CLEVELAND — Every time you think you’re all in with Freddie Kitchens, something happens to pull you back out.
Little things here and there. Big things. Things that mystify.
Monday’s disaster against the Niners qualified on all counts.
The third loss of the young season added another what-was-that moment: Odell Beckham Jr. returning a punt in the fourth quarter of a lost cause minutes before Kitchens pulled Baker Mayfield to keep his young quarterback from taking any more punishment.
“I thought he was taking too many hits unnecessarily,” the head coach said post-game.
And Beckham? How necessary was that?
Beckham wanted to “spark” his team, down 28-3. If it was his idea, OK. Good on him. Pat him on the back, thank him. Tell the team in the next meeting that’s the kind of volunteerism you’re looking for.
Just don’t expose him to an unnecessary hit for such little gain.
The Niners accepted Beckham’s subsequent fumble as a last bit of generosity and kicked a field goal in a 31-3 stunner.
It was stunning not because San Francisco is suspect as one of two remaining undefeated teams. That’s the least of the reasons.
The Niners have knocked down everything put in front of them through four games. If that were easy, someone else besides the Patriots would’ve done the same.
It was stunning not only because it followed a good win at Baltimore, but because the Browns under Kitchens — who has preached toughness and resilience — have shrunk from adversity twice already in his short tenure.
Monday was worse than the opener against Tennessee in that regard because the Browns lost focus even earlier, stopped competing sooner.
The Beckham punt return is a small thing in the big picture, but it just made so little sense. Fourth-and-nine draw play sense. Nick Chubb not touching the ball inside the 5-yard line against the Rams sense.
Kitchens might argue he wanted to keep being aggressive to the end Monday, but even before he pulled Mayfield he twice punted on fourth down — one time near midfield. Aggressiveness by definition can’t be that selective.
There were other curiosities. Antonio Callaway went from not seeing the field in weeks due to suspension and injury to showing up Monday as a featured wideout.
Two passes aimed his way, one that found his hands, were intercepted — once in the red zone. Meanwhile, Beckham was limited to two catches against a secondary missing starting corner and a top backup.
“I put him in a bad spot,” Kitchens said of Callaway.
The biggest reflection on Kitchens is Mayfield, who has four TD passes and eight interceptions through five games. He was 8-for-22 against San Francisco with two interceptions for a passer rating of 13.4.
Sacked 16 times this season, Mayfield has looked skittish and slow. Kitchens work with Mayfield as coordinator a year ago was a big reason why the Browns turned over a talented team built to contend now to a guy who’s never been a head coach at any level.
The Niners took great delight in getting over on Mayfield Monday, first with former Ohio State star Nick Bosa “planting the flag” after sacking him, then corner Richard Sherman blasting him post-game for refusing to shake hands at the coin toss.
“What’s amazing, and annoying, was him not shaking hands in the beginning” Sherman told NFL.com, via Pro Football Talk.
“That’s some college s—. It’s ridiculous. We’re all trying to get psyched up, but shaking hands with your opponent — that’s NFL etiquette. And when you pull bush league stuff, that’s disrespectful to the game.”
Sherman says Mayfield hasn’t earned anything yet and should check himself given “how little he’s accomplished.”
We should probably mention here that Sherman and Nick Bosa might not be the best sources of behavior advice.
Now, back to Kitchens.
The head coach keeps telling us he wants his players to be themselves. It’s less important that Mayfield act like the flag planter he was in Columbus as a conquering quarterback than to play like the quarterback Browns fans saw last year.
He isn’t. The blame for that wouldn’t fairly fall on every head coach. But it falls more so on Kitchens because Mayfield’s work in 2018 was part of the resume that got Kitchens hired.
Beyond his connection with the franchise quarterback, smart, tough football is what Kitchens has promised.
And it went missing for all to see Monday. Again.