The 2019 Cleveland Browns’ season was pretty much an unmitigated failure in every sense. Following a 7-8-1 season and following several key off-season acquisitions, the Browns were seen by most as a team brimming with talent and ready to take a huge step forward. Most odds makers in Las Vegas placed them as third favorites in the AFC behind the Patriots and Chiefs. The team started off ok, winning 2 of the first 4 games including a quality win away at Baltimore. But then October happened, an ugly 0-4 month in which the Browns got clobbered by San Francisco and New England, gave away a huge lead at home vs Seattle, and even lost to lowly Denver. The consistent factor during this bad run was a coaching staff that failed to put their talent on the field in a position to succeed. The perception was that head coach Freddie Kitchens was to blame.
With the team sitting at 2-6, a new disturbing trend emerged as safety Jermaine Whitehead threatened to kill fans on Twitter for criticizing his play. He was released the next day. And then, the season took an even more wicked turn as Mason Rudolph and Myles Garrett got into a fight with 8 seconds left on that fateful Thursday night vs Pittsburgh. Garrett took off Rudolph’s helmet and hit him in the head with it. Even though the Browns won the game, it meant that Garrett was gone for the season, suspended as a result of his actions.
It was at this point that my own perceptions of the Browns’ season diverged from that of the masses. The entirety of the national and local media buried the Browns after the Garrett incident, all but saying that the season was over. However, it was worth noting that at 4-6 and facing a pretty easy schedule down the stretch, the Browns were very much still in the playoff hunt. I wanted to believe that the rally was on. Ten days later I was at FirstEnergy Stadium, watching the Browns crush the Miami Dolphins to improve to 5-6. They were just a game out of the playoffs. I bought in. A massive game at Pittsburgh loomed. A win would’ve vaulted the Browns into 2nd in the AFC North and into a tie for the final AFC playoff spot.
From that point onward, everything blew up in our faces. The Browns lost in Pittsburgh, their lack of a pass rush obvious in Garrett’s absence. After a not so impressive win against the hapless Bengals, the Browns faced a do or die game against Arizona. Prior to the game with the team sitting at 6-7, ownership made a statement that Freddie Kitchens would be staying barring “a collapse down the stretch.” My extended family traveled to Arizona for this game. It had been scheduled months ago, the thought being that some time in the desert and away from the cold Cleveland December weather would be a treat. But they also figured that Arizona would be bad and that the Browns would be good, making a Cleveland victory likely. What they instead laid their eyes upon was a Browns defense giving up nearly 300 yards rushing and four touchdowns on the ground in an ugly defeat that effectively ended the season.
The prevailing thought after the Arizona game was that Kitchens was gone, but that other higher ups in the organization, including GM John Dorsey, were safe. But after watching the Browns capitulate against Baltimore the next week, I wasn’t so convinced. I wanted to believe after amassing a roster full of offensive talent and individual stars on defense, that the Haslams would simply put the blame on the coaching staff and move on. However, I was seeing many parallels between this season and 2008, the last time that Browns had such high expectations. That season the Browns had their best offensive unit prior to this year. Guys like Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, Kellen Winslow Jr, and Braylon Edwards had run roughshod over the league the previous year, much like how Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, David Njoku, and Jarvis Landry had in 2018. Following a disappointing 2008 season where the Browns underachieved big time, coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage were fired, and Eric Mangini and George Kokinis were brought in to replace them. Noteworthy during this transaction was the Browns’ hiring a coach prior to hiring a general manager.
I was really hoping the Browns weren’t going to make the same mistake again. I really started to worry when ownership made another statement prior to the season finale at Cincinnati in which they stated their preference for stability. That to me seemed like an empty promise, and a sign that the Haslams were about to do something drastic. When the Browns gave them the fuel for such a move by losing to the 1-14 Bengals to end the season, another awful performance in which the defense was nonexistent, it was only a matter of time. On Deerfield Gridiron postgame that afternoon, I voiced my desperation. All the Browns needed was to not totally collapse in the last three games. That would have prevented the impetus for owner Jimmy Haslam to do what he does best.
On Sunday night, Freddie Kitchens was fired. That was unsurprising. Speculation immediately turned to who would replace him. Over the next 36 hours, much of the talk centered on former Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy, whom had worked with John Dorsey in Green Bay. But then the reports emerged that the two did not like to work with one another. By Monday, other coaching candidates had entered the fray. The word was that pretty much all of them, including Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, all preferred to work with their own general managers.
Then we were treated to other information Tuesday morning, that Jimmy Haslam had lost faith in John Dorsey following his making a mistake in hiring Freddie Kitchens. Reportedly Dorsey was informed that he would not have a say in who the Browns new head coach would be. It was New Years Eve, and I knew that as the rest of the world was about to turn the page into a brand new decade of rebirth and rejuvenation, the Browns would be turning back the clock to the decade before, when they decided to blow it up when it was not necessary. That afternoon, John Dorsey was gone. Once again, the Browns were looking for both a head coach and a general manager.
The world of football is much like any business world. People have connections. People have contacts they prefer to do business with. When an important member of an organization leaves, that causes a void, a hole that needs to be filled. But what it also does is sever all the ties that individual had to other individuals within the organization. Once a new person comes in to fill the position, their natural inclination is to surround themselves with the people they prefer. Where am I going with this? By firing Freddie Kitchens, the Browns put themselves in a position where they basically had to fire John Dorsey too. Their only other option was to stand by Dorsey strongly, in which case they would have had virtually no clout to hire the head coach they wanted. Only candidates with no head coaching experience and limited coordinator experience would be likely to accept a head coaching job in the NFL without having any say in who the general manager is. The reverse would also be true if the GM was hired first.
And the bigger worry is in how this would extend to the roster. Following the firing of Crennel and Savage, Mangini and Kokinis rather unceremoniously blew up the core of the 2007 team that went 10-6. Within a short time, Edwards, Winslow, Anderson, and other key players were released or traded. The 2009 Browns scarcely resembled the team of the season before, and the team was even worse on the field, starting 1-11 before some meaningless victories toward the end of the season. After tenures plagued by questionable coaching and even worse drafting and talent acquisition, Mangini and Kokinis were gone, tossed out by the same regime that tossed out Savage and Crennel just a few years earlier.
Now some could say that this was Randy Lerner’s Browns, that Jimmy Haslam wouldn’t bring in a staff that would tear up the talent rich roster we have today. That they wouldn’t trade Odell Beckham Jr. That they wouldn’t push out Jarvis Landry. That they wouldn’t fail to re-sign Joe Schobert or Christian Kirksey. That they wouldn’t have blatant disregard for the men that deserved to be in that locker room after the work they had put in the year before only to be undone by a poor coaching staff.
But to expect this would be to expect our incoming general manager and head coach to ignore their natural inclination to do business with the people they like. My take is that many of the key pieces of the 2019 Browns won’t be here on opening day 2020. And their only fault will be playing for a head coach that couldn’t perform as well in that capacity as he did as an offensive coordinator. I hope I’m wrong, but if I’ve learned anything over the past two decades, it’s that my first negative inclination is almost always right. If you doubt this, consider that the Browns have almost consistently missed out on their top choice of head coach in searches past. They’ve ended up with Pat Shurmur, Mike Pettine, guys that virtually nobody else wanted. And this year? While their reported top target, Josh McDaniels, is still out there, all other teams with head coaching vacancies have made hires by now, and McDaniels wasn’t even interviewed until Jan. 10th, 4 whole days after all other teams have made hires. If McDaniels doesn’t sign on the dotted line, we’re not looking at just another no-name coordinator becoming Browns head coach, but we’re also looking at an unproven general manager and almost certainly a less talented roster come opening day 2020.
Welcome to the factory of sadness. A new decade, same old crap.