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The Browns had no choice but to fire Freddie Kitchens. What’s next?

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Undisciplined and unfocused play plagued the Browns all season.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns’ frustrating season came to a fitting end in Week 17. The team looked unfocused, undisciplined, and unprepared in a 33-23 loss to the Bengals.

A report Sunday morning from Ian Rapoport of NFL Network said the Browns were undecided about the future of Browns coach Freddie Kitchens. “It appears the desired outcome for owner Jimmy Haslam is to keep him,” Rapoport said.

A loss to the worst team in the NFL apparently changed Haslam’s mind. Just a few hours after, the Browns fired Kitchens.

It was a move that had to be made. The loss to the Bengals made that crystal clear.

The Browns’ loss to the Bengals was a microcosm of the season

The Week 17 win was just the second of the year for Cincinnati. The Bengals finished 2-14 and are now owners of the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

It’s not a good football team, but you wouldn’t know it watching how it played against Cleveland.

Cincinnati’s defense entered the game ranked in the bottom five in the NFL in takeaways and sacks, but managed to intercept Baker Mayfield three times and sack him six times. The Browns started the game with a 46-yard touchdown pass in the opening minutes. The Bengals dominated the next 58 minutes of the game.

Bengals running back Joe Mixon finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. Cleveland was having trouble enough stopping Mixon when they had 11 on the field, let alone 10 men on defense near the goal line:

That’s three defensive linemen on the field for Cleveland, a definite mistake for their 4-3 defense. Mixon ran straight up the middle and the Browns didn’t have the big bodies on the field to stop him. The touchdown also came right after a Browns timeout, which:

a) is pretty inexcusable
b) meant Kitchens couldn’t call a timeout to get his defense fixed

It’s the kind of mistake that a team may make in preseason. This came in Week 17, long past the point of the season when every team should know exactly what it’s doing.

Kitchens didn’t run the defense, specifically. He was an offensive coach who quickly rose through the ranks to become the Browns’ head coach. But the lack of discipline and preparedness was an issue all year. So was Cleveland’s tendency to play down to its competition.

The Browns didn’t have much to play for after getting officially eliminated from the postseason one week prior. But when the worst team in the NFL looks great, it’s an indictment of the coaching staff, no matter the circumstance. And this wasn’t the first time.

Cleveland also lost to the Brandon Allen-led Broncos in Week 9, and the Duck Hodges-led Steelers in Week 13. Three weeks before losing to the Bengals in Week 17, the Browns squeaked out a too-close-for-comfort 27-19 win over Cincinnati in Week 14. That came when Cleveland was still in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race and desperately needed to come out on top.

Even in a difficult season, the Browns had a chance in December to string together wins and climb into contention. They blew it against mediocre teams instead.

The Browns never figured things out

From day one, Cleveland didn’t look like the Super Bowl contender it was supposed to be in 2019. The Browns opened the year with a 43-13 loss to the Titans in which they committed 18 penalties.

Cleveland finished the season with 122 penalties, the most for the franchise since 1990.

The Haslams wrote in their statement that they “did not see the success or opportunities for improvement” under Kitchens. That’s understandable considering the Browns never improved after their September stumbles. If anything, they got worse both as a football team and as a cohesive unit.

In December alone, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. were both shown on the sideline in shouting matches with Kitchens. While both players later said the clashes were no big deal, Beckham reportedly spent the latter half of the season begging other teams to trade for him.

The team’s best defensive player, Myles Garrett, missed the last six games of the year after ripping the helmet off of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and bashing him over the head with it.

Cleveland’s issues in 2019 weren’t entirely the fault of coaches. The offensive line struggled and some of the most talented players — including Beckham and tight end David Njoku — dealt with injuries. Losing Garrett down the stretch didn’t help either. But there’s little evidence that Kitchens was ever a positive for the team in 2019.

The smart decision was to fire Kitchens. Now the Browns will hunt for a coach who can take the team’s talented roster where it should be right now: in the postseason.

What’s next for the Browns?

The next head coach will be Baker Mayfield’s fourth in three seasons. That’s not ideal, but a change had to be made. The front office could also have a shake up on the way.

The lesson for Cleveland (and every other team, for that matter) is to avoid hiring a coach with that level of inexperience. Searching for the next Sean McVay is fine, but even the Rams’ wunderkind spent three years as Washington’s offensive coordinator before getting a head coaching gig. Kitchens was never even a full-time coordinator in the NFL.

The Browns will likely try to hire a veteran coach this time around, one that can keep the locker room together and hold the players accountable. Oddsmakers think so too, and believe former Packers coach Mike McCarthy is the favorite:

McCarthy was in his 13th season as head coach of the Packers when he was fired in 2018. Along the way, he won a Super Bowl and compiled a 125-77-2 record.

The two coaches behind McCarthy on the oddsmakers’ list have plenty of experience in the NFL too.

McDaniels was the Broncos’ head coach for an unsuccessful and brief stint, but has six Super Bowl wins as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. The Colts couldn’t convince him to be their head coach in 2018, but Cleveland’s talented roster may do the trick. Rivera has also been to a Super Bowl as a head coach and spent the last nine years leading the Panthers. However, he is reportedly the frontrunner for the job in Washington.

The Browns have too much potential to settle for an unproven coach. Cleveland has the luxury to swing for the fences in their coaching search.