BEREA — Coach Freddie Kitchens realizes the “culture shock” the Browns are experiencing as he tries to toughen his team, even if he hasn’t been in Cleveland long enough to realize how badly it was needed.
But third-year tight end David Njoku may have best voiced the training camp transformation from the Hue Jackson regime during Thursday’s preseason-opening victory over the Redskins.
“If practice is hard, the game is easy. Freddie put that into full effect this year,” Njoku told mic’d up rookie safety Sheldrick Redwine at FirstEnergy Stadium.
In the latest installment of “Building the Browns,” Redwine said, “I feel like this is not my first game,” and Njoku responded, “That’s because we’re going full pads for two weeks straight.”
Redwine said, “The speed is fast, but it ain’t crazy,” which prompted the tight end’s pertinent observation on Kitchens. First-year running back D’Ernest Johnson was also listening and before the exchange concluded, six-year veteran Odell Beckham Jr. interjected, “I already know we got practice tomorrow.”
What a difference a year makes. During training camp 2018, Kitchens was shown on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” asking Jackson why injured players were not observing practice. Now even though last week’s injured list included the entire starting defensive line, Kitchens is keeping the pads on.
Through Monday, Kitchens had put the Browns through full contact padded practices in 11 of the 12 allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The only exception was Friday after facing the Redskins, and that also broke the mold, with writers on the beat since 1981 unable to remember when the team practiced the day after a game.
To change the culture, the Browns had to change their practice habits. Barring a rash of serious injuries, whether his methods are too extreme may not be known until December if the Browns show they have nothing left for the stretch run.
“This has been a pretty tough camp for these guys,” Kitchens said Monday. “I think it has been kind of a culture shock, but I think they have embraced it. We have a lot of guys that are willing to pay the price. We understand that now. A lot of guys have bought in to what we are trying to do.”
During training camp, the current CBA allows one padded practice per day, limited to three hours. During the regular season, the maximum full-contact practices in pads allowed is 14, 11 during the first 11 weeks, and one per week.
When one media member mistakenly asked if the Browns would have only one more allowed in camp when they return from two sessions against the Colts Wednesday and Thursday in Westfield, Indiana, Kitchens said, “No, I don’t think so. I hope not because we are breaking that rule.” When his remark drew laughter, Kitchens said, “That was not a joke.”
Gone by the wayside is the brutal Oklahoma drill that former coach Marty Schottenheimer ran at least once each camp. Starters play less if at all in preseason, with ex-coach Bill Belichick one of the first to make the fourth game meaningless to all but those competing for the final roster spots.
But Kitchens, a disciple of Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, is going to push the padded practices to the limit. Never a coach at any level and starting just his second season with the Browns, Kitchens knows his team’s weaknesses, vowing, “We are going to be physically and mentally tough.”
“I do not think there is any other way. To me, it is a no-brainer,” Kitchens said. “The game is played in pads, so it is my job to make sure those guys are ready to play the game.”
Kitchens may see ancillary benefits like improved tackling, but that is not his only goal. He wants the Browns physically prepared for the rugged AFC North and mentally strengthened for the grind of a potential playoff run. He wants them to realize their capabilities and play to their potential.
He’s walking the line of alienating players for practices that are too physical and winning them over if they believe such sessions can help them capture a championship.
“This is a tough game played by tough people,” Kitchens said. “Sometimes you have to look inside yourself and make sure that you are tough. Sometimes you have to demonstrate that to realize that you are.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
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