Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens could have saved his job Thursday night. Instead, his coaching tenure is now in greater peril than ever.
The Browns beat the Steelers 21-7 for their second straight victory and their first win against their division rivals since 2014. The win also defibrillated their dying playoff hopes.
But on Friday, no one was talking about how the Browns had turned their season around. We instead talked about Browns defensive end Myles Garrett attacking Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with his own helmet at the end of the game, an incident so shocking that it overshadowed what should have been an impressive victory.
It isn't Kitchens' responsibility to teach Garrett that he is not supposed to rip a quarterback's helmet off and whack him in the head with it. But the Garrett incident was a symptom of a Browns culture crisis that Kitchens may be doing more to cause than cure.
Kitchens' first year as a head coach has been a failure on nearly every front he was expected to attack:
Develop Baker Mayfield into a franchise quarterback. All of Mayfield's stats have plunged since his rookie season. Mayfield currently ranks 33rd in the NFL in passer rating and entered Week 11 ranked 29th in Football Outsiders' DVOA and 26th in ESPN's QBR.
Develop Baker Mayfield into a franchise leader. Mayfield hasn't stormed away from a press conference or gotten into an Instagram beef in a few weeks, so perhaps Kitchens has made progress here. But it has also been a few weeks since the Browns have lost a game which forced Mayfield to answer honest questions about himself, so let's reserve judgment.
Create innovative game plans that make the most of the Browns' playmakers. The Browns rank 27th in the NFL in third-down percentage and 29th in goal-to-go scoring, per the league's official stats. Odell Beckham Jr. has one touchdown catch.
Be the kind of young coach who makes clever in-game decisions. He seems to call timeouts, throw challenge flags, go for it on fourth downs and make other high-leverage decisions almost randomly.
Make the Browns a disciplined team on the field. The Browns have committed the third-most penalties in the league (87) entering Monday night, incurring a league-high 822 penalty yards. They have committed eight roughing-the-passer penalties and four unnecessary roughness fouls (two of which were offset in a Week 4 dustup with the Ravens) through 10 games.
Make the Browns a disciplined team off the field. You know the drill here: Mayfield's combative public persona, Beckham's weekly dramas involving watches, non-regulation cleats and muttered complaints, and weekly Antonio Callaway mysteries before the Browns finally waived the troubled receiver. (The NFL then suspended him.)
Don't underestimate the importance of team discipline. Yes, too much can be made of "establishing a winning culture," which is usually a euphemism for going 4-12 but trying really hard. But the Browns' culture has become toxic on Kitchens' watch.
Anything goes with Kitchens' Browns. They've established matching patterns of on-field and off-field behavior, which culminated with one of their team leaders acting like a Hells Angel in a barroom brawl and turning what should have been a triumphant moment into an embarrassing situation with dire consequences.
Kitchens himself has never come across as a master of preparation and self-discipline. He explained some poor goal-line play calls early in the season by saying "some of these situations are new for me," a stunning revelation for a head coach. At the same time, Kitchens routinely bristles when asked if he has considered giving up play-calling duties. When former Browns assistant Bob Wylie suggested in August that Ken Zampese, not Kitchens, was the mastermind behind the team's offensive surge last year, Kitchens became suspiciously defensive and threatened to fire any assistant who leaks information to the media.
Kitchens was a career position coach who won the Browns head coaching job by surviving a civil war among Hue Jackson's staff and installing YOLO game plans full of gadget plays (or perhaps helping Zampese install them) for Mayfield. Kitchens was the sort of coach who "wins the press conference." He had a spotless record (partly because his record was almost nonexistent), and he and Mayfield appeared to be in each other's corners, making him an appealing choice according to the back-channel politics of NFL coaching.
But winning initial press conferences and winning games require completely different—and often contradictory—skill sets. The best way to survive the Hue Jackson/Todd Haley Experience was not to butt heads with anyone, but a head coach must know when to butt heads. The best way to ingratiate yourself with a young quarterback who doesn't respond well to criticism is to never criticize. We can all see where that has led.
So in Kitchens, the Browns appear to have a coach who may not know how to command a locker room, communicate expectations to assistants or players, develop a quarterback or even design a game plan. He also appears to be defensive about maintaining control (dismissing Zampese, going HAM over Wylie, refusing to relinquish play-calling), which could lead him to make further bad decisions in the name of self-preservation.
Other than all of that, he's doing a heck of a job.
Despite Kitchens' shortcomings, the Browns are talented enough to win a few more games down the stretch. A soft late schedule full of teams like the Bengals and Dolphins could mask Cleveland's underlying problems. Garrett's suspension could be an excuse for losses against tougher opponents like the Steelers and Ravens. Kitchens could keep his job just by beating a few teams that quit in April and hoping that Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam will try to prove how patient and prudent they are by giving him credit for the team's late-season "progress."
That would just set the Browns up for future failure. The team needs better coaching at the fundamental, cellular level. Kitchens isn't going to suddenly figure everything out because OBJ catches a few bombs to sweep the Bengals.
The Garrett incident was the defining moment of Kitchens' coaching career. As long as Kitchens keeps coaching the team the way he has coached them so far, his Browns will remain their own worst enemies. And the organization is too close to the verge of success to allow that to happen.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.