Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield’s relationship developed in a hurry.
Simply put, they weren’t around each other all that much throughout the offseason, training camp or the first half of the regular season. Kitchens worked mostly with the running backs while Mayfield was entrenched with his fellow quarterbacks, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
That all changed when Kitchens became offensive coordinator entering Week 9. Their ability to work together and bring the best out of each other went a long way toward the Browns finishing the second half season with a surge, generating some legitimate momentum with a 5-3 record that was largely a byproduct of a dramatically improved offense.
Their bond grew stronger and stronger as the weeks progressed. As a result, the flow and efficiency of Cleveland’s offense followed suit.
“I definitely had a lot more freedom as the weeks have gone on,” Mayfield said before Cleveland’s final game of the regular season. “He’s trusted me the whole time but I feel a lot more comfortable on changing things and getting us in a good position to win. It’s been a good relationship ever since.”
That sentiment was echoed by two prominent quarterbacks who relished working alongside Kitchens, who was officially named Cleveland’s new head coach Thursday. In a November press conference, Kitchens referred to them as “a couple of good ones,” and their production backed it up.
“I’m so happy for Freddie and excited for Browns fans,” former NFL quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Freddie will put a very disciplined team on the field year in and year out. He will pour his heart into his team and they will play with passion and love for one another and the game. Freddie is a true gem and a brilliant hire by the Browns.”
Palmer and Kitchens came together in 2013, when Palmer was looking to reboot his career after a tough year in Oakland. It wasn’t the prettiest at first, as Palmer threw nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns in his first year with the Cardinals, but Arizona won 10 games for just the second time in the previous 37 years. After a knee injury derailed Palmer’s 2014 season, he came back with a vengeance the following season and posted some of the best numbers of his career, throwing for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
Though he was tight ends coach at the time, Kitchens got to see how a Hall of Fame quarterback operates when Kurt Warner closed out his career in Arizona.
“What I appreciate so much about Freddie is that what you see is what you get - no matter the situation or circumstances you may find yourself in,” Warner said. “You always know where you stand with him and he never allows the highs and lows of NFL to affect his approach towards the process. It was fun for me, this past season, to see the league get a glimpse of the quality of coach he is. I’m looking forward to watching his impact on Cleveland and how he takes on this new role and challenge.”
The impact has been already felt on offense and, specifically, Mayfield.
Kitchens established an “open dialogue” with Mayfield as he drew up game plans. Communication was pivotal as they devised and drilled the plays they’d run in the upcoming matchup. By the end of the season, Kitchens said he got “a good feel for what (Mayfield) likes,” enabling him to maximize the rookie’s strengths and put him in the best position for success.
The numbers didn’t lie. Mayfield completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,254 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in Kitchens’ eight games as offensive coordinator compared to a mark of 58/1,471/8/6 in the first half.
Their connection went beyond what took place between the lines. Kitchens, who memorably backed Mayfield after the quarterback took criticism for his post-game remarks following a win in Cincinnati, saw how the path he took to arrive as Cleveland’s starting quarterback molded him into the leader he is today.
He’ll have a front row seat to see how it develops in Mayfield’s second season and beyond.
“Nobody has ever given him anything. That is why I like him. I like those guys that fight and claw for everything they get, and that is what he is,” Kitchens said. “I don’t think he is ever going to be settled. It is not something you have to pound into him that hey you are not there yet. Hell, he knows that, but he is wanting to get there. When he gets to that level, he is going to try to get to the next level, and that is what you want in your quarterback and that is what you want in your team.
“That is what you want in every position but especially your quarterback because that goes over and flows over into the rest of the locker room.”