Freddie Kitchens' job: Stop the Browns from doing dumb stuff

Dan WetzelColumnist

Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said Sunday that, “I don’t coach penalties … I’ve never once, in 20 years of coaching, coached somebody to take a penalty.”

Maybe he should start. It’s the one thing his team has been doing really well. The Browns got whistled for 13 more of them Sunday in a 27-13 loss to New England that dropped them to 2-5.

Cleveland leads the league in total penalties — 70 of them and that’s not counting 16 more that were declined. Also a league high: the minus-252 net yards, which is a whopping 102 more than the nearest contender (Minnesota). By comparison, 7-1 Green Bay is plus-248.

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So in less than half a season, the Browns are net 500 yards down in penalties to an actual Super Bowl contender. Astounding.

“I’m not answering questions about penalties,” Kitchens said Sunday.

Sorry, Freddie, there’s more.

Teams that rank 2-8 on the most penalties in 2019 list have all played eight games to Cleveland’s seven. Second-ranked Atlanta has been involved in 206 more snaps and still trails by three penalties.

If the Browns set their minds to it, they can pad their lead Sunday in Denver in what may be a must-win game at the start of a must-win stretch of the season for Kitchens’ employment status.

“It’s just the consistency and lack of discipline and accountability right now,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said after the game.

The penalties are part of Cleveland’s issues, but it goes beyond that. Sunday in Foxborough was a nationally televised tutorial in sloppy, undisciplined football.

Freddie Kitchens of the Cleveland Browns looks on in the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. (Getty Images)
Freddie Kitchens of the Cleveland Browns looks on in the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. (Getty Images)

There were three turnovers on three successive snaps that gave New England a 17-0 lead that they simply never blow at home.

There were two painfully dumb challenges by Kitchens that were both easily denied that cost the Browns two timeouts.

Then there was the fourth-and-11 from their own 24-yard-line with 6:17 remaining in regulation and the Browns technically in the game. First the punt team was sent out, but KhaDarel Hodge committed a false start, making it fourth-and-16 from the 19. Even though the situation was more difficult, Kitchens then decided to go for it. Mayfield was sacked.

Both CBS and the Browns radio broadcast reported that Kitchens ordered the penalty because he didn’t want to burn a precious final timeout (which wouldn’t have been the case without the doomed second-half challenge).

Who knows? The mere fact this sounds plausible — setting up a fourth-and-16 — says it all.

Cleveland gained more yards per play than New England (5.3 to 4.8). It got a pass rush (Myles Garrett mostly) that got to Tom Brady (three sacks). The offensive play-calling was good.

They still lost by two touchdowns.

“It’s not shocking, that’s how people usually win,” Kitchens said. “They don’t turn the ball over and they don’t [commit] penalties. … We expect more out of ourselves. We’re just not getting that right now and that needs to change.”

They already had their bye week to work on fundamentals. It apparently didn’t take.

“If we don’t correct these mistakes we’re going to be the ‘if’ team or ‘coulda, woulda’ all of those things, so [expletive] has got to get corrected,” Odell Beckham Jr. said of a promising season slipping away. “... Enough is enough. It’s just time. There’s no more time to lose any games or keep saying, ‘We could have.’ It’s done.”

There is no shame in losing in New England. Pretty much everyone does it. Just giving the Patriots the game, though, is another thing. Cleveland has way too much talent to just roll over from self-inflicted wounds.

“[New England] is a team that plays perfect,” Beckham said. “A team that doesn’t beat themselves. A team that has few penalties.”

The 8-0 Patriots rank second to last in total penalties among teams that have played eight games.

Look, no one expects Kitchens to be Bill Belichick. And no one can blame the coach solely for all the flags. Three of Cleveland’s four false starts came from tight ends and wide receivers.

Yet they aren’t going to fire the players, who still bring a breathtaking amount of individual talent to the table. Kitchens may not be coaching his players to do dumb stuff but it is imperative that he finds a way to coach his players to stop doing dumb stuff.

Kitchens appears to be a likable guy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He grinded his way to the top. Until 2018, he was never more than a position coach and got the job only because the Browns fired Hue Jackson midseason and later moved on from interim Gregg Williams. The team responded to Kitchens and he got the full-time job. It should be a nice story.

When the offseason brought even more skill to the roster, Kitchens had a Ferrari on his hands.

Can a first-time driver handle that? So far, no.

Time has ticked far enough that everything is on the brink. Yes, the schedule softens. And yes, neither the AFC North nor an AFC wild-card spot is out of reach despite the poor start. It won’t, though, happen this way.

“We need to stop committing penalties, alright?” Kitchens said. “We need to focus and concentrate on staying onsides, so we don’t end up in first-and-20? Alright? That’s how you win games.”

Saying it is easy. If Freddie Kitchens is going to survive, he better find a way to make it a reality. Like by this Sunday.

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