Baker Mayfield finished 2018 with one of the best rookie season an NFL quarterback has ever had. The Cleveland Browns’ No. 1 overall pick broke Russell Wilson’s rookie record of touchdown passes by getting to 27. His 93.7 passer rating was the seventh highest ever for a rookie starter.
Mayfield even finished as the late-season betting favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors — despite the fact that New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley finished with 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns.
All of that is remarkable considering Mayfield began his season looking like a standard Browns rookie quarterback. He debuted with a thrilling come-from-behind win, but after six games Mayfield had eight touchdowns, six interceptions, a 78.9 passer rating, and a 1-4 record as a starter.
Normal Browns stats, right? The Browns’ No. 1 overall pick in 1999, Tim Couch, finished his rookie year with a 2-12 record, 15 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a 73.2 rating. Mayfield was headed for similar marks.
So what changed? Freddie Kitchens took over and Mayfield kicked it into freaking hyperdrive.
Kitchens was named interim offensive coordinator at end of October after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. After that, the Browns went 5-3 and Mayfield looked worth his weight in gold. He had 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in Kitchens’ time at the helm, and a 106.2 passer rating.
The Browns’ turnaround was enough to vault Kitchens into an unlikely head coaching candidate and on Wednesday, he got the job.
Freddie Kitchens will be named new Browns head coach later today, per sources.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) January 9, 2019
That’s a bold decision by the Browns, but a smart one.
Mayfield’s U-turn is the easiest thing to point to when trying to summarize Kitchens’ influence, but it’s not the only evidence that the new offensive coordinator is doing a good job.
Kitchens was hired by the Browns in January as a running backs coach, and he’s done well to feature Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb more in the offense.
Shortly before the firing of Jackson and Haley, Cleveland traded Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That made giving touches to Johnson and Chubb easier, but Kitchens really gave the Browns a jolt by featuring the running backs in the pass game too.
In the first eight games, Browns running backs collectively caught 29 passes for 266 yards. Johnson had 20 of those receptions.
In the next seven games, Browns running backs had 50 receptions for 447 yards with Johnson leading the way with 26. Cleveland spread the ball around more, and it made life easier for Mayfield.
And with more options, Mayfield started feeling it. His confidence soared and he started making throws that reflected that.
.@Browns @bakermayfield just keeps on ripping this league apart. How confident must you be to make these throws? Merry Christmas Cleveland! You got the greatest gift of all. A real NFL QB. REJOICE. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/vP42erfcDJ— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) December 24, 2018
What’s perfect is that Mayfield had an offensive coordinator who fuels that confidence instead of working to reign him in. Now that’s his head coach.
The Browns didn’t going to the playoffs this year due to their slow start, and they didn’t wind up drafting in the top 10 due to their strong finish. So instead, the chatter about the team was whether or not Mayfield should dial back the attitude.
Twice this season, the rookie gave his former coach Hue Jackson an icy reception in a game against the Bengals, for whom Jackson is now a consultant.
It’s the kind of thing that pundits love to get mad about, but for Browns fans how could it be anything other than fun? Mayfield brings swagger, moxie, and confidence, and the Browns are actually a force to reckon with for the first time in a long time.
Kitchens embraces all of it.
“Baker’s not going to blow smoke up anybody’s ass,” Kitchens said in November after Mayfield first called out Jackson. “So if he said it, that’s what he feels. And I’m standing behind Baker Mayfield.”
It makes sense that Kitchens feels that way, because — according to Browns players — he’s the same way. Via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
“He’s been fun,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “Kind of a no-nonsense guy, he’s going to tell you how he feels and he has a good time with it. It’s been really cool to see, actually.”
“He’s going to be himself, regardless, and that’s one of the great things about him,” Hilliard said. “He’s not going to shy away from who he is and he’s going to be straight up with you.”
Fun is probably the best way to describe the whole situation. After one win in all of 2016 and 2017, the Browns are finally fun and Kitchens is at the center of that. Especially when he’s calling things like a double reverse to Jarvis Landry, who bombs it downfield to Breshad Perriman for a 63-yard gain.
"How did that work?!"— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 24, 2018
Baker Mayfield was mic'd up for Jarvis Landry's 63-yard bomb! pic.twitter.com/KdDKeWWDIe
And Kitchens seems to have plenty of fun on the sideline with Mayfield.
The best thing the Browns can do at this point is lean into Mayfield mania. Making sure Kitchens is a part of the picture is the best way to do that.
So why not give the job to Gregg Williams? It was a fair question considering the Browns’ reversal came when he ascended to interim head coach and Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator.
Williams has nearly three decades of experience coaching in the NFL — including a three-year stint as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001 to 2003.
Kitchens’ first NFL coaching job came in 2006 and he’s only been an offensive coordinator for seven games. Elevating him to head coach is rolling the dice that he’s ready to step into the highest role.
But there’s a couple reasons why Kitchens deserved the job instead of Williams:
- The offensive jolt he provided is why the Browns did a 180. The defense — loaded with exciting young players like Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Denzel Ward, and Jabrill Peppers, among others — finished No. 30 in yards allowed. Does Williams really deserve credit for the Browns’ hot streak?
- If the Browns didn’t make Kitchens the head coach another team could’ve come calling. There are a lot of teams that would love a young, up-and-coming head coach to recreate the magic Sean McVay has had with the Rams. The Cardinals even hired Kliff Kingsbury, a fired Big 12 coach.
Kitchens insisted all along he hadn’t spent much time thinking about what’s next for him.
“I heard the other day somebody say something about how I was not ready to be a head coach,” Kitchens said last week. “I mean, who the hell is ready to be a head coach? Do you have a résumé that you check off a list and everything? I am not worried about head coach, coordinator – I do not care. I am just trying to do the job that I am doing right now today and then do a good job tomorrow and then the next day, and then see where I am at the end of the year. I really truly do not put any thought into beyond this week.”
But he also admitted there’s “no doubt” one of his goals is to become a head coach. If the Browns really aimed to make sure that Mayfield and Kitchens stick together, the logical decision was to put the offensive coordinator in charge of the whole ship.
Are you really going to split up a match as great as Baker and Kitchens? It’s perfect. They had to do it. And thankfully for Mayfield, they did.