“I have to do a better job during the course of the week of putting these guys in better situations…and then on game day (too).”
You can say this about the Browns’ hoodie-wearing head coach on this 83-degree night. If he was warm during the game, he stood there in his postgame press session and took a lot more heat when he was asked to explain one questionable play call after another.
None of his directives was more bizarre than his decision to try a draw play with running back Nick Chubb on a fourth down and nine situation at the Rams 40. The attempt managed just two yards. The Rams took over the ball with 9:14 left and 2 ½ minutes later kicked a field goal that gave them what would be the final seven-point margin.
Even so, there was still a chance of redemption for Kitchens after Browns safety Juston Burris — who had just been signed by the team 24 hours earlier – intercepted a Jared Goff pass and returned it 14 yards to the Browns 43 with 2:46 left.
Thanks to a couple of big receptions – Jarvis Landry for 27 yards, Damion Ratley for 16 yards – and a roughing the passer call on Rams one-man wrecking ball, tackle Aaron Donad, Cleveland had the ball first and goal from just inside the five yard line with 43 seconds left.
The Browns had all three time outs left and they had Chubb, who was their best offensive weapon on the night. He’d already gained 96 yards and was averaging 4.2 yards a carry,
But this time Kitchens – who previously had gone with Chubb when he shouldn’t have – didn’t let his hard-nosed back touch the ball.
Instead Kitchens opted for four straight passes by Baker Mayfield. The first three fell incomplete and the last was intercepted in the end zone.
“I did not do a good job at the end of the game,” Kitchens admitted.
While his candor is admirable, his coaching is looking questionable.
You start to wonder if he’s in over his head.
Kitchens got the Browns head coaching job this year because of the way he took over the play calling last season after head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired following a 2-5-1 start.
Kitchens was aggressive and innovative and the team responded, winning five of the final eight games.
He was especially endorsed by Mayfield and their connection – along with the offseason acquisition of super receiver Odell Beckham Jr. – made the Browns the most talked about team in the NFL over the summer.
They were trumpeted on the cover of Sports Illustrated – “The Browns Are Back” – and Vegas oddsmakers had them as the sixth choice to make the Super Bowl.
Instead they are now 1-2 and facing a daunting upcoming schedule – games at Baltimore, San Francisco and New England and home against Seattle — that could just as well leave then 1-6.
There are several problems.
The offensive line is woeful.
Mayfield – after a record-setting rookie campaign last season – looks rattled. He’s missing open receivers and forcing passes other times. He often holds the ball too long and takes the sack and other times – spooked by what’s happened before – bolts from the pocket prematurely.
After three games he has three touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Yet the biggest area of concern may be Kitchens, who hasn’t quite grasped his role as head coach and play caller. He’s botched both of those tasks in the early going this season.
In the season opener the Browns were embarrassingly undisciplined and were whistled for a whopping 18 penalties for 182 yards. Coming into Sunday night’s game, they led the NFL in penalties. And that’s a reflection on the coach.
Against the Rams, Kitchens admitted his play calling was a problem.
“A bad call” is the way he described his fourth and 9 draw play.
As for the final four attempts from inside the five, he said: “I should have run it one time. I should have. That’s why I’m kicking myself in the (butt) right now.
“I’ve got to do a better job.”
It might be that Kitchens will need to hand the play calling duties over to offensive coordinator Todd Monken. If not, his head coaching position could be jeopardized and around Cleveland that’s always a possibility. In the past 20 years the Browns have had 11 head coaches.
But late Sunday night, the Browns players wouldn’t let Kitchens take all the blame.
“He can’t take all the heat for it,” said Beckham Jr. “He calls the plays, but we run the plays so we’ve got to execute. I can’t let him take all the blame. I could have done more to help.”
Mayfield said the same thing:
“I know what you guys are going to try do is blame the play calling. But that’s why I said execution is the most important thing. Whatever we have called, we have to do our job.”
And in those final four plays Mayfield said he did not do his job on one pass attempt.
On third down he said he believes he missed an open Landry when he instead tried to throw to tight end Demetrius Harris.
“I think I’m going to have recurring nightmares over the throw to Demetrius up top,” he said “I think will be able to look at the film and know I have Jarvis underneath.”
Beckham said if Mayfield did make a mistake, it’s good that he’s bothered by it:
“The man is going to play in the league for many years. If he has nightmares about this, that’s good. It’s something he’ll never forget. If he made a mistake, he’ll never me it again. He’s a young quarterback, a young great.”
He said Mayfield is like the rest of the team:
“We just have to find an identity. This a new team, a young team, that’s been put together so were trying to find ourselves.
“Games like this really show you who you are.”
But in Freddie Kitchens’ case, that might not be a good thing.