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Freddie Kitchens, Steve Wilks Returning To Face Cardinals

Former coaches in Arizona now key figures for the Browns

Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks (left) and head coach Freddie Kitchens will face their former team on Sunday.
Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks (left) and head coach Freddie Kitchens will face their former team on Sunday.

Freddie Kitchens spent 11 seasons traipsing the home sideline of State Farm Stadium, a longer tenure than any other assistant coach in Cardinals history.

So it was hard to believe the Browns' first-year head coach when he spouted clichés during a conference call with Arizona media on Wednesday, explaining that Sunday's matchup was just another game.

Near the end of the interview, Kitchens dropped the façade, admitting there is more to this reunion than he originally conceded.

"My daughters were 2 and 3 when we moved there, and they were going into high school when we left," Kitchens said. "I was blessed tremendously to be able to be in the same place for so long. Great people with the Cardinals; great-run organization. I don't know if I've ever been on the other sideline."

Kitchens won't be Cleveland's only key coaching figure peering across the field at familiar faces. Kitchens calls plays on offense, while Steve Wilks, the Cardinals' head coach in 2018, is the defensive coordinator.

Wilks was only in Arizona for one year, and it did not go well. While Kitchens made the playoffs four times with the Cardinals – including the 2009 Super Bowl -- Wilks finished 3-13 and was fired after one season on the job.

"What I learned was just really how to deal with adversity," Wilks told the Cleveland media on Thursday. "As a head coach, trying to prepare each and every week, trying to get your guys up to perform at a high level. It was difficult going through the struggles, but I thought the guys performed and played well, and they stayed together throughout. There were a lot of things that I learned, and a lot of things I will carry moving forward."

Wilks will match wits with his replacement, Kliff Kingsbury, who has engineered an offensive turnaround for the Cardinals but has been sitting on three victories since October. Wilks has first-hand experience with some of the offensive personnel he will face, while Kingsbury has plenty of intel about Cleveland's defensive philosophy.

"Just talking to guys that were here and are familiar with that scheme, watching some cutups and things that they did here," Kingsbury said. "Yeah, definitely trying to get as good of a feel for what they're doing as we can."

Kitchens joined the Cardinals as their tight ends coach in 2007 and held that title for six seasons. In 2013, he became the quarterbacks coach, and then was moved to running backs coach in 2017 to make room for Byron Leftwich on staff.

Kitchens never became offensive coordinator in his 11 seasons in Arizona, but got there quickly with the Browns. He joined the team as running backs coach last season, and was promoted to offensive coordinator and play-caller following the midseason firings of coach Hue Jackson and OC Todd Haley.

The Browns, spurred by an offensive turnaround, finished 5-3 after the moves, and Kitchens was named head coach in January. While it was a swift rise after nearly two decades as a position coach, Kitchens said he never considered previously if he would reach the pinnacle of his profession.

"Wherever I've been through my career, I try to be loyal and understand that I'm there to do a job and just do the job to the best of my ability," Kitchens said. "You can't make decisions based on could've, should've, would've and all that sort of thing. You just have to do your job, and hopefully people will recognize it. I was fortunate enough to be in a place that we had success, and I was in the right place at the right time."

Even though the Browns (6-7) have not lived up to expectations, they are still on the periphery of the AFC playoff picture. While the familiarity -- there are seven ex-Cardinals on the Browns' coaching staff – should add intensity, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald would expect a motivated Cleveland team regardless.

"Every game for them is a playoff game at this point," Fitzgerald said. "I'm pretty sure Freddie is telling them that, I know Coach Wilks is stressing that to his defense. I know it's important."

When the game begins on Sunday, it will truly be about the Xs and Os. But as Kitchens eventually acknowledged, there is more to it in this one.

"There are tremendous people with the Cardinals, and tremendous memories," Kitchens said. "We had a lot of success there while I was there. I was happy to be a part of that."

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center