The Browns are a mess, but I’m here to offer solutions to their biggest problems. Although Cleveland’s AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh could be formidable in 2020, the Browns could jump back into the playoff hunt by following this three-point plan:
Fire Freddie Kitchens and hire …
Kitchens is Cleveland’s biggest issue. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Browns’ head coach had the organization’s support, and that, “barring a horrific collapse or circumstance to end the season, it appears the Browns will be moving forward with Kitchens.”
That report came out before Cleveland’s humiliating 38-24 loss at Arizona in Week 15, a game that made one thing clear: Kitchens, stability be damned, must be fired. He has squandered too much talent, presided over too much of a mess. Some of his issues are par for the course for a first-time head coach, but things have gone off the rails in Cleveland at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t deserve a chance to reflect in the off-season.
Whom should the 6-8 Browns hire? I posed this question to longtime NFL insider John Clayton earlier this week. His answer? Mike McCarthy. The former Packers coach has a Super Bowl win on his resume, and finished with a top-five scoring offense six times in the 10 full seasons he had with Aaron Rodgers. Although McCarthy is a perfectly viable option, I would be bolder. Cleveland should hire Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.
Leftwich’s offense is third in the league in yards and points, despite Jameis Winston’s often faulty decision-making and propensity for interceptions (24). The Bucs have no running game, but the Browns have breakout star Nick Chubb (1,408 yards rushing). The Browns are 21st in points per game at 21.2, a figure Leftwich almost certainly would top with all the toys Cleveland has on offense (Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Jarvis Landry, OBJ).
Having retired in 2012, the former NFL QB and fast-rising head-coaching candidate would form an almost instant rapport with players. Kitchens clearly was not ready for the meteoric rise from position coach to head coach. Leftwich has been groomed to be a head coach since his time with Bruce Arians in Arizona.
Feed Odell Beckham Jr.
The season hasn’t ended, but speculation about whether or not the Browns and Beckham will have a messy off-season divorce is already becoming tiresome. The solution is simple: Cleveland must keep Beckham; the wide receiver, reportedly injured all season, must get fully healthy. With his trade value at its nadir because of a subpar 2019 (62 catches, 910 yards), a deal makes little sense. Trust me: The Browns will rise with a fully healthy OBJ.
Cleveland’s inability to get the most out of Beckham’s transcendent talent is a major problem. Blame Kitchens, whose game plans have routinely ignored OBJ early and inexcusably made him a non-factor in the red zone. In the 10 times he has been targeted inside the 20-yard line this season, Beckham has three catches for 22 yards. He has just four targets inside the 10-yard line, none resulting in receptions. In the Giants’ lame attack in 2018, Beckham was targeted 18 times in the red zone (for six TDs).
Cleveland must hire a coach who makes it a priority to throw to the team’s best receiver as often as possible. Tampa Bay’s stud wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have combined for eight touchdowns on 30 red-zone targets this season. Clearly, Leftwich knows how to get his best players involved near the goal line.
Bolster Mayfield’s confidence by prioritizing the O-line
Outstanding last season as a rookie, Mayfield has slumped in 2019 — and no wonder. His offensive line stinks. Per Pro Football Reference, the Browns have given Mayfield the least average time in the pocket in the NFL -– 2.3 seconds -– before a throw is made or the pocket collapses. He has been hurried 65 times, most of any quarterback in the league, and though he has only taken 18 hits while throwing the ball, that is more a testament to his mobility than anything else. Player procurement Job 1 and 1A in the draft and free agency should be improving the O-line.
Line play isn’t the only problem, of course. Mayfield has struggled under the weight of huge expectations. He is third in the league in interceptions (17). Several were the result of his receivers muffing easy catches, particularly early in the season. But that doesn’t absolve Mayfield of blame — his completion percentage (60.1) and passer rating (86.3) are below the league average.
More evidence of his Year 2 regression: His on-target throw percentage, per Pro Football Reference, is 70.9, third worst in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. His bad-throw percentage is 18.2, 12th worst in the NFL. He’d surely improve under the tutelage of Leftwich. Mayfield, whose talent is unquestioned, would also be aided by strong commitment to the running game, forcing an eighth defender in the box more often.
There is a common thread that ties all three major issues together: Kitchens. The struggles of Beckham and Mayfield are directly attributable to their coach’s ineptitude. If the Browns ditch their head coach and hire Leftwich or McCarthy, they can quickly put this ugly season in the rear-view mirror.