With spring dawning, the Cleveland Browns sit as the early NFL offseason flower, blooming through the persistent chill that won't quite quit yet.
The additions of Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Kareem Hunt and others, along with the maturation of quarterback Baker Mayfield and pass rusher Myles Garrett, have the expectations soaring in Cleveland. With turmoil and overhauls happening elsewhere in the division, the Browns currently sit as the offseason favorites in the AFC North, something unfathomable 12 months ago.
New coach Freddie Kitchens, in his blunt, rustic manner, downplayed the offseason hype ahead of the team's first offseason workout on Monday, noting football isn't played on paper.
"Right now, we are just a bunch of good individual players," Kitchens said, via the team's official website. "Yeah, our roster looks great on paper -- whoopty-hell, alright? -- but at the end of the day, we better be a good team. You start building that during this time of the year, and training camp is a big portion of that."
Given the talent on the roster, Kitchens -- a man handed a head coaching job after only eight career games calling plays -- will face the brunt of the blame if the Browns crash and burn in 2019. Kitchens brushed aside any concerns about projections.
"Like I said, our expectations have nothing to do with the outside world. Our expectations are set in our room in our team room," Kitchens said. "Our expectations are going to be on how we prepare every day and approach every day from a business perspective and on what we want to get accomplished on each day on a day-in and day-out basis. The outside predictions, we are not in that business. We are going to let other people do that. We are just going to be happy with our performance and how we prepare.
"When you start talking about expectations, if a team is supposed to be not very good, then the expectation level is low so the first thing a coach wants to go in and say is that you have to block out the noise from outside. Well, what the hell changes if you are supposed to be good? You still block out the noise from the outside so that is what we are going to do. No pun intended, but nobody else matters except for the people in the room. Those are the only ones that matter and those are the only ones that can affect anything that we do as far as winning and losing. This is ultimately about winning and losing."
The locker room leadership will play a key role in how the Browns offseason rolls into the regular season. With Mayfield's cocksure guidance setting the competitive tone, there is less to worry about the new iteration of the Browns, even with the addition of big personalities. Beckham, for his part, brings more competitive fire than locker-room distraction, despite what some in New York might believe.
Kitchens trusts that a team built together can weather any storm of expectations.
"One thing that you have to realize -- I think we have put together a lot of guys like this -- is that this is our team, and I truly believe that. It is our team," he said. "I am just kind of a front man because if those guys in the locker room do not hold each other accountable, if our coaches do not hold their positions groups accountable and the players amongst themselves do not hold each other accountable, we are not going to have anything anyway. At the core of everything, it is what our team is. It is what our offense is. It is what our defense is. I truly believe the letter 'I' is a dangerous proposition when you start using it in terms of describing yourself in a team setting. We do not do that here. It is always 'we, us, our.' That is what it is now, and that is what it became when I got hired. We were not hiring anybody that did not have that same kind of outlook on things. We want to create that environment for our players. Whenever we do that, we will have something."
If the ship crashes again -- as Cleveland has experienced far too much summer optimism spoiling quickly in the sun over the last two decades -- and expectations aren't met, the newb coach will be first in line for blame. That's a possibility Kitchens doesn't fear -- nor can he afford to.