They were a pretty good partnership for eight weeks, Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens.
They were mentioned in that order back then. Williams the interim head coach was first; Kitchens the interim offensive coordinator second.
Paired together in a shotgun marriage after the firings of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Oct. 30, they proceeded to win five of eight games – two more than Jackson won in 40 games as Browns head coach.
Together, they restored order, credibility and relevance to a franchise stripped of its pride by runaway losing and dysfunction.
When it came time to hire his first head coach, Browns GM John Dorsey chose the unassuming and relatively unknown Kitchens with no head coach experience over the caustic, sometimes clownish, always controversial Williams.
Among the many storylines of the Browns’ prime-time meeting with the New York Jets – ostensibly celebrating the 50th year of the culture-changing “Monday Night Football” franchise that both teams inaugurated in 1970 – is the confrontation between Kitchens the Browns head coach and offensive play-caller and Williams the Jets defensive coordinator.
Odell Beckham Jr.’s explosive charge that Williams targeted him in a 2017 preseason game in Cleveland certainly added a new wrinkle to this encounter. But the game also might be viewed as the seminal opportunity for Kitchens to prove that Dorsey made the right choice.
A short honeymoon: Kitchens remains highly miffed about the biting words of Bob Wylie spoken in August.
The disgruntled former Browns offensive line coach and Jackson confidante questioned the hiring of Kitchens in a CBS Radio interview publicized on the day of the Browns’ scrimmage in FirstEnergy Stadium. Wylie attributed Kitchens’ stunning ascension to his great relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“Baker likes Freddie,” Wylie said. “My own personal feeling is Gregg was too strong a candidate for the [head coach] seat. I don't think Dorsey wanted to go head-to-head with Gregg like he had to do with Andy Reid in Kansas City, so he kind of filtered Gregg out of the picture and he kept the search going."
At the time, Dorsey said to ESPN Cleveland, “That’s absolutely not true. And I mean that. All of that is unreal. Bob’s a bitter man.”
A humbling, 43-13 trouncing by the Tennessee Titans in his Browns coaching debut at home – marked by a hideous total of 18 penalties -- has made for a rocky week in the Kitchens honeymoon.
The meeting with Williams is not good timing for Kitchens when considering the words of center JC Tretter.
When asked what quality Williams brought to the table as interim head coach, Tretter said, “I thought the discipline he brought. Just being very straightforward in what’s expected and holding them accountable, being where you’re supposed to be on the field, and being on time and all that stuff. He came in and laid down the law. That’s what Gregg is. He laid down the law.”
In the eight games Williams was interim coach last year, the Browns averaged six penalties for 48 yards. Now, that was a different team in different portion of a season. Still, that’s a far cry from the 18 penalties for 182 yards the Browns committed in a near-record display of lack of discipline and composure.
Some players showered respect on Williams in interviews this week.
“He did a good job with us,” said linebacker Joe Schobert. “Obviously the organization felt to go a different way and I think they made a good choice with Freddie.”
“He’s a tremendous coach,” said running back Nick Chubb. “I have a lot of respect for him and what he does.”
But others were muted.
Asked the impact Williams had on the Browns’ turnaround last year, linebacker Christian Kirksey said, “I think it was just more so that everybody – coaches, players, organization – I think we all just made up in our minds it was time to turn the corner. There was no speech. It was just a mindset to turn it around.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, the most important player, said this about Williams:
“He was our head coach for the back half of the season. Gregg is the same mindset guy every week, so we knew what to expect out of him. We know this one means a lot to him.”
Cornerback Denzel Ward, who was singled out by Williams for “stupid tackling,” revealingly mocked Williams this week.
“I’m just hoping, personally, I can avoid my ‘stupid tackling’ when going against him,” Ward said.
Pressed on how much Williams’ public comments bothered him, Ward said, “It didn’t bother me too much. I understood it. He wanted me to get lower in tackling and maybe not wrap up but take the guy’s legs out. Like I said, he’s a good coach. He was trying to teach me. He just had a different way of teaching.”
Asked if Williams delivered his tackling message privately to Ward before going public, Ward said, “Yeah, he spoke about it. But that was the first time I’d seen ‘stupid tackling’ in the media. He later talked to me about it … kind of.”
Bringing the hate: There is nobody in the Browns locker room more glad to see Williams gone than safety Damarious Randall. His comments add some insight on why Williams may have not been considered a serious candidate.
In front of the battalion of TV cameras that routinely record the mass player interviews in the locker room, Randall declined to discuss Williams, saying, “Next question.”
But in aside to ESPN Cleveland, Randall left no doubt where he stood about his former defensive coordinator. He used the word “hate” to describe his feelings about Williams.
It was Randall who handed the ball to Jackson after an interception in the first meeting after Jackson retreated to the rival Bengals after his dismissal as Browns coach last year.
“Gregg Williams will not get a ball from me,” Randall said. “I won’t speak to him during the game, after the game, before the game.”
No ‘bro hugs?
“No. A lot of hate,” Randall said. “Don’t like him. Don’t like him. Never did.”
I said to Randall that Williams really wanted the permanent job as Browns coach.
“Gregg didn’t have a chance at this job,” Randall said. “If Gregg would have got this job, you thought the Dolphins have asked to get out of there? You would have seen everybody asking to get out of here.
“I don’t think he was wanted by the players here.”
It was instructive that Dorsey gave Williams the first interview for the vacant head coach position. It came across as a courtesy interview.
Kitchens’ interview was last. When the Browns’ search committee narrowed the field to two finalists, Williams was nowhere to be found. Kitchens was pitted against Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta-candidate Kevin Stefanski, a Minnesota Vikings offensive assistant coach noted for his zeal for analytics.
That made Kitchens an easy choice.
During a seamless training camp, Kitchens’ popularity soared.
But the giant egg laid in the season opener blindsided the organization and took the shine off the homespun and well-liked Kitchens.
And it also increased the heat on the game against the depleted Jets. A sub-par performance by the Browns, with Williams glowering and hurling profanities from the Jets’ sideline, would not be good for Kitchens.