Franchise’s priorities gave it one choice

In 1986 and 1987, the Cleveland Browns had one of the most exciting offenses in football.

A young, star quarterback Bernie Kosar was protected by a solid, veteran offensive line that included Mike Baab, Paul Farren and Cody Riesen. The offense also had a future Hall of Fame tight end in Ozzie Newsome, and dynamic receivers in Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne. Add a steady possession receiver in Brian Brennan, halfback Earnest Byner (also a receiving threat) and fullback Kevin Mack, and the Browns were a multi-dimensional attack few defenses could stop.

But the Browns also had a secret weapon.

The man who called the plays.

Lindy Infante was a veteran coach who had gone from leading the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls — where Fostoria graduate Joe Johnson played for him — to the Browns offensive coordinator.

In two years, the team won 24 games. Kosar looked like a Hall of Famer, the Browns made consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game, and the Dawg Pound became a phenomenon.

But after 1988, things went downhill. Yes, the Browns made the playoffs in 1988 and 1989, even reaching the conference final again in the latter season.

But Kosar wasn’t the same. He was injured for most of 1988 and the team’s offense was stagnant in 1989 — before a crucial game with the Vikings, there was actual talk about benching the star QB.

Things completely bottomed out in 1990. A 3-13 record ushered in the Bill Belichick era, which was followed by Kosar’s release, four straight losing seasons and then the move to Baltimore.

Yes, I covered seven years in two sentences.

But why did the Browns fall apart?

Maybe it’s because Infante left. Before the Browns even landed in Colorado for the 1987 AFC title game, Infante had been hired to be the head coach for the Green Bay Packers.

And the Browns offense — and Kosar, specifically — was never as good.

Kosar’s injuries certainly played a large part in the Browns’ decline. But part of me always has wondered what would have happened if Infante had stayed. Not that the Browns should have made him head coach; it would have been insane to can Marty Schottenheimer after three straight division titles. But still, Infante and Kosar clicked. And Kosar never seemed as comfortable with anyone who followed.

Which brings us to today.

The Browns are coming off a 7-8-1 season where they won five of their final eight games. This came after the team won just seven games over the previous 56.

The turning point in the season came Oct. 29, when Hue Jackson was fired as head coach, and Todd Haley was dismissed as the team’s playcaller. Gregg Williams was made the interim coach, and Freddie Kitchens was promoted from running backs coach to offensive coordinator.

And the results were brilliant. With Kitchens and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield leading the way, the Browns averaged nearly 24 points a game. Mayfield threw 19 touchdown passes in eight games.

Clearly, Kitchens and Mayfield clicked.

And Wednesday, the Browns reportedly decided to make that partnership a full-time thing.

Kitchens was promoted to head coach. Williams, who was also the team’s defensive coordinator, was dismissed.

Is it a surprise that Kitchens got the job?

In a way, yes. Kitchens, 44, is a former quarterback at Alabama. Not only has he never been a head coach at any level, but before this season, had never been a coordinator. His entire playcalling experience boils down to eight games, plus the final quarter of a preseason contest.

It’s doubtful even Kitchens thought this promotion was possible as recently as November.

But maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. General manager John Dorsey has — like Kitchens and Mayfield — been swimming in praise for the last two months. After inheriting a team on its way to an 0-16 season in late 2017, he confounded people (like me) by selecting Mayfield first overall in the 2018 draft.

All Mayfield did was turn around a franchise and ignite a fanbase. He may end up being the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.

So much of what Dorsey touched turned to gold.

His other first-round pick, corner Denzel Ward, was a Pro Bowler.

His second-round selection, Nick Chubb, looks like the most complete back the team has had in more than a decade. And then there are the other moves. He drafted linebacker Genard Avery. He traded for receiver Jarvis Landry. He traded Josh Gordon and passed on Dez Bryant.

So why not trust Dorsey on this?

But this hire isn’t about Dorsey. It’s about Mayfield.

The Browns could have made a safer hire. They could have hired Mike McCarthy, who was just let go from the Packers. They could have hired Dan Campbell, who was once the interim coach for the Dolphins and now is an assistant with the Saints. Or they could simply have opted to keep Williams, who leaves Cleveland as the only coach to have a winning record in the post-1999.

But had they done that, they knew Kitchens could be gone. Not this year, but next year or the year after.

The Browns have a few years to do something really special. All of their core players are locked up — most on affordable rookie contracts.

They are way under the salary cap.

The goal is to keep going up, and quickly.

The Browns decided that keeping Kitchens and Mayfield together was the most important thing to continue that improvement. If Kitchens was a coordinator, someone may grab him as head coach in the future.

The only way to ensure Kitchens and Mayfield would stay together long term was to give Kitchens the top job.

And if keeping the duo together was the priority, Kitchens wasn’t just the right choice.

He was the only choice.

Unlike 32 years ago, the Browns were not going to let this group break up.

Why would you want to?