CLEVELAND — After Freddie Kitchens tickled the chin of Baker Mayfield while the quarterback sat on the Browns' bench during their 26-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, Mayfield, who was mic'd up for the game, quipped, "The guy's an idiot."
Well, that "idiot" is now the head coach of the Browns, and he was asked Monday during his introductory news conference at FirstEnergy Stadium whether his relationship with Mayfield ought to change.
After all, Kitchens is in charge of the entire team now and has many more responsibilities than he did as an offensive coordinator in the final eight games of the 2018 regular season.
Kitchens, though, wants to let the good times roll.
"I can be myself, and we are going to have fun," he said. "The fun is in the winning, and we are going to have fun. So in an algebraic equation, if we are going to have fun and the fun is in the winning, we are going to win, and we are going to have a damn good time doing it.
"We were having fun because we were winning. I guarantee you if we were getting beat 42-7, then we wouldn’t be over there bantering back and forth. So that is where I sit with that. Yes, I am going to be the same person. If we are winning, I am going to have fun. I am going to be miserable if we are losing, and hopefully we are not doing too much of that."
With Kitchens guiding him, 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. In 5½ games under former offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Mayfield, who didn’t play until Week 3, went 130-of-223 passing (58.3 percent) for 1,471 yards and eight TDs with six interceptions, took 20 sacks and posted a rating of 78.9.
How did Kitchens connect with Mayfield so well?
"The No. 1 thing would be trust and respect," Kitchens said. "You earn respect by them knowing you know what to do from a verbal or scheme [perspective]. You earn trust by talking and figuring out who the person is. When you tear away all of the façade, who is the person and what makes him tick?
"Once you get to know the person, it enables you to have tough conversations. Those tough conversations — those butt-chewings — those are the ones that get them better, and sometimes they need confidence. But you have to tear away the façade and see what the kid needs and then you can get him better. And then, the relationship forms."
Mayfield stood in the corner of Kitchens and repeatedly praised him publicly for collaboration and creativity.
Yet General Manager John Dorsey downplayed the notion Mayfield played a role in the hiring of Kitchens.
"Baker is a rookie," Dorsey said. "He still has a lot to learn in the National Football League. Freddie is going to get him to that plateau, along with a lot of other coaches on that staff. I think at the end of the day, when you make selections like this, overarching and organizationally, let senior management begin the process, continue to process and then give it to ownership. Period."
Kitchens felt fortunate he was able to lure offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who spent the past three seasons as the OC/wide receivers coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, especially because Kitchens will stick with the same system and continue to call the plays.
“He had other opportunities,” Kitchens said of Monken. “He made a decision based on people … what he was going to be surrounded with and the environment that is going to be created.
“He showed an investment in me and showed an investment in what we’re trying to build and the vision where we’re taking this thing. I’m just glad that he made that decision for those reasons. He understands that him learning something new is a hell of a lot better and easier than 90 other guys learning what to do.”
Enamored with DC
Kitchens found much to like in new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, recently fired after going 3-13 in one season as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Wilks directed the defense with the Carolina Panthers in 2017, when they ranked seventh in the NFL in yards allowed (317.1).
“I see a guy that has a tremendous football acumen, is very diverse in his ability to use personnel,” Kitchens said. “I like guys that strive to be great and I think that Steve does that. I also like guys that strive to have an environment of learning and strive to have an environment of listening, being together and being a part of a team. I can’t tell you how many staffs I have been on that were not like that. It was all a bunch of individuals, and individuals are not going to win.
“The letter 'I' is not a 'we.' It is not a word. I like surrounding myself with people like that, and Steve is like that.”
Wilks uses a 4-3 base defense, the same employed by former Browns defensive coordinator/interim coach Gregg Williams the past two seasons.
Dorsey said hiring a defensive coordinator who runs a 4-3 was not a requirement, but it is more convenient.
“It’s hard to make that transition if you’re a 3-4 [coach] because your roster is set up for a 4-3 defensive scheme," Dorsey said. "It makes it a little easier, but I think the experience Steve gives, I think he’s a really well qualified coach."
Dorsey was willing to give a second chance to new special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who served a two-game suspension from the Minnesota Vikings during the 2014 regular season for using a homophobic remark in 2012. The Vikings investigated Priefer after former punter Chris Kluwe accused him of repeatedly using such language. Priefer was required to complete sensitivity training.
“My faith tells me everybody should have second chances,” Dorsey said of Priefer, a Cleveland native. “I think Mike Priefer is a very qualified individual. He’s a United States Naval Academy graduate. I think his son is a United States Naval Academy graduate. I think he is an exceptional special teams coach. I think he’s paid his price. In think he’s excited as heck to be here.”
Priefer’s father, Chuck, was a longtime NFL special teams guru who coached Dorsey when the latter played for the Green Bay Packers.
New offensive line coach/associate head coach James Campen was a teammate of Dorsey’s with the Packers in 1989, when a knee injury landed Dorsey on injured reserve. Campen spent 20 years in Green Bay, 15 as a coach.
“He is ‘we instead of I.’ He’s a great developer of young offensive linemen,” Dorsey said. “He’s a good evaluator of talent. I see him and Freddie hitting it off unbelievably. They’re likeminded in how they approach the game. All he wants to do, like everybody else here, is win.”
In addition to announcing the hiring of Monken, Wilks, Priefer and Campen, the Browns named Stump Mitchell running backs/run game coordinator, Ryan Lindley quarterback coach, Jody Wright special assistant to the head coach and Jim Dray, a former Cleveland tight end, and Tyler Tettleton offensive quality control coaches.
Lindley was hired by Kitchens in October as a running backs coach, so he’ll stay with the Browns but switch roles.
Kitchens declined to say whether he'll retain any other assistant coaches.
"Is it hard [to let go of coaches I worked with]? Yes, of course, because you're invested in those guys," Kitchens said. "You're invested in those guys as people, and they had a big hand in [the success we had in the final eight games of 2018]."
Kitchens said he didn’t reach out to coaches he’d previously worked for after he struck an agreement to direct the Browns on Jan. 9, but some called him.
“The night before, while [the Browns] were discussing and deciding, [Bill] Parcells called me and asked me what is going on, and he gave me some advice,” Kitchens said. “After he saw it went in my favor, he called me again. [Alabama coach Nick] Saban called me the morning I was driving into work.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.