PHOENIX – Freddie Kitchens is not a very good actor.
Each time the Cleveland Browns rookie head coach was asked about the burden of sudden expectations regarding his upstart team – the franchise still basking in the afterglow of plundering Odell Beckham, Jr. from the Giants without having to surrender two first-round picks – he was prepared with the same response. It popped up quite frequently, as the Browns jovial coach was prime fodder for the football media making the rounds today at the coaches breakfast during the NFL league meetings at the Arizona Biltmore. The Browns are now the darlings of this NFL offseason, in case you haven't heard (and to be clear, I am fully on board the Cleveland hype train).
Each time the question about handling playoff hysteria, given all the stars now assembled on this roster, was asked in one fashion or another, Kitchens would feign being petrified, occasionally throwing up his hands in a hopeless manner. Then he would deadpan something about the fear that was clearly gripping mind and central nervous system.
"Oooh, I'm scared to death," said Kitchens, whose marvelous work with the Browns offense and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield hastened his ascent from first-time interim offensive coordinator in 2018 to NFL head coach of the "it" team in 2019. No one at the table, of course, believed him one bit. He wasn't trying very hard to convince us, anyway.
Kitchens has the same moxie, swagger, candor and cool self-belief as his quarterback, as well as one of his coaching mentors, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians. If anything, Kitchens seems to be relishing the newfound attention and positive headlines being afforded the Browns after decades of flailing around the bottom of the AFC. Their previous head coach, lest we forget, Hue "Huebris" Jackson, was finally, mercifully fired last October having conspired to oversee a winless 2017 and compile an unfathomable record of 3-36-1 in Cleveland.
A mere year ago at these meetings, the prevailing narrative about this franchise was: "How the hell are they bringing that coach back after one win in two seasons?" Now, it's: "Will the Ravens or Steelers give the Browns the toughest competition in the AFC North?" And for good reason. Bengals 30-something rookie coach Zac Taylor, straight-faced, spoke about the AFC North as arguably the best division in football, because of, and not in spite of, the Browns.
"It's a fun division to be in, and I wouldn't want it any other way," Taylor said. "Let's go play the best, the teams that are perceived to be the best, and grind it out every week. And when you win this division you have earned every second of it. ... You want to beat the best and be in the best division."
We'll find out how polished and ready Kitchens is for his new gig as the season unfolds (same with Taylor, for that matter). But the Browns have the roster to be a force in 2019, and consider me on Team Kitchens when it comes to the timeless question about whether the weight of expectations will serve to illuminate the best or worst of a young team filled with no shortage of strong personalities and individual brands.
"First and foremost, you have to have those expectations within your team, before you are ever going to get anywhere, alright," Kitchens said matter-of-factly, following another pantomime routine of being horrified. "… You're either going to have bad expectations, or good expectations, and I'd much rather them be good because ... at least we have the potential. Or at least other people think we have the potential. But that doesn't affect our expectations, and our expectations are going to be that high. And that's where we want them.
"So that doesn't change the pressure on me. The pressure is on somebody that gets up in the morning and doesn't have any money and has a baby to feed, and his wife just left him, who doesn't have a job. That's pressure. That's real life. The pressure on us is just to win or lose. We're just going to perform the best we can and we'll what happens."
Says here that what's going to happen is the Browns winning significantly more games than they lose, and reaching the playoffs for just the second time since re-entering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. I would not be surprised in the least if they win their first postseason game since the former Cleveland franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, which in and of itself would be heady terrain for the club that has not had a winning season since 2007 and has managed just two of them in the last 20 years.
I wouldn't be putting big money on a Super Bowl just yet, and time will tell how guys like Mayfield and Beckham and Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway and Kareem Hunt meld and congeal over time. It's worth noting that general manager John Dorsey tends to gravitate towards potentially combustible personalities and extreme character traits in his team-building (the remnants of which the Chiefs are still dealing with). But you cannot convince me this team will not take major leaps forward in 2019. I'm buying the Browns. Bigly.
Kitchens has the right demeanor and drawl to keep this bunch loose and motivated, there will be a honeymoon (perhaps lengthy) for Beckham now that he's out of the glare of Gotham, and Mayfield is going to be a massive star in this league, on field and off. This is happening, folks. Just embrace it. Follow them on Twitter, and on primetime TV, and enjoy the ride. Because the Browns aren't shying away from any of it.
"It's never been harder, ever, for these guys to play, perform and succeed, because they are always being critiqued in everything that they do," Kitchens said, clearly vested in the psyche of these mega-stars to be. "As the Cleveland Browns, we want to offer them a safe space, per se, of just doing their work and doing their job and getting to know their teammates, which is gonna build better trust and character within their team. That's all we're gonna do."
Kitchens gets it.
Juggling personalities and finding a way to keep all of these skill position players happy, as a first-time head coach? Bring it on, Kitchens said. Well, not quite that way, but you get the picture. These are good problems to have (and, well, trying to win with bad coaches and almost no talent on the roster hasn't worked too well in Cleveland through owner Jimmy Haslam's tenure, either, so I dare say Browns fans are embracing this novel alternative).
"You've got to make sure you develop a relationship where they know that you've got their best interest in mind," Kitchens said, "and as you do that, you've got the team's best interest in mind. … And I don't expect anything different from Odell. Odell, I guarantee you, the most important thing to Odell is winning. I've spoken to him. I've talked to him. I know he's passionate about winning. … Jarvis Landry cares about winning. Baker Mayfield, what do you think he cares about? … All these guys are the same. They want to win, because they know their ultimate individual success is going to be tied to winning."
You can't hear Kitchens get on a roll and not hear Arians' voice shining through. They sound the same and embrace players in a similar fashion. Arians made it well known, while calling games for CBS last season, how much he coveted the Browns job before it was even really open. He was hardly alone in viewing the franchise as a long-slumbering giant, finally awakening.
"I don't think there's any doubt," Arians told me. "I don't think there's any doubt. What they started building last year, and with what Freddie did offensively, they're going to be somebody to be reckoned with, quickly. You can go last to first quick in this league. You have to stay healthy and have a little bit of luck, but they've got the pieces. They've got the pieces, and Freddie will do one helluva job."
And the burden of expectations?
"That will be the biggest hurdle for them," Arians said. "Being favored, or expected to win. Because that underdog thing is fun. That's great. Hey, they all expect us to lose and we won. Now, there is a lot more pressure involved when you become good."
After years of spiraling, the Browns are now a beacon for other rebuilding franchises. Jon Gruden, entering Year Two of an epic overhaul in Oakland, has kept an eye on them. Everyone is noticing, and talking about, Cleveland these days.
"Obviously, you've got to get the quarterback playing at a blue level," Gruden said, as only he can. "If you get a blue-chip quarterback, you've got a chance to win every game. Forget about winning a couple of games; you've got a chance every night. And Mayfield has solved a lot of their problems.
"All you've got to do is turn the film on. What he did as a rookie is incredible. I don't think people really know how well he played. They have gone through quarterbacks like they've gone through I don't know what. But when you solve that position, you've got a real chance."
I'm not going to guarantee a win total, but I will contend that it starts with a 1 (and then is followed by another digit; again, Huebris no longer lives here). This offense is going to be must-see TV, and the various networks are already fighting over Browns games. They will be a national story on a weekly basis, and not just on game day.
Thursday night. Sunday night. Monday night. Get used to it. Brown and orange, all over your screen.
"I am scared to death of all of those," Kitchens said, still riffing. "I mean I really am. I don't know how I'm going to deal with it. I mean I really don't know if I'm ready for this job. I really don't man. … You guys are worried about me. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
Damn straight, coach. You had me at "scared." See you in January. On national TV. In the playoffs.