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Are The Browns Actually Decent Now That They’ve Changed Coaches?

Firing a head coach in the middle of an NFL season is viewed as a rash move. But when your head coach might be the worst in NFL history, and your No. 1 overall quarterback is failing to develop, maybe desperation is warranted.

So the Browns had nothing to lose when they jettisoned both Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley after the two engaged in a bitter power struggle. But few could have expected the team’s subsequent dramatic turnaround, which continued Sunday in Cincinnati (with Jackson on the opposing sideline). Rookie signal caller Baker Mayfield tossed a career-high four touchdown passes and the Browns rolled up 24 first downs in a 35-20 victory — Cleveland’s first road win since 2015. Cleveland’s record under interim coach Gregg Williams is now 2-1.

The Browns’ about-face is quite a surprise given that such teams tend to keep losing. Over the previous 12 seasons, teams that fired their coaches in the middle of a season subsequently had just a .389 winning percentage, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Granted, that’s 11.5 percentage points higher than it had been before the change, on average. But we’d expect some kind of improvement just from regression to the mean alone.

Cleveland can thank its offense under new coordinator and play caller Freddie Kitchens. According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, the Browns’ offensive turnaround since firing Jackson is unprecedented since 2006, the first year for which advanced stats are available. They are adding 13.3 expected points per game on offense, based on the field position and down and distance of every snap. Among the 18 teams in that time period that had an interim coach for multiple games, the Browns are only the fifth to see any offensive gains whatsoever when measured this way. And the average improvement of the other four was just 3.1 points per game, with a high of 6.0 by the 2016 Jaguars — a boost that earned then-interim coach Doug Marrone the permanent gig. (Though, in the NFL, “permanent” is a relative term.) The second best improvement, about a third of what the Browns have experienced, was by the 2010 Cowboys under interim coach Jason Garrett, who also was promoted to head coach and has proceeded to hold the job since.

Interim usually means underwhelming

Expected points added on offense and defense for interim coaches* compared with the coaches they replaced, since 2006

Coach Former coach Interim coach
Year Team Former Interim OFF. EPA DEF. EPA Win % OFF. EPA DEF. EPA Win %
2018 CLE Jackson Williams -4.9 +0.9 .313 +13.3 -9.1 .667
2017 NYG McAdoo Spagnuolo -4.2 -1.9 .167 -7.0 -0.7 .250
2016 JAX Bradley Marrone -3.2 -1.7 .143 +6.0 +2.5 .500
2016 LAR Fisher Fassel -7.8 -2.8 .308 -19.3 -2.5 .000
2015 MIA Philbin Campbell -4.4 -6.3 .250 -0.2 -3.3 .417
2015 TEN Whisenhunt Mularkey -6.1 +2.5 .143 -3.4 -7.0 .222
2014 OAK Allen Sparano -10.0 -3.2 .000 -7.5 -3.8 .250
2013 HOU Kubiak Phillips -4.1 -2.5 .154 -13.6 -2.1 .000
2011 KC Haley Crennel -7.4 -0.3 .385 +0.9 +5.0 .667
2011 MIA Sparano Bowles -2.7 +2.0 .308 +0.8 -0.3 .667
2011 JAX Del Rio Tucker -10.4 +4.3 .273 -6.0 -0.6 .400
2010 DEN McDaniels Studesville +1.8 -8.7 .250 -6.3 -3.8 .250
2010 DAL Phillips Garrett -1.6 -4.7 .125 +4.6 -0.9 .625
2010 MIN Childress Frazier -4.2 -1.3 .300 -7.1 +5.3 .500
2009 BUF Jauron Fewell -8.1 -0.4 .333 -3.9 +3.8 .429
2008 SF Nolan Singletary -4.4 -1.7 .286 -2.1 -0.3 .556
2008 OAK Kiffin Cable -6.3 -3.3 .250 -9.0 -3.2 .333
2007 ATL Petrino Thomas -7.8 -1.7 .231 -1.6 -7.8 .333

* Includes only interim coaches with a minimum of two games played

Bobby Petrino left Atlanta after 13 games in 2007 to become the head coach at Arkansas. All other former coaches were fired.

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN Stats & Information Group

But what’s so unusual about Cleveland’s situation is that, unlike Marrone and Garrett, Williams isn’t involved with the offense. Kitchens is getting the credit there, particularly with the striking improvement of Mayfield. The Heisman-winning No. 1 overall pick is now releasing the ball with the quickness and anticipation that intrigued NFL scouts when he was one of college football’s most prolific passers — he took an average of 0.3 seconds less to throw in Weeks 9 and 10 than he did during his previous six games, according to Pro Football Focus.

Mayfield’s comfort in the new system deployed by Kitchens is seen in his Total Quarterback Rating, in which he trails only Drew Brees and Andrew Luck since Week 9.1 Prior to the coaching change, Mayfield ranked 29th in QBR and was sacked 20 times in six games. He has been sacked only twice in three games under Kitchens.

A major question now is whether the Browns’ success will be credited to Williams, who has touted himself as a red-hot coaching candidate. Though interestingly, Cleveland’s defense actually has gotten worse with Williams, the former defensive coordinator, now completely in charge of that unit. They’ve gone from 0.9 expected points added per game to minus-9.1. That’s the biggest drop in defensive performance by a team with an interim coach since 2006. Williams, 60, would also be the dreaded “retread” — the Browns this year have improved his career head coaching record to a decidedly uninspiring 19-32.

Kitchens could be dark horse candidate for the full-time job. And he’s received high praise from general manager John Dorsey.

But the Cleveland job is very attractive thanks to Mayfield’s potential, and several established coaches are throwing their names into the mix. Bruce Arians, who wants to return to Cleveland, has floated the idea that he would keep Kitchens on as offensive coordinator if he were to get the job. But given that Arians’s entire selling point is his ability to design offenses and develop young quarterbacks, there could be too many cooks in the kitchens.

Whatever develops this offseason, the long-hapless Browns are finally showing signs of life — and they’re even in the hunt for a playoff berth. For once, the rash move of showing a coach the door seems to have paid off.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Mayfield and Luck have played three games in that span, while Brees played four.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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