Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
In roughly eight months on the job as head coach, Freddie Kitchens has made a thousand or so decisions. The next one he makes may be the most crucial to decide this Browns season, and perhaps Kitchens’ fate as coach.
Kitchens is contemplating changes on the offensive line. There could be one, two, even three starting spots disrupted. Any and all of those changes will have a direct bearing on whether quarterback Baker Mayfield is able to pick up his game and the performance of the underperforming offense.
Coming after the bye, with the Browns buried 2 ½ games behind division-leading Baltimore, with their next game on the road against the undefeated New England Patriots, it’s not exaggeration to say the season is riding on what Kitchens decide.
And, although there is some obvious pressure being exerted by GM John Dorsey to do something with the offensive line, Kitchens left no doubt that he will decide how to fix the problems in front of Mayfield.
“That’s my call,” Kitchens said. “Do I get input from other people? Yes, I do. That’s the reason we put together an experienced staff, so I can get their opinions. But ultimately it’s my fault, if it goes bad. So it’s my decision.”
What will he do?: Under intense interrogation by media for a hint of the imminent lineup changes, Kitchens insisted, “I don’t know if we’re making a change yet, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you.”
But it’s fair to say the only positions safe are Joel Bitonio at left guard and JC Tretter at center.
Starting tackles Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard have been called out by coaches and Dorsey for being inconsistent. The line has had its moments; certainly it shares in the success of Nick Chubb, who was second in the NFL in rushing through six games.
But Robinson and Hubbard are tied for second on the team with five penalties each, and those mishaps have made Mayfield’s job tougher. (Houston tackle Laremy Tunsil leads all NFL linemen with nine penalties. Eight others have more than five.)
Also, there is a strong feeling that the personnel department wants to see Wyatt Teller, acquired for two draft picks in August, moved in at right guard ahead of Eric Kush.
“I think when you start talking about a group of offensive linemen, they need to feel good about the person lining up next to them,” Kitchens said. “Any time you make a change like that, it does not go very lightly. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that. And if you do make a change, you expect it to be for the best. If we were to do that, that’s what it would be – the thinking that it would be best for the unit and for the team.”
The Browns turned around their season last year partly by making a lineup change at left tackle at mid-season – Robinson was moved in ahead of rookie Desmond Harrison.
“That situation’s different than the situation now, I think,” Kitchens said. “Listen, changes happen during the course of the year. You make changes hoping it’s for the betterment of the team, not any individual. If we do, it’s for that reason and hopefully will enable everybody to play well and play better than we’ve been playing.”
The options: Dorsey has tried to persuade the Redskins to part with disgruntled tackle Trent Williams, but so far Washington has executed a shutdown on trade talk. That could change by the Oct. 29 trade deadline, but a trade won’t affect Sunday’s game in Foxboro, MA.
When Robinson was ejected for kicking an opponent in the season opener, third tackle Kendall Lamm took his place. But that lasted only three minutes because Lamm suffered a knee injury. That game ended with Hubbard moving to left tackle and guard Justin McCray filling in at right tackle.
Since that debacle, McCray has continued to take reps at both tackle spots. He said he did so on Monday – but also had reps everyplace else.
New line coach James Campen began cross-training McCray at all five O-line spots in their days together in Green Bay in 2017. McCray made 10 emergency starts for the Packers in 2017-18 – but none at left tackle.
When I asked Campen if a move to tackle was being considered for McCray, he brushed off the thought. “I think Justin does a really good job of being flexible,” Campen said. “I’m not going to make any statement, whatsoever. We’ll certainly look at all the spots.”
If McCray is moved to tackle, it is more likely to be right tackle.
That would leave Lamm as a possibility to displace Robinson at left tackle. Lamm, who has recovered from his injury and is into his second week of practicing fully, made 24 starts in four years with the Houston Texans, but only a few at left tackle, and he did not receive good reviews.
“I’m pretty used to it,” Bitonio said of getting comfortable to a new left tackle. “You get a lot of reps with the guys. Obviously, you’d like to have the same next to you the whole time, but if things have to changed, that’s the way it is.
“You see injuries all the time. Luckily, the last few years we’ve been pretty injury-free besides Joe [Thomas] going down. It’s one of those things you adapt to. You hear coaches all the time saying they want to put their best five guys out there.”
Choosing the best five at this point is Kitchens’ most crucial decision. The season may be riding on it.