BEREA, Ohio (AP) — From excitement and expectations to more excuses. This season that was supposed to be so different for the Browns has dissolved into something very similar: a mess.
The coach is under fire. The fans are incensed. The owners are contemplating more change.
Just another dreary December in Cleveland.
Sunday's 38-24 loss at Arizona to a Cardinals team riding a six-game losing streak and with nothing to play for may have been the final straw for Browns first-year coach Freddie Kitchens, who did his best Monday to clarify postgame comments that he didn't care about his future.
“Of course, I want to be back,” Kitchens said.
It's out of his hands now as the Browns (6-8) stagger to the finish of a season that will likely end short of the playoffs for the 18th consecutive year. Cleveland hasn't been mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet, but it will need a win at home Sunday over the Baltimore Ravens (12-2), then numerous scenarios to fall their way to have any chance of playing in January.
Instead, they could be looking for another coach — their seventh in the past decade.
Kitchens was the surprise choice of general manager John Dorsey and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to lead the Browns, whose talented roster has underachieved and been enveloped in drama for months. Cleveland's issues extend way beyond the sidelines.
Kitchens still believes there has been growth in between the groans.
“We can make it all bad all we want, but we have done some good things this year,” he said. "We have the leading rusher in the league. We have two receivers over 900 yards. I do not even know where they rank now, but nobody has a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver and another receiving almost 900 yards. Defensively, up until yesterday, we were second in the league in third downs and getting off the field.
“We were ranked pretty high in the red zone and making guys kick field goals. We just need to execute better when we get to the critical moments in a game. There is a lot of good here."
Kitchens' assessment aside, it's hard to overlook the team's lack of discipline; quarterback Baker Mayfield's regression in his second season; an offense that has rarely been in sync; and a defense that gave up 445 yards Sunday.
It's certainly not all Kitchens' fault, but someone's to blame. And someone will take the fall.
Kitchens dismissed his heated sideline exchange with star wide receiver Jarvis Landry in the fourth quarter as “passion” and said he doesn't have any problems with Landry. Odell Beckham Jr. and Landry both offered support to Kitchens, who believes his players haven't given up on him.
“We are in it together," Kitchens said. “These guys will continue to play together. We built that through being through the fire together. ... We are going to stay together these last two weeks. I don’t care what happens, these guys will stay together.”
Some cracks could be showing.
Running back Kareem Hunt felt some teammates didn't play as hard as they needed to against the Cardinals.
"I feel like there were some plays that everybody didn’t leave their 110% out there the whole play through the whole play, through the whole whistle,’’ he said. “And we’ve all got to do that if we want to be successful. ... It’s everybody. You can’t point out one person or nothing like that. It’s everybody, and everybody’s got to do their job.’’
Running back Nick Chubb is the Browns' runaway MVP — by a mile. He gained 127 yards on 17 carries and scored on a 33-yard touchdown Sunday. Chubb's 1,408 yards rushing are the most for a Cleveland back since Hall of Famer Jim Brown got 1,544 in 1965.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Arizona's offense racked up 226 yards rushing against a Browns defense missing some key pieces, including suspended star Myles Garrett. However, the problems seem deeper than just personnel for coordinator Steve Wilks, who had hoped to shut down the Cardinals after being fired as their coach last season.
Rookie linebacker Mack Wilson continues to play well. He made his first interception and had seven tackles.
Mayfield's crowning as the team's franchise quarterback may have been premature. He's among the lowest-rated passers in the league and isn't delivering big plays like did as a rookie.
Kitchens hasn't lost any faith in the 24-year-old.
“Baker needs to play better,” he said. “He understands that. We know who we drafted, and I am happy as hell that we drafted him. He is going to be our quarterback for a long time, and he needs to continue to get better, just like we all do.”
Kitchens did not give an update on right tackle Kendall Lamm, who sat out much of the second half with a knee injury. Lamm was making his second straight start in place of Chris Hubbard. ... Defensive end Olivier Vernon was inactive for the fifth time in six games with a sprained knee.
If things weren't tough enough for the Browns, who have been given less than a 1% chance to make the playoffs, here come MVP candidate Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Cleveland's 40-25 win at Baltimore was the season's high point and the Browns may have to duplicate it to save Kitchens.
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