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The Browns hire Freddie Kitchens, the guy who brought Baker Mayfield back to life, as head coach

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Kitchens was responsible for Cleveland’s offensive explosion, and the Browns weren’t willing to lose that

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Freddie Kitchens doesn’t have a wealth of top level experience in the NFL. He’s only been an offensive coordinator for eight whole games — but those eight games were all the Cleveland Browns needed to see.

The league’s most tortured franchise has made Kitchens its 13th head coach in the past 19 seasons. The news was first reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.

Kitchens was an unconventional choice — in a good way — as his short introduction as head coach shows:

The hiring caps a meteoric rise from an assistant who had primarily been a running backs coach in a 19-year coaching career split between college football and the pros. He came to Cleveland to work with the team’s tailbacks in 2018, but Hue Jackson’s unavoidable firing gave him the chance to call the plays for interim head coach Gregg Williams’ offense.

The turnaround was stark, and now the Browns are hoping the 44-year-old Kitchens can turn Cleveland’s hot second half from a fad into a trend moving forward — and they’ve got a good reason to believe.

Kitchens’ wide-open offense turned Baker Mayfield into one of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks

Kitchens’ lack of experience gave the Browns a handful of reasons not to hire him. His culture-changing half-season in Cleveland forced the franchise to forget all that.

The fast-rising coach embraced the challenge of reviving a long-dormant offense in northeastern Ohio. He moved the club away from former OC Todd Haley’s stagnant, limited offense and spread the ball across a long list of targets ranging from established stars (Jarvis Landry) to presumptive first-round busts (Breshad Perriman). It worked wonders:

Baker Mayfield before and after Hue Jackson’s firing

Baker Mayfield Games Cmp% Yds/Gm TD/Gm Int/Gm QB Rating Sk/GM Yds/Att Browns PPG
Baker Mayfield Games Cmp% Yds/Gm TD/Gm Int/Gm QB Rating Sk/GM Yds/Att Browns PPG
Under Haley 6 58.3 245.2 1.3 1 78.9 3.3 6.6 21.7
Under Kitchens 8 68.44 281.8 2.4 1 106.2 0.6 8.57 23.8

Mayfield threw the ball less under Kitchens, but to significantly more targets, creating openings across the field for the former Heisman Trophy winner to exploit. His passer rating rose by nearly 30 points in that span, going from Brock Osweiler levels to Drew Brees territory. He went from afterthought to leading candidate for offensive rookie of the year honors.

Here’s what we said about Kitchen’s penchant for involving everyone available to carry the load back in November.

That’s just one example of the spread-the-wealth philosophy Kitchens has employed to glean every ounce of talent from an overtaxed roster. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen:

- Ravens castoff Breshad Perriman develop into a relied-upon part of the passing game and occasional piece of the rushing game (two carries, nine yards).

- Duke Johnson get pushed to his James White-lite potential, earning four carries and 6.5 targets per game (he’d averaged 3.6 under Jackson).

- 14 different players have passes thrown to them, including ...

- Mayfield, who was the target of a terribly-timed throwback pass from undrafted free agent tailback Dontrell Hilliard for reasons no one can really understand.

It’s not all good, but it’s fundamentally different than the entirely-predictable game plan Jackson and Haley had the Browns running through walls to execute. By varying Mayfield’s targets, Cleveland has set a more amenable stage from which Mayfield can improvise. And that’s been vitally important, because

a) opponents are throwing constant heat at the rookie in the form of blitzes, and

b) Mayfield’s instincts are really, really good.

That proven track record held enormous weight in a league that’s trending toward hiring guys who can develop quarterbacks as head coaches. The 2019 hiring cycle has already seen the Packers gamble on Matt LaFleur and the Cardinals pull Kliff Kingsbury out of the college ranks in hopes of finding the next Sean McVay. The Browns know Kitchens can develop Baker Mayfield into a star quarterback because he just did it. And when the choice came down to gambling on him and hoping he can handle the jump to head coach or losing him to another team, Cleveland bet on the former.

Kitchens takes over one of the league’s most promising openings

There was a lot to like about the Browns’ finish to 2018. There may be even more to like about the team’s future.

Kitchens and Williams teamed up to unlock the potential of a team loaded with former highly valued draft picks, turning the momentum of Jackson’s firing into a 5-3 finish — the franchise’s best eight-game span since 2007. Mayfield is just a piece of that puzzle. Myles Garrett turned in an All-Pro performance in his second season as a pro, tallying 13.5 sacks and generally being an unpleasant presence on the edge. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward only made 12 starts this season and still earned a Pro Bowl bid. Larry Ogunjobi, the greatest player in UNC-Charlotte’s esteemed nine-year history, is growing into an immovable force at defensive tackle who can collapse pockets from the inside out.

That’s given Cleveland one of the most talented young defenses in the league, even if they haven’t found a way to translate that raw skill into on-field results yet.

That’s an appealing challenge for a talented defensive coordinator, and Kitchens’ first challenge as the team’s head coach will be to find the assistant who can maximize that potential. The good news is the NFL’s rush to hire bright offensive minds has left plenty of good defensive gameplanners on the market. The bad news is he’s still selling the Browns, and he’ll have two decades of failure to account for when it comes to pitching the league’s least respected franchise.

Even so, you don’t have to squint hard to see how this defense could be the backbone of a playoff team. That unit is only going to get better as it grows. With the exceptions of Jamie Collins and T.J. Carrie, no player who recorded a tackle for the Browns in 2018 was older than 26 years old at the start of last season.

Freddie Kitchens wasn’t on any team’s interview list in the winter of 2018. He wouldn’t have been considered a candidate anywhere before November. But he took the shot he was given and made the most of it, turning the Browns from a sad sack franchise to a live dog over the course of eight weeks as the team’s offensive coordinator.

That gave him an advantage over anyone else in Cleveland’s coaching search, and the Browns decided to go with the man who pushed Baker Mayfield into his potential as a rookie. The question now is whether or not the rest of his roster can do the same and make the Browns look a little less like the Browns.