Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a look at the unprecedented situation the first-time coach finds himself in.
There are two things football does better than any other sport: hype and pressure to win. Right now, there are a legit 20-25 fanbases that believe if things break right, their favorite team is heading to the Super Bowl. Because of that hype, preseason expectations for teams can be unrealistic.
Expectations to win are normally put upon teams that have a couple of pieces already in place. First is the head coach. Second is the franchise quarterback who guides the ship. The NFL has short windows for a championship — if you’re not the Patriots — and fans expect their teams to win with a top quarterback now.
Things are different when a new head coach is hired. There’s optimism about the team heading in a new direction and there’s hope for something bigger and grander, but there usually isn’t pressure to win immediately. Most new coaches enter a situation with a poor roster and a team coming off a last-place division finish. People are in wait-and-see mode, even for established coaches getting a new gig, like Andy Reid going to a 2-14 Chiefs team in 2013.
These coaches will want to create their own identity and will churn the roster to get the players they want. We never know how the new coach will take to the role.
With everything I’ve said above, it’s clear that new Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens has the most amount of pressure to win now than any first-time head coach in recent memory. (Thanks to John Middlekauff’s podcast, 3 and Out, for this topic idea. Great podcast. Y’all should listen.)
The Browns are the favorite to win the AFC North. They are predicted to make the playoffs, even if it’s not by winning the division. They have the third-best odds to win the AFC (just wild) and the sixth-best odds to win the Super Bowl. These expectations are out of control, and it’s all on Kitchens to make it happen.
What kind of expectations have other first-year coaches faced?
If we look at recent history, there are examples of first-year head coaches who’ve had success early in their tenures, but only one comes to mind who had any pressure to win. That was Ben McAdoo, who took over the Giants in 2016. I felt that pressure in New York, and it was one of the reasons I loved playing there. It was expected you win.
The Giants improved their defense and grabbed a wild card spot, eventually losing in the playoffs to the Packers. Nonetheless, McAdoo met expectations placed on him with an 11-5 record in year one.
For the other coaches who’ve succeeded right away, they’ve had no pressure. Take out Reid, and we have Bruce Arians (Cardinals 2013), Sean McVay (Rams 2017), Matt Nagy (Bears 2018), and Frank Reich (Colts 2018). If these coaches have something in common, it’s they are offensive minds who’ve had some experience leading a unit of the team.
Arians subbed in for Chuck Pagano in Indy before heading to Arizona. McVay, while young, grew up around the NFL game, plus was the offensive coordinator for three seasons before heading west. Reich was an offensive coordinator for four seasons, split between the Chargers and Eagles (including a Super Bowl victory). Nagy mentored for years under Reid, whose coaching tree is strong.
Kitchens had almost no experience in a leadership position when he was handed the head coaching opportunity in Cleveland. He coached various position groups in the NFL from 2006-17, before being hired as the running backs coach in 2018 for the Browns. When Hue Jackson and Todd Haley got canned, Kitchens got the offensive coordinator job for the rest of the season.
And, credit is due to his offense. He crushed it. Baker Mayfield improved throughout the season and the offense was creative and exciting. It’s clear that Kitchens and Mayfield had formed a tight bond, one that should help them this season.
The Browns eventually promoted Kitchens to head coach and the expectations took off. Once again, the pressure to win for a first-time head coach, with almost no previous experience, is unprecedented.
What makes Freddie Kitchens’ situation so unique?
The expectations come because of the loaded roster and the way Cleveland finished last season, both of which are unusual situations for a newly hired head coach.
The Browns have a young star quarterback in Mayfield. They have weapons, including Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., David Njoku, Nick Chubb, and eventually Kareem Hunt after his suspension. Their offensive line is solid. The Browns have an outstanding pass rush, captained by Myles Garrett. Second-year corner Denzel Ward leads their secondary. There’s ZERO denying the talent on the team.
They also ended last season on fire, winning five of their last seven games. However, none of those were against playoff teams. They went on the road to take on the Texans and Ravens, and lost to both of them. So while they ended with a bang, it does deserve some hindsight, especially if it’s being used to excite the masses heading into this season.
Coaching with pressure is much different than coaching on a lame duck staff, too. Kitchens is now in charge of game decisions, including how to call offensive plays in certain situations, knowing that he’s the head man in charge. We see experienced coaches make late-game situational mistakes all the time. Now, everything falls on him.
How does he handle a slow start? What adjustments does he make if people have a bead on his offense? These are questions we don’t have answers for yet. But most importantly, he’s got to deal with feelings, something that’s not as important as the coordinator. He’s got a young team, and they are maturing.
While I agree Mayfield shouldn’t change who he is, he’s emotional. He’s spent the offseason arguing with Colin Cowherd, which again, no other quarterback is doing. He spoke about Duke Johnson’s trade request with an odd tone.
Not everyone on offense is going to get “fed.” Mayfield can’t throw to everyone at once. We know that wide receivers want the ball. Not everyone will get it. If things don’t go as planned on offense, there will be more emotions. How does Kitchens deal with all that?
Kitchens might be well equipped to handle every situation, or just some of them. He’s going to be learning on the fly. But, unlike other first-year head coaches, if Kitchens makes a mistake that leads to a loss, or if there’s too much drama, or if the Browns don’t make the playoffs, this season will be a failure. That’s a big weight for a first-time head coach!
By the end of the season we might look back at this article and laugh as the Browns are 12-4 and Kitchens handled everything like a pro. It’s possible. They have the talent. But, no matter how the season goes, no new head coach has had expectations like Kitchens is facing.