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Freddie Kitchens empowered his offensive players, and they responded. Now, he has the entire locker room

It was as simple as a single note card, and it was as important as an audible to win the game.

Each week, Cleveland’s offensive linemen compiled their favorite plays on to a note card. From there, Freddie Kitchens would pool them with the favorites of his other key players as he drew up a game plan that empowered the players he’d be relying upon to execute on Sundays.

It was a small gesture that went a long way for a group of players who knew they were better than 2-5-1 at the midpoint of the season.

“You see people more comfortable with what they are doing and with a better understanding because these are the plays that the guys most like running and plays the guys most understand,” center JC Tretter said. “Whenever you make a suggestion about what play you like, there is that little bit of extra effort you put in there because you do not want to be the one that screws up the play that you recommended.

“You kind of all feel in it together.”

Together, the Browns offense came together under Kitchens’ watch and powered the team to a 5-3 mark to close out the season. Kitchens’ role in the second half surge didn’t go unnoticed, and it earned him an interview to become the team’s head coach. He knocked it out of the park just like he did his first eight games as offensive coordinator, and now he’ll have an entire locker room to empower the same way he did with the offense.

Kitchens’ philosophy was simple: Confidence breeds success. It was apparent with every passing game for Cleveland’s offense. The numbers got better, the play calls got more daring and the wins came in bunches instead of sprinkles.

That mindset will be key moving forward for a team that tasted plenty of success during the final part of 2018 but was left longing for much more after falling short of the playoffs.

“You put them into positions to succeed,” Kitchens said. “If they never can taste success and they do not know what that feels like, then it is hard to build confidence. This is a game that you have to play with tremendous amounts of confidence if you want to be successful.

It’s hard to find anyone on Cleveland’s roster who exudes more confidence than the player Kitchens empowered most in his eight games as offensive coordinator.

From the moment Kitchens took the reins as play-caller, quarterback Baker Mayfield cited improved communication as a sign of encouragement. The Browns lost their first game with Kitchens as offensive coordinator, but there was noticeable excitement from Mayfield as he looked ahead to the team’s final seven games.

“He was very vocal about if we are not comfortable doing something as players, then we are not going to do it,” Mayfield said. “There was a lot of back and forth throughout the week, talking about the little details and things here and there. I think that is why we played better on offense today. It was we are going to do what we are best and continue to get better at that.”

It got better, all right.

Trust in the players’ ability to execute was apparent in some of the offense’s biggest plays over the second half of the season. A first-play bomb to Breshad Perriman to start Cleveland’s win over the Panthers was drilled throughout the week in practice. Same goes for a misdirection run play that put the ball in the hands of wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Kitchens called it twice, and it worked both times.

And then there was Mayfield’s audible at the goal line against Denver, a moment that symbolized Kitchens’ belief in his rookie quarterback. A smile crept across Mayfield’s face as he audibled into a passing play that exploited a mismatch against the Broncos secondary and delivered a strike to Antonio Callaway for what was ultimately the game-winning score.

“That’s a lot of trust right there,” Mayfield said. “Allowing me to change calls, change formations and just get us in the best position to win – that is what it comes down to. We talk and communicate enough to where I understand what he wants to do, how he wants to accomplish it and that is where that comes from.”

That kind of communication will continue for years to come and will extend to every corner of the Browns locker room.

“I told you guys a long time ago that this is about trust and respect,” Kitchens said, “and I think we are building that.”

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