It has become a trend for NFL teams to hire bright, innovative offensive play callers as head coaches, and the Browns concluded they already had someone who fit the description in their building.

On Wednesday, they reached an agreement with Freddie Kitchens to hire him as their ninth full-time head coach since 1999, a league source confirmed for the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. A formal announcement from the team is expected to be made Thursday.

The move completes a remarkable rise for Kitchens, who basically came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the league’s hottest offensive coordinators in the final eight games of the 2018 season and help the Browns finish 7-8-1 a year after they went 0-16. The seven-win improvement is the biggest turnaround in franchise history.

The Browns narrowed their first coaching search led by General Manager John Dorsey down to Kitchens and longtime Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Kevin Stefanski, who became an offensive coordinator in the final three weeks of this past regular season when John DeFilippo was fired. The Vikings announced Wednesday they retained Stefanski.

In another significant development, Kitchens will report to Dorsey, a person familiar with the organizational structure confirmed. In the past, the head coach reported to owner Jimmy Haslam, not the GM. Dorsey and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta will continue to report to Haslam.

Dorsey, Haslam, DePodesta and other members of the search committee interviewed Browns interim coach Gregg Williams (Jan. 1), former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell (Jan. 2), Stefanski (Jan. 3), New Orleans Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell (Friday), New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores (Saturday), Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus (Sunday) and Kitchens (Monday). They also interviewed Stefanski a second time Tuesday, according to NFL Network.

In the end, Kitchens prevailed, becoming the fifth full-time head coach since Jimmy and Dee Haslam bought the team in 2012 and the 17th in franchise history.

Changes and challenges

One of the first orders of business for Kitchens will be to a hire a new defensive coordinator because Williams has been fired, a league source confirmed. He spent the past two seasons with the Browns.

Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese is among several other assistants who have been let go, the source confirmed. Linebackers coach Blake Williams, Gregg’s son, bid farewell to the Browns on Twitter. Others who are out, per Cleveland.com, are special teams coordinator Amos Jones, offensive line coach Bob Wylie and special teams coaching intern Josh Cribbs.

With Kitchens at the helm, running backs coach Ryan Lindley will likely receive an even more prominent role. When Lindley played quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, Kitchens was his position coach. And when Kitchens was promoted 10 weeks ago, he hired Lindley, who could be the next quarterbacks coach of the Browns. ESPN reported the Browns and Cardinals requested permission to interview New York Jets running backs coach Stump Mitchell.

Hiring a staff is one of the new challenges Kitchens faces. Another will likely be juggling play-calling duties with the game-management responsibilities of a head coach.

Kitchens, 44, had never called plays until Aug. 30 in the preseason finale against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. His impressive showing, albeit in a meaningless exhibition game, played a part in Dorsey and Jimmy Haslam promoting him from running backs coach/associate head coach to offensive coordinator on Oct. 29, the same day the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Jackson finished his 2½ seasons with the Browns with a historically bad record of 3-36-1.

After going 2-5-1 in the first half of the 2018 season with Jackson and Haley in charge, the Browns went 5-3 under Williams and Kitchens.

Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the offense took off with Kitchens operating the controls.

The Browns went from averaging 21.1 points and 342.4 yards per game with Haley to 23.8 points and 395.1 yards a game with Kitchens.

In 5½ games under Haley, Mayfield, who didn’t play until Week 3, went 130-of-223 passing (58.3 percent) for 1,471 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions, took 20 sacks and posted a rating of 78.9.

In eight games under Kitchens, Mayfield went 180-of-263 passing (68.4 percent) for 2,254 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions, took five sacks and posted a rating of 106.2.

Mayfield and other players praised Kitchens for his collaboration and creativity. He constantly picked their brains to find out which plays they were most comfortable running and then weaved those concepts into game plans. He used three running backs at a time in the wishbone formation and had wide receiver Jarvis Landry throwing deep passes and rushing for big gains.

Path to top

The Browns let it be known last week they wanted to retain Kitchens somehow, someway by denying him permission to interview with other teams for offensive coordinator jobs. Instead of hiring someone else as the head coach and hoping Kitchens could stay as the leader of the offense, they gave him the main gig.

Kitchens joined the Browns last offseason when Haley came aboard. They had worked together at two previous stops. In 2006, Kitchens was the tight ends coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and Haley was their passing game coordinator/receivers coach. When Haley became the offensive coordinator of the Cardinals in 2007, Kitchens followed.

Haley left Arizona after two seasons to become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, but Kitchens stayed and spent a total of 11 seasons with the Cardinals, coaching tight ends (2007-12), quarterbacks (2013-16) and running backs (2017).

In June 2013, Kitchens survived a life-threatening aortic dissection and recently wrote an open letter for Sports Illustrated’s MMQB website about the experience, explaining it reminded him to “always let the people around me know what they mean to me.” Kitchens is a native of Gadsden, Ala., who has two daughters with his wife, Ginger, who was instrumental in his two-month recovery.

A former quarterback at the University of Alabama, Kitchens spent seven seasons coaching at the college level: Glenville State (1999), Louisiana State (2000), North Texas (2001-03) and Mississippi State (2004-05).

Kitchens revealed in December his goal had always been to become an NFL head coach.

“Definitely. No doubt,” he said at the time during a news conference.

Now he’s living his dream in a city he’s happy to call home.

“I like it here a lot, and everybody around here knows that I like it here,” Kitchens said last month. “I love the town of Cleveland. Cleveland and I get along well.”

The relationship will continue to blossom if Kitchens helps turn a promising Browns team into a true contender.