The Cleveland Browns are on fire.
The team is 4-1 in their last five games after having won four games total in the previous 164 weeks.
The Browns now sit at 6-7-1 after starting the year 2-6-1. What changed? The coaching.
After a rocky start to the season, the Browns relieved head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley of their duties. Gregg Williams, the team's defensive coordinator, became the interim head coach, and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens was elevated to offensive coordinator.
Both have performed admirably, but it's Kitchens who's drawing rave reviews from NFL experts. Under Kitchens, Baker Mayfield has blossomed into one of the league's premier quarterbacks. His completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating have all skyrocketed. After taking 20 sacks for 132 yards in his first six games, Mayfield's been sacked just five times for 41 yards in the six games with Kitchens.
Kitchens has done a great job of playing to the strength of his players, and that stems in part from a coaching tactic he utilized shortly after being elevated to offensive coordinator. Kitchens went to Mayfield and asked him to write down his five favorite plays. He then did the same with the offensive linemen. Their answers helped Kitchens understand what concepts his players were most comfortable and confident in, and we're betting many of these plays are now staples of the offense.
It sounds simple, but sometimes the best coaching practices are the most obvious ones. All too often, coaches fall in love with their own systems rather than tailoring their strategy to the strengths of their players.
"In (Kitchens') first meeting with the offense, he said, 'We're gonna be as good as everyone in this room is.' He wanted ideas. He asked the offensive linemen, 'What runs do you guys like?' I'd never seen that before," Browns back-up quarterback Drew Stanton told Pro Football Talk. If a guy who's been in the NFL for 8 years and spent time with four different pro teams has never seen it, it's novel. When it comes to coaching, common sense isn't always as common as we'd like to believe.
Kitchens' strategy not only helped the Browns build a more effective offense, but it helped his players feel like they were truly being listened to, which goes a long way toward developing trust. Similar tactics can be utilized by coaches at many different levels and in many different sports.
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