Freddie Kitchens left with four games to prove he's the right coach for the Browns in 2020

Sporting News

The Browns have talked a lot about clothing and accessories in 2019. Odell Beckham, Jr.'s watch. Myles Garrett's helmet. Dee Haslam's sock hat supporting Garrett. Freddie Kitchens' T-shirt. It's one wardrobe issue after another that are the topics du jour in a season that has failed to live up to preseason expectations.

Cleveland is 5-7. Winning out might not be enough to make the AFC playoffs now, and Kitchens spent a portion of Sunday's media conference after the Browns' 20-13 loss to the Steelers talking about a "Pittsburgh started it" T-shirt he wore the day before the game.

"My daughters wanted me to wear the shirt, and I'd wear it again," Kitchens said, via NFL.com. "I put a jacket on. I covered it up. I took a picture with a fan. That was as simple as that. T-shirt didn't cause us to give up 40-yard passes, and we were ready to play."

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Kitchens is half right. The T-shirt didn't lose the game for the Browns. Cleveland blew a 10-0 lead to a third-string quarterback, and Nick Chubb and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for just 20 touches. That T-shirt, however, was stupid given how the Browns' season has come with so many viral viruses. It is yet another reminder that the organization to this point has lacked the top-down leadership necessary to be in the playoff conversation. It was another don't-press-send moment for the Browns, and Kitchens just told you he would do it again.

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It proved once again the Browns do not yet know how to wear the label of playoff contender. This team still needs to learn how to win, and Kitchens is getting in the way.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is two games ahead of Cleveland in the AFC North standings. Baltimore is five games ahead. Cincinnati probably feels like it can get one of two against Cleveland given how Andy Dalton played Sunday.

This was a division a lot of publications, including ours, picked the Browns to win. Instead, we've spent a lot of the season writing about their clothing and accessories.

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Freddie-Kitchens-091919-GETTY-FTR.jpg

Beckham's watch, visor and cleats aren't big deals. The fact that he has just two receiving TDs, ranks 23rd in receiving yards and 28th in receptions is a big deal.

Haslam's sock hat is not a big deal. The fact that the Browns' best defensive player is not on the field because he swung a helmet at Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph is a big deal.

Kitchens' T-shirt is not a big deal. The fact that the Browns have been assessed the most penalty yards in the NFL and rank 21st in red-zone touchdown percentage is a big deal.

The long-awaited franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield has not regressed in Year 2, but he has not exactly taken the next step with Kitchens as head coach. That is perhaps the biggest issue for the Browns when looking toward the future. They have the right QB for the first time since Bernie Kosar. Do they have the right coach?

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These next four games will go a long way in determining whether Kitchens will be on the sideline if and when this talented team does make a breakthrough in 2020. Cleveland closes the season with book-end games against the Bengals, with a trip to Arizona and home finale against Baltimore sandwiched in between.

At worst, Cleveland should go 3-1 in that stretch, and it's important to remember it beat Baltimore 40-25 in Week 4 in what now looks like the most inexplicable result of the regular season given the direction both franchises have gone since.

Baltimore is a Super Bowl contender with MVP candidate Lamar Jackson. Cleveland needs to win out and get a ton of help to stay in the AFC wild card conversation.

Winning out isn't just about the playoffs at this point, however.

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Winning out would mean a 9-7 record. Even 8-8 would end the dubious string of 11 straight losing seasons the team almost broke in 2018 when it finished 7-8-1. That would show progress, and Kitchens would be responsible for it.

If the Browns finish 7-9 or worse, then Kitchens might be the next coach out the door.

In order for Kitchens to avoid that fate, for starters, he can avoid discussions about clothes. Prove his team can be a more disciplined unit that can take care of business in December. Cleveland won three of its last four in 2018, and that's how the preseason momentum got started. Kitchens was responsible for a lot of that last year, and Browns fans became enamored with him right down to the "Dawg Pound" sweatshirt.

A similar run would prime the Browns for something more in 2020, when they could prove they learned from this year's mistakes, including their apparel.

Hey, at least we already know they will have new uniforms for the occasion.

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