Freddie Kitchens confident Browns' biggest personalities are ready for big expectations

PHOENIX -- Freddie Kitchens sat Tuesday at a circular table filled with people whose job is to cover his doings as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

To those people, with their cameras, microphones and recording devices, Kitchens repeatedly emphasized the importance of, well, people. What's more important is which people he was referring to, an answer which one can correctly guess if he or she has paid attention to the news in the last two weeks.

Kitchens was peppered with a similar sounding question from reporters far and wide, some with the courtesy of apologizing in advance for possibly repeating the prompt: How will you, the first-time head coach, manage Odell Beckham Jr.s' massive personality?

"Am I not a big personality? I mean hell, I think I'm a pretty big personality," Kitchens said jokingly during Tuesday's AFC-NFC Coaches Breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. "I'm just kidding. You know what, I think sometimes people equate their personality with the passion they have for the game. And the passion they have for life. I'm going to treat Odell just like I treat everybody. He's got my trust and I'm going to have his. And then if we all know that we're in this thing together, and we're doing it for the same goal, the same purpose, that will never be a problem."

Trust is a key portion of what Kitchens said, and it became clear later in the session that it's a foundational piece of his system of beliefs. Before he instructs you or asks something of you, he's first going to get to know you. He might even buy you lunch.

"The first thing we have to do is get to know our players and talk to them as people," Kitchens said. "Above all else, that's how you start to build trust and respect. We're not gonna jump just right into the plays and building the play selection. We're gonna get to know that guys, which enables you to do the best job possible to get the best out of the player. And that's ultimately the goal. What you want, what they want, go from there."

Take a look at a selection of photos of new Browns wideout Odell Beckham Jr., including ones from his time with new teammate Jarvis Landry back when they both attended LSU.

Trust and familiarity work in multiple ways, Kitchens explained. First, familiarity builds trust, which also opens the door to potential future action. That action might be running a new play correctly, or simply paying attention in a meeting. That action might also be digging deep into a player's soul to find the will to give one more play his all in a key situation.

But familiarity also helps a coach get the most out of his players by gradually understanding what makes a player tick. And for a Browns team that now has multiple players who aren't afraid to express themselves, that can end up being an important difference between maximizing talent and watching those competitive personalities work against each other.

"You have to try to cultivate that and you cultivate that by talking to the players personally, not always professionally. Get to know them," Kitchens explained. "Bill Parcells, he was an expert at getting to know the person to know the triggers to push to get the best out of them. All right? The best. Hands down. 

"I think at times you got to get to know the person before you can coach the player. And that's always been my philosophy and that's with any team. With them, you have to cultivate an opportunity for them to get to know each other because ultimately they're going to be playing for each other. Not for me. For each other."

There seems to be a rapport among the key offensive playmakers: Beckham, Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. The playing for each other part might come easily. But what about keeping them, the ball-dominant skill players they are, happy?

"You've got to make sure you develop a relationship that they know that you've got their best interest in mind and as you do that, you've got the team's best interest in mind and expect them to do that," Kitchens said. "And as you do that, you've got the team's best interest in mind, and expect them to do that. 

"I don't expect anything different of Odell. I guarantee you the most important thing to Odell is winning, all right? I've spoken to him, I've talked to him. I know he's passionate about winning. He's not passionate about making great plays. That becomes the passion and that becomes the focus because that's what the media likes to put the focus on. And you should, that's your job. I'm not trying to hammer you guys. That's what you should do. But in the same sense, he's passionate because that increases his chances of being on a winning team in that very game, or that very moment.

"Jarvis Landry cares about winning. Baker Mayfield, what do you think he cares about? You guys have gotten to know him. Does he care about the stats or does he care about winning? All these guys are the same. They want to win, because they know that their ultimate individual success is going to be tied to winning."

There's another layer to this tale, another reason Kitchens drew media members as if he were honey to their bees, and another repeated inquiry: How will you, the first-time head coach, handle the pressure of heightened expectations?

That answer was simple for Kitchens: If you aren't playing to win a Super Bowl, are you even trying?

"I saw it the second half of last season. Tremendous," Kitchens said of increased excitement surrounding the team. "It's all Browns, all the time right now. That's the way we want it to be. We like our expectations high.

"I've never seen one team make the Super Bowl without having those expectations. I don't mind expectations. I want them. I guarantee the New England Patriots, their expectation next year is to play in the Super Bowl. Now, we're not in the predicting business but we're going to take an everyday approach to do our jobs and then we will see where we are a week from now, then a month, then a year. In January we'll see if we're good enough. We might not play good enough, or we might not have coached good enough, but that's always gonna be our goal."

The path to such a glorious finish might include some dates with NFL heavyweights on stages that are bigger than the usual ones upon which the Browns have played in recent years. That's another part of the pressure of expectation: The bright lights of football at night.

Kitchens isn't worried about that, facetiously saying: "I am scared to death of all those. I mean I really am. I don't know how I'm going to deal with it. I really don't know if I'm ready for this job."

Kitchens' lighthearted nature was evident in his sit-down Tuesday, perhaps illustrating a gradual adjustment to now being the man in charge of an NFL team -- and one with a lot of young talent. Again, though, the weight of expectation is nothing to the coach. He gave a much stronger reality check to drive that point home.

"To me pressure is waking up without a job, having a baby at home to feed, your wife just left you and you have no money in your pocket," Kitchens said. "So that's pressure. I don't think what we do is pressure."

So, no pressure, and no fear. The only thing the coach is afraid of?

"Snakes," he said.

Fortunately, he'll soon be gone from Phoenix and back to work in Berea.

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