I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing at the headline.
Get it out of your system, because I’m dead serious. The Browns could be one of the league’s best teams next year.
Cleveland announced the hiring of interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens as its next head coach on Thursday. After a long-term search rumored to include the likes of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and… uh… former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Browns made the right hire.
They chose to zig while others zagged, and I think that’s commendable. Most teams in the NFL seem to be chasing after the next Sean McVay, the criteria for which is, more or less, young, offensive-minded and... chiseled? I don’t know.
As a result, teams are reaching for anyone with a semblance of offensive innovation without regard to their prior track record (*cough cough,* Cardinals). Either that, or they go the opposite extreme and lock down a washed-up retread that will prove to be little more than a short-term bandage (I’m looking at you, Tampa Bay).
Instead, the Browns actually made the hire that made the most sense for their organization, and it’s going to pay off big time.
Kitchens replaced the former offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, when he and head coach Hue Jackson were fired after Week 8. Cleveland was 2-5-1 at that time, but finished the season going 5-3 with fringe playoff hopes in the final weeks. The Browns looked like a competitive NFL team a year removed from an 0-16 season, and Kitchens’ role in that can’t be understated.
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield progressed tremendously under his tutelage.
Mayfield became more efficient throughout the year, averaging an 81.7 rating while Haley called plays but improving to a 109.7 average rating under Kitchens. He went from averaging about 245 yards and an 8-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio to about 282 yards and a 19-to-8 ratio in the last eight games. He ended up throwing for 3,725 yards and a rookie-quarterback record 27 touchdowns.
Keeping Mayfield in the same system that allowed him to thrive as a rookie is a big win for the Land.
Cleveland is the only team that drafted a quarterback in 2018 that should feel confident it landed a franchise guy, and the Browns have built a solid offensive core around him. Nick Chubb and Antonio Callaway impressed as rookies, while Jarvis Landry and David Njoku have proved to be weapons. There’s no reason to think the Browns’ offense couldn’t be among the league’s finest next year, and as the Colts, Saints and Chiefs showed this year, that could be enough.
It’s not like the cupboard is completely bare on defense, either. The unit ranked 30th in the league this year, but young guys like Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Damarious Randall should anchor an up-and-coming defense that could still use some work.
The Browns aside, the AFC North seems ripe for the picking. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs this year. With Ben Roethlisberger’s future in question and no clear successor in place and future Hall-of-Fame receiver Antonio Brown likely on his way out, the Steelers could take another step back in 2019.
Baltimore drafted quarterback Lamar Jackson to replace Joe Flacco, and he played well enough to save the season and claim a division title. But with Jackson’s development still very much a work-in-progress, the Browns could take advantage, despite the fact that the Ravens return the league’s top defense.
Oh yeah, and the Bengals finally emerged from former coach Marvin Lewis’ 16-year pit of despair. But with a new head man and an aging roster, 2019 could be a transition year in Cincinnati. For once in a very long time, the path to the playoffs looks incredibly manageable for the Browns.
But why stop there?
Most teams that finished at the top of the AFC this year still have a good deal of uncertainty moving forward, aside from Kansas City. The clock is ticking for New England. Houston continually disappoints in the playoffs, and the Chargers will have to compete with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to win the AFC West. Maybe, just maybe, a playoff run isn’t out of the question for Cleveland.
So, NFL be warned: The Browns could make a big splash next season.
Tyler Nettuno is a sports writer at the Alligator. You can follow him on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at [email protected].