CINCINNATI — Left guard Joel Bitonio is an expert at the late-December routine inside Browns headquarters: end-of-season physical, exit interview, serious speculation about the coach getting fired.
“It’s tough. It’s one of those things where you want to play well enough in a season where no one has to get fired,” Bitonio said Friday.
That seems like a reasonable expectation for a franchise, yet it’s one that’s eluded the Browns over the last decade — the first time in franchise history they went an entire decade without a playoff appearance.
Five coaches have been fired since the end of the 2010 season, including four since owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam took over in 2012. Freddie Kitchens could be next.
The Haslams have remained silent about whether Kitchens will return for a second season. The Browns fell miles short of expectations, heading into the finale Sunday in Cincinnati with a 6-9 record. Kitchens has struggled as a play caller, game manager and disciplinarian, so much so that SportsBetting.ag has placed odds he’ll be fired at 60 percent.
Bitonio believes something has to change within the organization.
“Obviously we can’t just say we’re going to play better,” he said. “We have to make changes of some sort and if it’s players, if it’s scheme, if it’s things like that, there has to be a step to improve as a team.
“Have a hard truth like what can you do as a player to be better, what can you do as a coach to be better and it’s a group effort.”
Bitonio was complimentary of Kitchens’ role in keeping the team together and motivated after a 2-6 start but lamented the losses to the Steelers, Cardinals and Ravens that torpedoed their playoff chances.
“We never quite showed up to those and it’s one of those things where is it two or three plays in a game or is it the game plan or is it something else?” he said. “It’s something we need to look at as an organization, like what’s the root cause of these issues?”
Beyond the soul searching, Bitonio is anxious for results.
“It’s getting that time where it’s like we really need to take a big step after this year,” he said. “It’s like put up or shut up. We’ve had the chance now to get used to each other.”
The end-of-year routine often includes a loss in the finale vs. the Steelers. The last five coaches — Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and Hue Jackson — were fired after losing to Pittsburgh, although Jackson’s ouster came last year at midseason.
There is also precedent in Cincinnati. Butch Davis’ last game came against the Bengals in 2004.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks knows what Kitchens has gone through over the last few weeks. A year ago, Wilks was ending his first season as coach of the Arizona Cardinals and faced questions about his job security for the final month. He was fired the day after the season ended with a 3-13 record.
“It takes time to build a culture, it takes time to implement your system and get guys on the same page,” Wilks said. “Sometimes the business is what it is, but without a doubt I think Freddie definitely is the guy for this job. In what he’s been able to do in a short period of time, you can see the progress in the things that we’re doing as far as moving forward.
“We’ve got a lot of guys hurt. We’re not making any excuses, but it has been the case. But the guys continue to play hard and find a way to win.”
Wilks said Kitchens has done well handling the speculation that can be unsettling.
“No. 1, you stay focused and you stay the course and you try to block out the outside noise,” Wilks said. “What’s going to happen is going to happen, but you continue to try to get these guys prepared and ready to play, which I think Freddie has done a tremendous job with all the things that have happened throughout the year. The guys have responded, the message has been consistent. We’ve just got to find ways, particularly on defense, to make more plays.”
Kitchens said he hasn’t talked to Wilks or his other coordinators about job security. He insisted on concentrating on the Bengals and spoke as if he expected to return for 2020.
“I’m sure my schedule next week is probably going to be the same as it normally is,” he said.
He said the team is “really close” to winning and pointed to improvements made throughout the year, his first as a head coach at any level.
“There are several areas,” he said. “We have continued to run the ball well and gotten better and better at that. Our third downs have gotten better. We have gotten better in the red zone offensively.
“Defensively, we have continued to fight through some guys that are missing and they continue to play hard, fight and get better with their run fits. Special teams have continued to get better at covering kicks, and our kickers have done a good job. Several areas.”
The feeling around the team is that the future is bright despite the disappointing season.
The return of suspended defensive end Myles Garrett and a healthy season from end Olivier Vernon would provide a huge boost to the pass rush and run defense. On offense, quarterback Baker Mayfield will develop better chemistry with receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who should be closer to 100 percent following a season-long sports hernia, and running back Kareem Hunt is expected to be back for all 16 games.
The optimism isn’t tied to Kitchens returning. While no players criticized him publicly, right tackle Chris Hubbard was the only one strong in support.
“He’s done a good job,” Hubbard said. “You never know what you might get in a first-year coach. He’s handled everything well with the hype, critics and whatever.
“Keeping us together, always believing in us and making plays work. That’s what you need.”
The overriding feeling is a sense of failure.
“We’re all surprised, because we all believed at the beginning of the season we were going to the playoffs,” Hunt said. “And I still think that we could’ve or we should’ve.”
“Seven wins is not good enough for us,” Mayfield said.
Kitchens could take the blame.
“I don’t know where it’s at or what the organization is thinking. I just know I’ve been here for six years now and I want to start winning,” Bitonio said. “I want to be one of those teams that’s like, hey, we’re playing (in the playoffs), and so whatever that takes. Whatever they want to do I’m for it as long as we’re moving in the right direction.”