To say this season has not lived up to expectations for the Cleveland Browns would be a massive understatement. The Browns sit at 6-7, still technically within reach of the playoffs and their first winning season in 12 years if they win out. However, given the lofty expectations for the team heading into the 2019 season - which, in retrospect, may have been foolish even when they were uttered - 6-7 is simply not good enough.
But, hey, it takes some time for a team to gel. With enough time and good coaching, the Browns can eventually right the ship...maybe. At least that's the mindset of team management. According to NFL insider Ian Rapoport, the Browns are most likely sticking with head coach Freddie Kitchens for the long term.
The good news is that there will be coaching stability. The bad news is that the coach is Freddie Kitchens and keeping him would be a mistake for Cleveland.
The Browns made a serious mistake when they entrusted their "win-now" season to a first-year head coach, and his inexperience has shown in multiple ways - most glaringly within the 20-yard line.
Like butter, the Browns' offense has shown a tendency to melt within the red zone this season. Only the Steelers (34.29%) have a worse touchdown percentage within the 20 than Cleveland's 36.84%. Some of it may be down to offensive inefficiency, but when the offense has a short-yardage playmaker like NFL rushing leader Nick Chubb and he keeps being denied again and again at the goal line, one has to look at Kitchens' play-calling.
Baker Mayfield's play has hit a devastating sophomore slump, and has hardly improved over the course of the year. He has the league's worst completion percentage among qualifying QBs (59.2%), and was outplayed by Andy Dalton even as the Browns beat the woeful Bengals. Part of this has to be down to Kitchens, whose offense is not tailored to Mayfield's skill-set. Case in point, Mayfield has already thrown two more interceptions than he had in 2018, and is on pace to throw barely more than half the touchdowns.
More troubling beneath all of that is the way he and his players have acted this season. Despite the high expectations given to the Browns at the start of the season, as well as the improvement they showed from 2017 to 2018, the fact is that Kitchens is leading a prolonged rebuilding project and always was. However, he and his players seem to go about their job as if they were destined to become the next NFL dynasty, as if they believed the hype themselves.
Case in point: the aftermath of the Steelers/Browns brawl, which saw linebacker Myles Garrett suspended for the remainder of the season for whacking Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in the head with his own helmet. Kitchens could easily have established himself as a force for discipline here and laid down the law that Garrett's act was not the way things would be done in this locker room, setting a new standard.
Instead, just before the Browns and Steelers met for the rematch, Kitchens wore this:
Even if you're of the opinion that Rudolph did "start it" (which somehow warrants assault?) this is a terrible example to set for your team. It begs the question of where the players' actions on the field during that brawl start, and where the coach's words ended.
If you need another example of how undisciplined the Browns are, look at the penalties. They are No. 29 in penalties per game (8.1) and No. 30 in penalty yards per game (73.5). That falls directly on the head coach.
In a history of disappointments for the team since their revival in 1999, this year's team may be the hardest to swallow for the Cleveland faithful, barring some sort of miracle finish. Unlike most seasons for the Browns, fans came into this one with hope.
Retaining Kitchens long-term would stomp out all hope into the next decade.