Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Will Browns' New Coach Win Over New Talent?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMarch 20, 2019

Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, left, talks with quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. The Browns won 28-16. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

Freddie Kitchens may be the biggest wild card in Cleveland, the Ravens are on the run and Kyler Murray has NFL scouts drooling. All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

      

1. Can Kitchens cook?

As the Cleveland Browns transform themselves from eternal doormat to legitimate Super Bowl contender (you read that right), most of us have focused on the talent they've acquired. NFL coaches see the same thing but are asking themselves a crucial question: Is the newly hired Freddie Kitchens capable of coaching all of that talent and the strong personalities that come with it?

"I don't envy him," one NFC head coach said. "Adding Odell [Beckham Jr.] to that mix of players will create one of the toughest coaching challenges I've ever seen."

Beckham is just the latest strong-willed (and sometimes chaotic) player to enter the Cleveland locker room. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was fined $10,000 last season for appearing to unfurl an imaginary penis during a beatdown of the Bengals when he wasn't throwing verbal shade at his former head coach Hue Jackson. (That isn't exactly a sentence you imagine writing when going to journalism school.) And receiver Jarvis Landry isn't shy about expressing his opinions, as anyone who watched Hard Knocks last summer can attest.

The biggest challenge Kitchens faces, coaches tell me, is one of perception. In the history of the NFL, it's extremely rare for a first-time NFL head coach to walk into a locker room, command respect and win games. Kitchens has never been a head coach before, and he only was an NFL offensive coordinator for half of last season. How his team views him will help tell the tale of the Browns season.

Some of the greatest coaches of all time have struggled early in their careers, and they were far more experienced than Kitchens. Bill Walsh was 2-14 in his first season with the 49ers. Bill Parcells went 3-12-1. Don Shula was hired as the youngest head coach ever at the time, at 33, and finished third in the NFL West at 8-6.

Kitchens has a lot more talent on the Browns to work with than those coaches did initially, but their early records illustrate the quicksand that is the realm of the rookie head coach.

Coaches say if the Browns get off to a good start, then Kitchens can gain the immediate respect of the locker room.

If, however, the Browns get off to a slow start, then players might look to take things into their own hands. Or, worse, tune Kitchens out.

Kitchens will have to make his mark quickly. He will have to gain the locker room's respect quickly. He should have some of that loyalty banked from the offensive players who worked with him last year, but that's just a start.

He also has the support of the front office, which is no small thing. But if the Browns are to take the big step from rebuilding to contending, Kitchens has to win over the entire team.

Kitchens is smart and talented. Those qualities got him the job.

Now comes the hard part—keeping it. 

      

2. It takes a village

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

To help armor Kitchens, the Browns have hired a number of veteran assistant coaches on whom Kitchens can rely.

"From a planning standpoint, you want to surround a first-year head coach with quality coaches at all levels," Browns GM John Dorsey told Pro Football Talk's Peter King. "I think we've done that.

"Surround him with a strong coaching staff (veteran offensive coordinator Todd Monken, ex-head coach Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator). And remember: This head coach is very direct, very honest. He's going to tell it like it is, and he'll tell Odell like it is. He will hold players accountable. He'll let players express themselves, as he should do." 

For the first time in a long time, it appears the Browns are making not only moves to improve their team but the under-the-radar moves to help ensure the splashier additions have a good chance of succeeding.

      

3.  Giants trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The Giants made one of the dumbest trades in modern NFL history by getting rid of one of the best offensive weapons in recent history while he is still in his prime.

A few days later, they signed receiver Golden Tate to a four-year, $37.5 million contract ($23 million guaranteed), a deal first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.

It makes no sense strategically; Beckham is 26 and Tate is 30. Tate isn't in the same solar system in terms of talent as Beckham. But Tate is no slouch. He remains one of the more underrated players in the NFL:

And he's got a sense of humor, which he showed after signing with the Giants last week:

That may not make many forget Beckham, but Tate is the kind of talent who can stabilize an offense undergoing a major renovation.

         

4. Ground and pound

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 13: Mark Ingram #22 of the New Orleans Saints during the NFC Divisional Playoff at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

With the Ravens' signing last week of running back Mark Ingram, it's clear they will be running the football a whole damn lot this season. That was already generally apparent when the franchise decided to hand the offense over to a mobile quarterback in Lamar Jackson, but the addition of Ingram could make Baltimore's ground game a legitimate scoring weapon.

Ingram quietly has been one of the best red-zone threats in the sport. He has 34 red-zone touchdowns since 2014. Only the Rams' Todd Gurley has more with 43.

With Ingram, Baltimore's offense promises to be one of the most punishing in football and an attack potent enough to get the Ravens back to the playoffs. 

    

5. A long time coming

John Minchillo/Associated Press

When Marvin Lewis coached the Bengals, he served as a protector, of sorts, for the controversial Vontaze Burfict. No matter how dirty his play, no matter how despicable the hits, Lewis kept him around. The reason why was simple. Burfict had talent and was worth the trouble.

Then, Burfict's play began to dip, and his penchant for cheap shots (Burfict has been suspended or fined by the NFL 14 times) wasn't counterbalanced as well with a skill set in decline.

New coach Zac Taylor was hired, in part, to change the culture, and that can't happen while keeping someone like Burfict on the roster.

With his history of dirty play, you might have thought this was it for Burfict, but this is the NFL, so it isn't all that surprising the Raiders signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million. He's their problem now. 

      

6. Trouble again for Tyreek Hill?

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The allegations of battery and child abuse at Tyreek Hill's home are disturbing and ugly, but, so far, they are just allegations.

The NFL is watching all of it extremely closely. It needs to. The league has gotten so many of these cases wrong that it wants to make sure it has every piece of information possible. Remember, the Chiefs and the NFL initially got the Kareem Hunt case woefully wrong. Hunt was only cut by the Chiefs after a video of him kicking a woman was released by TMZ.

A previous case in which Hill allegedly choked and punched then-pregnant girlfriend and current fiancee, Crystal Espinal, before admitting to putting her in a headlock during a physical altercation and pleading guilty to domestic abuse could also be a part of this sordid story. If the league decides to discipline Hill, the personal conduct policy allows the NFL to factor past criminal acts in determining current punishment.

One thing to keep in mind is the NFL doesn't need a conviction to punish Hill. The league can conduct its own investigation and reach its own conclusions. This is what happened with Cowboys running back Zeke Elliott, who wasn't charged amid allegations of domestic violence made by former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson but still received a six-game suspension as a result of the league's investigation.

       

7. A clear No. 1 is emerging

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

One AFC West scout who was at the pro day workout for Kyler Murray said the Oklahoma quarterback had one of the best pro day performances he's ever seen.

The scouts know the workouts are heavily scripted, and they also know the game tape is what matters most.

Still, to this scout and others, Murray's accuracy, touch and movement were impressive.

Not only did the workout almost guarantee Murray would be the top pick, according to the scouts, but it might force more teams in need of a quarterback to consider giving up a large bounty to trade into the top spot to get him.

       

8.  In for repairs

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 23: Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars in action against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Mark Brown/Getty Images

I was prepared to shred the Rams for acquiring former Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. He's proved to be one of the bigger quarterback busts in recent memory, so why would the Rams sign him? I didn't get it.

Then I started to hear from people around the NFL. I was stunned at how many believe it's a good idea.

They think Rams coach Sean McVay can do with Bortles what McVay did with Jared Goff. It's true that during Super Bowl LIII, Goff didn't look great, but he's also led the Rams to 11-plus wins in each of the last two seasons after appearing as if he might be a bust himself under former Rams coach Jeff Fisher.

Still, Goff was only in his second year when McVay took over in L.A. Bortles has been around the NFL since 2014. That's a lot of bad habits to fix, but McVay may be one of the few coaches in the league who could. This forking show certainly hopes so.

            

9. And happy sun salutation to you, too

While we are still waiting to hear what Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to do with his future—retire or not—the fun-loving superstar is going on with his life. Recently, as many of you may have seen on social media, the wife of a Dolphins beat writer was doing hot yoga and found herself puzzled by who the big lug was in the class. It was Gronkowski.

Maybe it was a sign he's working on his flexibility to play again. Maybe he just likes hot yoga. Either way, the fact he is trying to keep in shape is a positive sign for those who hope he hasn't played his last down.

      

10. Retiring on top

If you're going to retire, doing it from a mountaintop is, well, a pretty damn good location from which to announce your decision. That's what defensive lineman Haloti Ngata did.

Ngata played for the Ravens, Lions and Eagles. He won a Super Bowl and made five Pro Bowls. He was a vastly underrated player who will be remembered for being fierce on the field yet beloved in the locker room.

And he retired atop a mountain. Not a bad way to go out.

          

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.


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