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All of this was supposed to be different. The folksy head coach in Freddie Kitchens, the brash quarterback in Baker Mayfield, the generational wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. Two months ago, these were the celebrated pillars of a fast-approaching Cleveland Browns renaissance. An era that promised to propel the franchise out of a dark age of failure and make decades of misery worth enduring.
Now that trio of Kitchens, Mayfield and Beckham Jr. are three pedestals of frustration. They’re 2-6 through eight games and off to a worse start than Hue Jackson’s 2-5-1 dud in 2018. That’s a comparison worth noting since it was that eight-game disappointment and some internal upheaval that finally cost Jackson his job. And as much as you can’t equate Jackson’s 2 1/2 seasons of failure with a half-season stumble for Kitchens, you can say this: This head coach and roster was supposed to set a new standard.
In at least one sense he has.
Through eight games, this team is actually more disappointing than the 1-15 and 0-16 and 2-5-1 debacles that will dog Jackson for the rest of his coaching life. Jackson’s failure happened in the midst of a tear-down and rebuild while Kitchens’ is taking place after a coronation that appears to have been vastly premature. This isn’t the spin-up to Super Bowl success that so many of us bought into. It’s an unraveling. That’s the only thing you can conclude when the Browns began the “easier” portion of the schedule on Sunday by losing 24-19 to a mediocre Denver Broncos team that was starting Brandon Allen at quarterback.
This is the same Brandon Allen who was a sixth-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016, only to be cut by two teams in three years and claimed off waivers by Denver in September. The same Brandon Allen who was throwing to a set of wide receivers that didn’t include Emmanuel Sanders, who was traded for draft picks at the deadline. The same Brandon Allen who might not be playing right now if vastly underprepared rookie second-round pick Drew Lock hadn’t been on injured reserve the first half of the season.
This is what it has come to for the Browns. Even in a game where they aren’t a runaway train of self-inflicted penalties, they can’t beat a middling team with virtually no expectations of meaningful success in the remainder of 2019. If that’s not approaching total failure, I don’t know what is. But stick around for a few more weeks because there’s a chance we could find out, given the criticism that is going to get exponentially worse if this failure continues down the stretch.
Make no mistake, as deflating as the 2-6 start has been, we’re only getting to the first stages of this autopsy. Beginning with Mayfield flagging “consistency, discipline and lack of accountability” following a loss to the New England Patriots. As much as Mayfield was aiming those words at everyone on the Browns, those are unmistakably fundamental tenets of coaching. If a roster lacks those staples, it falls on the coaches. Most especially when some of the star players are exhibiting those traits.
Of course, that’s going to lead everyone to look at Kitchens as the problem. That’s fair considering he went from being a positional assistant to the Browns’ head coach in roughly 10 weeks. An ascent that raised eyebrows instantly across the NFL, especially in the offices of other head coaches who were familiar with the multitude of wide-ranging responsibilities that were about to be piled onto Kitchens. All of which took place before general manager John Dorsey continued to stack the roster in the offseason, acquiring Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon, then signing Kareem Hunt and Sheldon Richardson.
The multitude of moves and the driving hype behind the presumed development of Mayfield pushed the Browns’ projections into the stratosphere. Suddenly the team that hadn’t found a way to win the AFC North or even finish above .500 was being billed as an AFC favorite. There was always a caveat with the hoarding of talent: Could Kitchens, who had little experience managing a roster of personalities (or guiding the path of an entire franchise), mesh the group together? Could he maintain Mayfield’s emotion in defeat? Could he manage to keep Beckham engaged?
The questions haven’t waned. If anything, they’ve intensified. That’s what happens when Mayfield gets into a snit with a reporter and then walks out of his availability with the media. Whether he’s right or wrong, the frustration becomes a focal point. And it amplifies when he goes on social media and continues the conversation, drawing even more attention to the exchange. It’s also what happens when the Browns lose in embarrassing fashion to the Patriots, and Beckham reacts to that disappointment by gifting a pair of goat hair cleats to Tom Brady of all people — all while Mayfield is watching. Not to mention Beckham and fellow wideout Jarvis Landry following it up by wearing designer (and illegal) cleats in the first half of the loss to the Broncos, which resulted in them being warned by the NFL not to bring them out in the second half.
When things like this happen, you start to wonder exactly how focused everyone is on this team. And in turn, you start to wonder how much of a handle Kitchens has on the situation. It’s one thing to suffer this kind of stuff when everything is going well. It’s another to let it fly when you’re cratering just like the same old Browns teams of past seasons.
None of this is to say the problems are all about Beckham or Mayfield or even Kitchens, for that matter. This is a roster that has some significant holes undermining it. Start with the offensive line, for example.
But it all begs a question about this mishmash of talent and wondering if it will ever be destined to fit together. And going a little further down that hole, whether Kitchens has the necessary experience to make that happen. Right now, it doesn’t appear to be the case. Kitchens also appears to have a firm grasp on that question, too. He practically said as much a few weeks ago.
“At some point we have to become a team,” Kitchens said in October, after Cleveland fell to 2-4. “The difference between a group and a team is significant. To be a team, you have to do your job and then you bring it together collectively, and then you become a team, and you trust the guy beside you is going to do their job. Until you get to that point, you’re a group.”
The Browns have suffered two more embarrassing losses since that statement and they don’t look any closer to being anything more than a talented group of players who aren’t fitting together. Meanwhile, the quarterback is pointing out failures in discipline and consistency and accountability. The wide receiver is making more headlines for his cleats than anything else.
All the while, Browns fans are sinking fast into that familiar abyss — knowing that all the things that were supposed to be different are suddenly feeling the same again.
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