CLEVELAND — The Browns didn’t have to go far to find their new coach.
Freddie Kitchens was already in the building.
The 44-year-old Kitchens, who had a dazzling eight-week run as the team’s interim offensive coordinator, is finalizing a contract to become Cleveland’s ninth coach since the franchise’s 1999 rebirth, a person familiar with the decision told the Associated Press on Wednesday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team is not commenting on the imminent hire.
ESPN was first to announce the decision.
Also, Gregg Williams, who went 5-3 as Cleveland’s interim coach and defensive coordinator this season, is no longer with the team, the person said. Williams was the first candidate to interview for the coaching vacancy.
Kitchens has no previous head coaching experience, but his work with Cleveland’s offense — most notably quarterback Baker Mayfield — in the season’s second half vaulted him ahead of the other six candidates interviewed by the Browns, who were looking for the right coach to lead them following a stunning turnaround season.
Kitchens will get the chance.
Under his leadership, Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, threw 19 of his NFL rookie record 27 touchdown passes while erasing any doubt that he could be the coveted franchise quarterback that has eluded the Browns for decades.
Kitchens and Mayfield formed a strong relationship during their time together, and Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam along with general manager John Dorsey are counting on the pair taking Cleveland to new heights.
It’s a spectacular rise for Kitchens, who began the season as the team’s running backs coach. He took over the Browns offense when coordinator Todd Haley was fired an hour after coach Hue Jackson’s dismissal on Oct. 29 and Kitchens quickly showed he had coaching chops.
He revamped the offensive scheme, using multiple formations and tweaking the game plan to include calls that he knew his players were comfortable running. Kitchens, who was a three-year starting quarterback at Alabama, wasn’t afraid to be creative as he used wide receiver Jarvis Landry on running plays and to throw passes, and he got major production from rookie running back Nick Chubb, left tackle Greg Robinson and receiver Breshad Perriman — three players under-utilized by Jackson and Haley.
Kitchens and Williams kept their players focused and motivated following the mid-season coaching change and the Browns went 7-8-1 following an 0-16 season in 2017 under Jackson.
As the team’s success grew, Kitchens never campaigned to be Cleveland’s coach but leading a team was always a goal.
“Definitely. No doubt,” he said. “I heard the other day somebody say something about I wasn’t ready to be a head coach. I mean, who the hell’s ready to be a head coach? You have a resume that you check off the list and everything?”
The barrel-chested Kitchens became a fan favorite in a city that loves underdogs.
“I like it here and I like it here a lot, and everybody around here knows that I like it here,” Kitchens said last month. “I love the town of Cleveland. Cleveland and I get along well.”
Kitchens is the fourth coach hired by the Haslams since they bought the team in 2012.