The Cleveland Browns’ 20-13 loss on Sunday to the Steelers effectively ended any playoff hopes Cleveland had this season.
Cleveland (5-7) now has a 6 percent chance to make the postseason, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
The Browns had their three-game winning streak snapped and haven’t won four consecutive games since 2009, when Eric Mangini was the coach.
The 1988 season marked the last time the Browns swept the season series against the Steelers. Plus, the Browns have now lost 16 consecutive games at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Many of the Steelers’ offensive skill-position players who played Sunday are backups.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and cornerback Artie Burns were all out with injuries. Seven-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey didn’t play because of his suspension for the role he played in the Nov. 14 brawl between Browns and Steelers.
The Browns would likely need to win their remaining four games for a chance to make the playoffs.
Cleveland’s remaining schedule:
- At home Dec. 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals
- On the road Dec. 15 against the Arizona Cardinals
- At home Dec. 22 against the Baltimore Ravens
- On the road Dec. 29 against the Bengals
Oddsmakers favored the Browns to win the AFC North before the start of the season.
— Odds Shark (@OddsShark) August 13, 2019
It begs the question:
Should the Browns fire head coach Freddie Kitchens after the season and hire a new coach?
The Case To Fire Freddie Kitchens
Kitchens hadn’t been an offensive or defensive coordinator in the NFL until last season after the team fired Todd Haley.
The lack of experience has been apparent at times. Some of Kitchens’ in-game decisions have been head scratching.
It includes the Browns running the ball on a 4th-and-9 play against the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 22.
Also, Kitchens doubled down on a decision to leave time on the clock at the end of the first half during the 32-28 loss on Oct. 13 to the Seattle Seahawks.
Cleveland could have let the clock run with Seattle down to one timeout. The Browns had all three timeouts.
Instead, the Browns tried to score, use their timeouts to get a stop, get the ball back and score again. Tedric Thompson wound up intercepting a Baker Mayfield pass, which led to an 88-yard scoring drive for Seattle.
Perhaps Kitchens’ most egregious decision came when the Browns purposely took a false-start penalty on a 4th-and-11 situation against the New England Patriots on Oct. 27. Kitchens put his offense back on the field on 4th-and-16 before quarterback Baker Mayfield got sacked. Kitchens said afterward he deliberately took the false start to preserve the team’s final timeout.
So false start in 4th & 11, with punt unit, Freddie pulls them puts offense out for 4th & 16. Baker sacked. Nathan Zegura just reported, #Browns deliberately false started so the offense could return to the field because Kitchens didn't want to burn final timeout. Clown show.
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) October 27, 2019
Speaking of penalties, the Browns have allowed the most penalty yards (926) among the 32 teams in the NFL. They rank fourth in the league with 99 total penalties, according to the Football Database.
The decision making and lack of discipline comes back to coaching.
What about the decision to wear a “Pittsburgh started it” T-shirt ahead of the rematch with the Steelers after the Myles Garrett-Mason Rudolph brawl?
Several Steelers players said after Sunday’s game it gave them further motivation. Offensive lineman David DeCastro called it “bulletin board material.”
The head coach — the man who is supposed to embody the Cleveland Browns franchise — making a joke about one of the nastiest brawls in North American professional sports? It’s amateurish. If a player had done this, media members would be rightfully ripping him too.
The Case To Retain Freddie Kitchens
Coaches in their first year with a team tend to struggle. Said coaches have a combined record of 37-65-1 so far this season.
Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur is the only of nine head coaches in their first year with the team that has a winning record this season.
Records for head coaches in their first year with the team during the 2019 season:
Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals: 3-8-1
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals: 1-11
Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns: 5-7
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos: 4-8
Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers: 9-3
Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins: 3-9
Adam Gase, New York Jets: 4-8
Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-7
Bill Callahan, Washington Redskins: 3-4*
Editor’s Note: This record includes Bill Callahan’s 3-4 record as interim head coach of the Washington Redskins. Callahan took over for Jay Gruden, who the team fired in October.
Among the teams in the above group, only the Packers would make the playoffs if the season ended now.
Coaches in their first season with the team didn’t fare much better in 2018 either, combining for a 49-52 record.
Records for head coaches in their first year with the team during the 2018 season:
Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals: 3-13
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears: 12-4
Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions: 6-10
Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts: 10-6
Pat Shurmur, New York Giants: 5-11
Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders: 4-12
Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans: 9-7
The Bears and Colts are the only teams in the 2018 group that made the postseason.
Successful quarterbacks in the NFL have strong pairings with their head coaches: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Drew Brees and Sean Payton, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin, Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, Lamar Jackson and John Harbaugh, Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur are the blueprints for success.
You could make the argument Mayfield has regressed in year two. He ranks third in the NFL for most interceptions thrown with 14. His completion percentage (60.3 percent) is also lower than a season ago (63.8 percent).
If the Browns fire Kitchens, Mayfield will have his fourth head coach entering his third NFL season. Yikes.
Whoever the team decides should be the head coach will have Mayfield for the next few years because the former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent until 2023.
A way to assess Kitchens’ value is to ask yourself two questions:
- Would another NFL team rather have Kitchens over its current head coach?
- Would another NFL team hire Kitchens as a head coach if the Browns decide to fire him.
I’d be surprised if another NFL team answered “yes” to either of those questions.
Two other questions to consider:
- If the Browns did fire Kitchens, who could they hire to replace him?
- Are there more appealing head-coaching vacancies around the league?
If Cleveland wins out, Kitchens would match Butch Davis’ 9-7 record in 2002 for the team’s best record under a coach in his first season.
Browns’ head coaching record in first season with the team since 1999:
Chris Palmer, 1999: 2-14
Butch Davis, 2002: 9-7
Terrie Robiskie: 1-4
Romeo Crennel: 6-10
Eric Mangini: 5-11
Pat Shurmur: 4-12
Rob Chudzinski: 4-12
Mike Pettine: 7-9
Hue Jackson: 1-15
Gregg Williams: 5-3
The 2002 season also marked the last time the Browns made the playoffs, which is the longest active postseason drought in the NFL.
Only the Seattle Mariners in MLB have a longer active postseason drought than the Browns in all of North American professional sports. The Mariners last made the playoffs in 2001.
Other than deciding on Kitchens’ fate, the Browns will likely spend the offseason trying to retool their offensive line, and determining whether to retain wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The postseason is a long shot this year, but the Browns are in a win-now mode given the talent on their roster. It was one of the reasons why oddsmakers made the Browns the favorite to win the AFC North in the preseason.
Whether it’s Kitchens coming back or another coach leading the team, the Browns’ success should be measured based on their ability to win their division for the first time since the 1989 season. It won’t happen this year.