Questions about Mayfield and Kitchens
Five thoughts after the Browns played one of their worst games of the season, a 38-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
THE BAKER EFFECT: Before this season started, when things appeared as though they finally were about to go right for the Cleveland Browns, few things seemed certain.
I predicted the Browns would go 10-6, but I had a number of concerns about the roster, and the team’s structure.
Freddie Kitchens had never been a head coach before. Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt all were uber-talented, but no one knew if they’d click as a unit.
The Browns secondary had some lingering questions, as did the linebackers and the offensive line.
But the one thing — the one player — who didn’t concern me was quarterback Baker Mayfield.
If I was worried about anything regarding the second-year quarterback, it was that he’d get hurt.
But aside from that, I was sold that Mayfield not only would be an all-pro quarterback this year, but for many seasons to come.
Three months later, the Browns are essentially out of the playoff picture. They have a head coach who looks overmatched, and a defense — weakened by injury and suspension — that is having trouble stopping anyone.
The superstar receiver, Odell Beckham, has been ineffective and it’s reported that he wants out of town.
But the most stunning thing about this season, to me, is the play of Mayfield.
In his rookie season, Mayfield was really good. In 14 games (13 starts), Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But more than that, he played with an energy, a confidence that was infectious.
Last season, Mayfield was throwing to Landry, Rashard Higgins, Breshard Perriman, David Njoku, Duke Johnson and Antonio Callaway.
This season, in 14 starts, Mayfield has thrown for 3,356 yards, but only 17 touchdowns. He’s also thrown 17 interceptions, and his completion percentage is down. In 2018, he connected on nearly 64 percent of his throws. This year, his completion percentage is around 60 percent.
This year, Mayfield is throwing to Beckham, Landry, Kareem Hunt and occasionally KhaDarel Hodge. Ricky Seals-Jones, a tight end, also occasionally catches passes.
Mayfield has been hurt by a suspect offensive line and a changing receivers group. Players he worked well with a year ago — Higgins and Njoku, for example — have been injured and fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
And usually, when I mention that Mayfield has regressed this season, I get pushback from people who blame the coaches, the offensive line or the receivers.
There is some truth in those arguments.
But I couldn’t help but think, as I watched Mayfield launch a pass in the first quarter Sunday that was into the end zone and way over Beckham’s head, that Mayfield has been off.
And he’s not blameless for his regression.
And I keep wondering if Mayfield is being held accountable when he doesn’t play well, or being pushed the right way.
COACHING: A little less than a year ago, when Kitchens was hired as the Browns head coach, my belief was that Mayfield had developed into a franchise quarterback quickly, and Kitchens was a big reason why.
You couldn’t afford to let Kitchens get away, this year or later.
I think my line was “he wasn’t just the right choice, he was the only choice.”
Fast forward to Monday. During a press conference, Kitchens was asked about a third-down play in which Mayfield threw incomplete to a double-covered Landry, while about 10 yards behind, Beckham appeared to be wide open.
“It was a bad playcall.”
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but as the year has gone on, I’m increasingly concerned that the Kitchens-Mayfield relationship may not be good for Baker’s development.
Kitchens has the job because of Mayfield. Does that mean that he doesn’t criticize him and doesn’t want to upset him?
Kitchens is close with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Parcells was extremely tough on his quarterbacks, whether it was Phil Simms or Drew Bledsoe.
Again, maybe behind closed doors, Kitchens and QB coach Ryan Lindley do challenge Mayfield, we just don’t see it.
But I’m skeptical.
THE NON-COMEBACK KIDS: The Browns came out sluggish Sunday, and were quickly behind 14-0.
That’s a problem.
This season, the Browns have won six games. In only two of them were the Browns ever trailing.
Mayfield led a late comeback drive against the Bills. Against the Bengals, Cleveland was down 3-0 after the first drive, but led the entire second half.
It seems that for the most part, this group is not good at handling adversity.
And on Sunday, the Browns did rally in the second quarter, scoring 10 points after digging a two-touchdown hole.
But they never caught up. They’ve rarely caught up.
WHAT NOW: Last week I said that I didn’t really want to see Kitchens fired, but I do get mad when I watch him during the games.
Now, with the dud against the Cardinals with the playoffs all but an impossibility, I’m starting to waver.
Kitchens has been such a disappointment that I’m afraid that if he stays next season, we could just get more of the same.
Since the Browns came back to the league in 1999, only two coaches have had a better record in their second season than their first.
Chris Palmer improved from 2-14 in 1999 to 3-13 in 2000.
The Browns were so impressed they fired him.
Palmer’s replacement, Butch Davis, went 7-9 in 2001 and 9-7 in 2002, making the playoffs.
But things fell apart quickly after that, as they always seem to.
I guess I’m struggling to think of a Browns hire who actually has shown growth as a head coach — at least in wins and losses.
And I’m starting to doubt whether Kitchens can get the job done next season.
ON GORDON: Josh Gordon, the former Browns’ receiver who was traded to the Patriots early last season and is now with the Seahawks, was suspended for violations of the league’s performance enhancing and substance abuse policies.
This is Gordon’s sixth suspension since 2013.
I always rooted for Josh, when he was with the Browns and even afterward. His numbers in 2013 were eye-popping. He had 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games, and that was on a team that won five games.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Gordon was, physically, everything you’d want in a receiver.
But his substance issues always have followed him, hindered and now perhaps ended his career.
It’s sad, but there’s a part of me that believes maybe football isn’t the best place for him.
I don’t know, or much care about Gordon’s career prospects at this point.
But I hope he finds sobriety, and success, away from the game.