There wasn't a more hyped team in the NFL this offseason than the Cleveland Browns, who added a number of big-name veterans to a young core that went 7-8-1 a year ago. The Browns were labeled a playoff contender before ever taking the field and a Super Bowl contender in the eyes of some.
If there was one prevailing question surrounding the team, it was whether first-time head coach Freddie Kitchens would be able to manage all the personalities, continue to develop quarterback Baker Mayfield and help the Browns realize their potential. It was a tall task for a coach who had never served as a coordinator until 2018, but after the second-half run the Browns went on with Kitchens as interim OC, most gave the 44-year-old the benefit of the doubt.
That was a mistake.
All the hype and predictions turned out to be ludicrously misplaced. After losing to a Denver Broncos team led by a backup quarterback who had never thrown a pass in a regular-season game, the Browns are 2-6. The only thing saving Cleveland from its long-held spot in the AFC North cellar is the dumpster fire down Interstate 71 in Cincinnati.
Kitchens certainly isn't saving the Browns. He's sinking them. The rookie head coach looks it. He's in over his head, the Browns are going nowhere, and as the losses pile up, so do the odds that Kitchens' first year in charge in Cleveland will be his last.
There have been more than a few rumblings along these lines over the past few weeks penned by any number of pundits. Mike Jones of USA Today was one of them, but as Jones wrote, Kitchens insisted earlier this week that things weren't nearly as bad in Cleveland as some asserted.
"I think 2-5, I don't know what—everything's in front of us. I don't know what else to say about that. Everything's in front of us," he said. "So, win the games that we're supposed to win and we'll be fine."
It's not the first time we've heard "stay the course" from Kitchens after a loss this season. But the problem is that on Sunday, the Browns went out and lost a game they should (on paper, anyway) have won.
Yes, Cleveland was on the road in Week 9. But the Browns were playing a Denver team that had won twice in eight games starting a quarterback in Brandon Allen who last started a game in the 2015 Liberty Bowl while at the University of Arkansas.
Not only did Cleveland lose the game, but the Browns never led.
The Browns entered Week 9 leading the AFC in giveaways and pacing the NFL in penalties. One speaks to failure to execute; the other to a lack of discipline. Neither speaks well to the head coach.
For once, Cleveland kept those mistakes in check against the Broncos. The Browns didn't turn the ball over and had just five penalties for 40 yards. That just meant the team had to find a new way to lose—like going 1-of-5 in the red zone.
One of those red-zone trips fell apart because Kitchens (for the second week in a row) made a decision so terrible that Jeff Fisher was left shaking his head—and Fisher never met a bad call he didn't like.
In the third quarter, with the Browns down five points, Cleveland faced a 4th-and-1 from the Denver 5-yard line. Despite the presence of a bruising running back on the roster in Nick Chubb who is averaging over five yards a carry for the season, Kitchens called a Baker Mayfield sneak.
In fact, Chubb wasn't even on the field for the play.
In news that should surprise no one, the Browns were turned away. Denver responded with a 95-yard drive that all but sealed the game. It can be argued that Mayfield was the victim of a questionable spot, but as Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski rightly pointed out, it never should have come to that:
This gaffe came one week after Kitchens sent out the punt team on 4th-and-11 down 17 points in the fourth quarter to the New England Patriots, only to change his mind and take a deliberate false start rather than burn a timeout.
The 4th-and-16 play went about like you'd expect.
The offense that was innovative and unpredictable in 2018? It's become stale and anything but. The Browns entered Sunday's action ranking 19th in total offense and 25th in scoring, averaging 19 points a game—the same number they posted Sunday in Denver.
Mayfield's development is progressing, all right—at breakneck speed in the wrong direction. One year after setting a new record for touchdown passes by a rookie, Mayfield has seven touchdown passes at the halfway point of the 2019 season. His 12 interceptions are tied for the NFL lead, and his passer rating is over 20 points lower than his rookie season.
Never mind the public temper tantrums.
After Cleveland's latest setback, Mayfield stood by the team's embattled head coach while speaking with reporters.
"It's a topic for you guys," Mayfield said. Within our building, we know what's wrong. We're gonna stick together. Keep pushing forward."
Kitchens, for his part, offered up the same coachspeak he has been for the past eight weeks.
"I thought our guys fought to the very end," he said. "We just didn't make enough plays to win the game."
Either the Browns don't see it (which would be that much more alarming) or they do and won't/can't admit it. But it's right there on the sideline, staring them in the face.
The penalties. The turnovers. The massive backslide by both the offense as a whole and Mayfield in particular. The lack of targets for Odell Beckham Jr. and the grousing that's inspired from the star wideout. The grousing period—whether from Beckham, Mayfield or anyone else. The questionable (to be kind) decision-making in critical situations.
To at least some extent, that all reflects on Kitchens—and none of it reflects well.
Kitchens can't handle the personalities. He can't handle the crunch-time decisions that can make or break an NFL team. He can't handle being the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
He's overmatched. Out of his depth.
That he was ever elevated to the position was a mistake. A big one.
The question now is how long general manager John Dorsey and the Browns will continue to live with the consequences of that mistake.