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Browns appreciate Freddie Kitchens' support, inspiration despite disastrous 2019

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BEREA, Ohio — Myles Garrett saw an opening, and he didn’t sack anyone.

Instead, the star defensive end sidled up to Freddie Kitchens.

Garrett briefly stuck one arm around the shoulder of his former Browns coach, now the senior offensive assistant for the New York Giants. They remained at a respectful distance and chatted for a bit.

The two have a bond that might never be broken. Kitchens stuck up for Garrett after the ugly incident against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 14, 2019, when Garrett ripped off quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and hit him in the head with it.

Saying, “We do not react like that,” after the Browns’ victory, Kitchens reversed field four days later with, “Everybody here saw the tape. I will support Myles.”

Kitchens even wore a “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt, a gift from his family on his 45th birthday, to the movies the Friday before the rematch.

Freddie Kitchens, now the Giants' senior offensive assistant, was 5-11 in his only season as head coach of the Browns.
Freddie Kitchens, now the Giants' senior offensive assistant, was 5-11 in his only season as head coach of the Browns.

There was not a lot of time for mingling Thursday as the Browns held the first of two joint practices with the Giants ahead of Sunday’s preseason game. But interactions with Kitchens by Browns players and staff during the session made it clear that they still care about him.

Kitchens’ lone year in charge resulted in a 6-10 season filled with chaos and marred by a lack of discipline. It became clear that Kitchens, brought in as running backs coach in 2018 and promoted to offensive coordinator for the final eight games that year, does not have what it takes to be a head coach in the league.

But the NFL is a people business, and Kitchens has the personality and down-to-earth demeanor to relate his players. That was clearly visible at the Browns’ CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.

While the teams went through a joint special teams period, Garrett was not the only one who spoke to Kitchens. Safety Sheldrick Redwine, a fourth-round pick in 2019, talked to him and shook Kitchens’ hand when they finished. Greedy Williams, a second-round pick the same year, was also close by.

New York Giants senior offensive assistant Freddie Kitchens watches during a joint NFL football training camp practice with the Cleveland Browns Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
New York Giants senior offensive assistant Freddie Kitchens watches during a joint NFL football training camp practice with the Cleveland Browns Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

About 30 minutes before practice concluded, Browns executive vice president JW Johnson, part of the Haslam family ownership team that fired Kitchens and the man who hired him, former general manager John Dorsey, walked from mid-field to the end zone to speak to Kitchens. They also shook hands. Another Browns staffer approached him not long after.

Garrett isn’t the only Browns Pro Bowler who remains an admirer of Kitchens. Before practice, running back Nick Chubb said of Kitchens, “Yeah, Freddie, that’s my guy.”

Kitchens was Chubb’s first NFL position coach, and Chubb said he carries a message from Kitchens with him to this day.

“The biggest thing from him that I remember is every day I stepped on the field he said, ‘Make today your best day,’” Chubb said. “That stuck with me forever. Every time I go on the field, I think about that. I only worry about today; I’ve got to get better today and nothing else matters.”

Kitchens was also there during a tough time for Chubb and his family. Chubb revealed Thursday that he chose the charity First Candle, dedicated to eliminating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, to receive part of the proceeds of his "Chubb Crunch" cereal because his sister lost her firstborn son to SIDS about two years ago.

Kitchens was Chubb’s coach then.

Before practice, Kitchens was his relatable, affable self. He talked to everyone, from an official to a waterboy. He spent the majority of his time with the offensive linemen, part of the rest with the tight ends.

He showed he can still boost a player’s confidence, delivering pats on the rear to rookie offensive lineman Jake Burton and second-year tackle Matt Peart. He was at his most vocal with the running backs when they went through a drill against Giants linebackers.

Kitchens didn’t speak to Giants coach Joe Judge during the practice. But it seems as if Judge has found a role for Kitchens in which he can be most valuable.

Kitchens coached tight ends last season under Judge. The two have known each other since 2004, when Judge was playing at Mississippi State and Kitchens was the tight ends coach. Kitchens handled running backs the following season, when Judge became a graduate assistant. From 2009-11, Judge coached at the University of Alabama, where Kitchens started at quarterback from 1995-97.

“It means a lot to me to have Freddie on my staff and be out here with us today,” Judge said. “Every single person on our staff is a tremendous help to me. I rely on these guys for their expertise, for their insight. I rely on them for their leadership and the way they develop our players.

“He’s great for me, he’s great for the players. He brings a natural intensity to him. He brings a lot of experience. He brings obviously a different personality. At times he can crank it up intense, at times he can make it really light and loose in the meeting room and you need a combination of both of those.”

Judge, who spent 2012-19 with the New England Patriots, even wearing a white hoodie on an 80-degree day like his former boss Bill Belichick, made it sound as if Kitchens is the perfect person to lighten the mood when needed. Judge, 38 when hired last season, is seven years younger than Kitchens, 46.

“I think our personalities play off well on our staff,” Judge said. “We’ve all got kind of a public persona, kind of a way we address these meetings and then we’ve got behind closed doors with our players of how we are as well. It’s fun to see when personalities let your hair down with your guys of how everybody kind of plays off each other.”

Kitchens’ role seemed nebulous until Giants tight end Evan Engram brought it into focus.

“Freddie’s a real smart coach. In his position now he’s able to work with the line and come and work with us and kind of oversee the offense,” Engram said after practice. “His input on a lot of stuff helps us. He’s been around ball a long time, he’s been in every position room so he knows a lot.

“Last year it was good working with him and for him to have a little bit more freedom this year around the offense is a big help for us.”

Kitchens’ shortcomings were exposed in 2019. His tenure got off to a disastrous start in joint practices against the Indianapolis Colts in Westfield, Indiana, the two sessions chippy and marred by fights. Facing high expectations, the Browns committed 14 penalties in a 43-13 home loss to the Tennessee Titans in the season opener. Garrett was suspended for the final six games and the Browns lost four of their last five, with Kitchens fired hours after the finale.

But on Thursday afternoon, some Browns players and staffers showed they do not remember Kitchens only for chaos and dysfunction. They appreciate his loyalty, value his inspiration and the part he played in their careers.

In giving Kitchens a broader role, Judge is masking Kitchens’ weaknesses and letting him use his strengths, just as a good coach does with a flawed player.

At least on this day, Kitchens appeared to be in a good place, once a rarity on the fields in Berea.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns appreciate Freddie Kitchens despite coach's 2019 flop