BEREA, Ohio — Freddie Kitchens’ face was flushed with frustration, his cheeks glowing as bright as his orange hoodie.
Cleveland’s rookie coach, who was surprisingly hired after a successful eight-game stint as offensive coordinator last season, was brutally hard on himself following Sunday night’s 20-13 loss to Los Angeles.
He accepted responsibility and blame for his questionable play calling in the fourth quarter: a draw on fourth-and-9 and four straight passes in the final seconds after the Browns drove to the Rams 4-yard line. Despite having all three timeouts, Kitchens had Baker Mayfield throw four times, and his last one was intercepted in the end zone.
But despite concerns he might have too much on his plate, Kitchens isn’t handing off play-calling duties to coordinator Todd Monken or anyone.
“Not gonna happen,” Kitchens said firmly Monday. “It’s me. It’s my fault. Todd does a great job during the course of the week of making sure we stay on task, we stay organized. But when things mess up, it’s going to be me.”
While noble, Kitchens’ choice to point the finger at himself and be accountable doesn’t minimize that the Browns (1-2) are not playing up to their own expectations — especially on offense. They and are suffering through early growing pains far more severe than many imagined.
Kitchens won’t make excuses, though it would be easy to point out that Cleveland was missing seven starters, including its entire secondary, and still took one of the NFL’s best teams to the wire.
The Browns are incomplete, a work in progress after three games.
“We will be fine,” Kitchens said. “Nobody is panicking. We are not panicking, but we also understand the shortcomings we have had. I understand the shortcomings that I have had. I am going to get it better. Our team is going to get better.”
They’ve made strides since a Week 1 debacle, playing with more composure, cutting down penalties.
But the Browns haven’t found cohesion on either side of the ball, and there’s a growing concern outside the team that Kitchens might be overmatched. This is his first experience as a head coach at any level, and while Kitchens learns on the fly, the Browns may take some lumps.
Kitchens doesn’t mind the criticism. In fact, he seems to enjoy the challenge of proving people wrong. This is nothing new to him, and Kitchens isn’t worried he won’t succeed.
“Our team understands this: that some of these situations are new for me,” he said. “I also understand that I will get better from it and I understand our team will get better from them. ... We are building this thing. We wanted to play better this week than we did last week, and we did that. We want to play better next week than we did this week, and we will do that. This is a continual climb.”
And right now, a slow one.
Despite being down five starters, Cleveland’s defense did a good job pressuring Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who was stripped by Myles Garrett and threw two interceptions. Garrett behaved and was penalty free after committing five in the first two games.
Running back Nick Chubb had another solid game — 96 yards on 23 carries — but didn’t touch the ball with the game hanging in the balance, a decision Kitchens regrets.
“I do wish I would have given the ball to Nick one time,” he said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Browns are averaging 16.3 points, nowhere near their potential with an offense featuring Mayfield, Chubb and star receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Kitchens has been far more conservative than last season, when the Browns were unpredictably exciting. It might be time for him to turn things loose.
Chubb has become one of the league’s most consistent backs, and Kitchens may soon start riding him more while the passing attack evolves.
Mayfield looks uneasy in the pocket, and has been prone to the quick scramble — almost always to the right side. He missed an open Landry slanting at the goal line on the final drive, and hasn’t been as accurate (56.9 percent) as last season (63.8).
The Browns experienced a freakish frenzy of three hamstring injuries in a 10-minute span of practice Friday, with starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and rookie Greedy Williams both going down and missing Sunday’s game.
“It was crazy,” said Ward, who had hoped to play all 16 games after missing three last season with two concussions.
16 — Mayfield has thrown a TD pass in each of his first 16 career starts, a streak second only to Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s 24.
There are no breaks in the upcoming schedule as the Browns play road games at Baltimore (2-1) and San Francisco (3-0) before hosting Seattle (2-1).
Kitchens insists he’s not feeling any internal pressure, but it will increase significantly without a couple wins.
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