it might be the low point in the entire history of this once proud franchise, if not the entire NFL itself.
We know this because, less than 24 hours later, the NFL basically kicked Garrett out of the league for the remainder of the season, by suspending him indefinitely.
What Garrett did isn’t Freddie Kitchens’ fault.
But what Kitchens didn’t do is Kitchens’ fault.
What Kitchens didn’t do, and hasn’t done, is create a culture of discipline and accountability. It’s just not there, and we’ve seen that over and over this year, most obviously with the endless penalties.
The Browns have led the league in penalties virtually all year. In the first game of the season they were penalized 18 times for 182 yards. Thursday, in the 10th game of the season, they were penalized eight times for 121 yards.
Pittsburgh’s only touchdown came on a five-play, 87-yard drive that only took two minutes and 32 seconds (or, if you like, 152 seconds), because most of the yards came from Browns penalties.
The Browns were called for four penalties on the drive. The Steelers declined one of them. But the other three accounted for 58 of the 87 yards on the drive.
For the season, the Browns have been called for 112 penalties, 15 more than any other team, for 822 penalty yards, 85 more than any other team.
This unchecked avalanche of penalties, without any apparent accountability, is endemic to a culture of losing, which is what the Browns have been in 60 percent of their games.
Culture, both good and bad, points directly at the head coach.
Kitchens hasn’t built a winning culture. The lawlessness of Thursday’s game is only the latest proof of that. A coach who can’t build a winning culture or control his team is doomed to failure, and rather quickly at that.
Yes, the Browns have won their last two games, but even Baker Mayfield said the Steelers game “felt like a loss.”
It’s never a good sign for a coach when the wins feel like losses.
Maybe part of the problem is the makeup of the roster. Kitchens can’t be blamed for that. All a coach can do is take what he’s given and do everything he’s learned to do, everything his instinct tells him to do, and hope for the best.
Kitchens, we must presume, is doing that. But there is no evidence that it’s working. To the contrary, there are times during games when Kitchens, rather than sitting up front and steering, is seemingly hanging on to the back of the bobsled as it goes careening down the hill.
The bottom line is that John Dorsey, who himself is not blameless, since he’s this roster’s architect, has some hard questions to ask himself regarding his coach. He can start with, “Why isn’t the team responding to the coach’s leadership? Why can’t the coach control the team?”
What we’re dealing with here are the intangibles of coaching. That undefined something that results in players respecting and responding to the authority and leadership of a coach. It’s as difficult to pinpoint as it is to fix.
Ten games of gathering evidence points to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Browns players are not connecting with the Browns coach.
It is what it is, and what it is is not good.