Culture shock: Freddie Kitchens readies Browns for season with physical camp

Browns first-year coach building toughness to compliment team’s talent

Daryl Ruiter
August 13, 2019 - 2:12 pm

Berea, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – Culture change has been a buzz phrase for every new Browns head coach that followed Romeo Crennel after he was fired following the 2008 season except one – Freddie Kitchens.

Culture has been blamed for nearly two decades of losing that had recently reached epic and historic proportions prior to last year’s surprisingly refreshing 7-8-1 turnaround.

Kitchens saw “culture” as a cop out, as evidenced by the first 14 practices of his first training camp in Cleveland.

“This has been a pretty tough camp for these guys,” Kitchens said. “I think it has been kind of a culture shock, but I think they have embraced it. We have a lot of guys that are willing to pay the price. We understand that now. A lot of guys have bought in to what we are trying to do.”

Many coaches created leadership councils in the locker room to enforce their philosophy, team rules and even air grievances privately, but not Kitchens.

“I have me, and that is it,” Kitchens said. “I do not get into that stuff either. That is all a façade for excuses to blame other people. I will take the blame.”

Kitchens has no time for excuses. Not with so much at stake.

Of the 14 practices to date – 11 have been in full pads. The exceptions were the first two of camp – mandated by the collective bargaining agreement – and last Friday, the day after their 30-10 preseason thumping of Washington.

“The game is played in pads,” Kitchens said. “We are going to be physically and mentally tough.”

Aside from a lack of premiere talent, for 20 years the Browns had not been physically or mentally tough, something Kitchens put atop his list of priorities in order to turn the once laughingstock of the NFL into a force to be reckoned with.

For Kitchens, what happened prior to his elevation to head coach in January has zero impact on what’s about to transpire this fall. It’s a philosophy he’s taken to the field – keeping his players focused on the next play, not the previous one that either has been added to the highlight or blooper reel.

“The last play does not mean anything,” Kitchens said. “It is back to the rear-view mirror. It is smaller than the windshield. Let’s look forward.”

Looking forward, to prepare his team for what lies in front of them, Kitchens has run one of the more physical yet efficient camps we’ve seen in the expansion era.

Gone are the short practices in shorts, shirts and helmets. They have been replaced with long practices – scheduled for two hours but last 2:25-2:40 – in full pads.

The first team offense also plays the first team defense, the twos face the twos and the threes the threes.

“Are you trying to build confidence or are you trying to get better? I don’t need my horn tooted,” Kitchens said. “I think that is how you get better. You get better by going against better people. That is a common theme in life. You are right, I do not care what has happened before.”

Not a single player has complained.

“They will not tell you that it is easy, but they have embraced the work, they have embraced the physical nature,” Kitchens said. “Those guys have been through games. They have been through a season, most of them have, and they know what it takes. I do not want them worried about the pads. I want them knowing that the football game is played with pads on.

“I told them at the beginning that the light that they see as a train. It is not at the end of the tunnel. That is what I want them focused on is today. That is it. I think they have done an excellent job embracing the challenge of that.”

Kitchens and his staff know adversity is going to hit them at any time, unannounced, so he builds it into his practices – rushing the field goal unit onto the field for a long game-winning kick, running the offense from their own one yard line, two-minute drills, third or fourth down drills and one of his favorites – running his backs straight into a loaded box.

“It is like fitting two people in a phone booth and seeing who comes out,” Kitchens said. “Sometimes, you can’t even open the door. If you and me were in there, you would not be able to open the door. It is tough. The space gets diminished.”

Expectations are as high as they’ve been in over a decade for the Browns.

After winning five of their last seven and quarterback Baker Mayfield breaking the NFL’s rookie touchdown passing record, the Browns aren’t sneaking up on anyone. Not after an offseason that saw them add three Pro Bowlers in Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson.

Talent is one thing – and the Browns have it – toughness is a different story, and Kitchens understands that too.

“When you get into the season, you are allowed one day a week with pads on,” Kitchens said. “This is the time that you have to build some of that toughness.

“This is a tough game played by tough people.”