Could Sunday’s Bengals-Browns game be the last Battle of Ohio matchup between head coaches?

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 15: Head coach Freddie Kitchens of the Cleveland Browns during the second half of the NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Browns 38-24. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 15: Head coach Freddie Kitchens of the Cleveland Browns during the second half of the NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Browns 38-24. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Future of Browns’ coach Freddie Kitchens appears to be in doubt

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor likely is exempt from the hot seat that typically comes with a terrible record because of the inherited roster he hasn’t had a chance to rebuild, but that might not be the case for the other first-year NFL head coach in Ohio.

The job security of Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens has come into question much more frequently with the disappointment of another losing season, despite splashy additions to the roster this year. Cleveland's playoff hopes were squashed with a Week 16 loss to Baltimore.

Taylor and Kitchens meet in the season finale Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, and their second meeting potentially could be their last in a “Battle of Ohio” rivalry game.

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“I always try to self-evaluate and get better every week,” Kitchens said in a conference call with media in Cincinnati on Thursday when asked what he’s learned this year. “Sometime after the season, I will try to sit down and decide how I can get better going forward. It’s an ongoing process of trying to critique yourself and get better. … You’re always looking at things you could have done differently during the course of the year but most of that evaluation will come after the season. A lot of this stuff in our business is hindsight type stuff, ‘If I would have done this, this would have happened,’ but you’ve just got to make the best decision possible at the present time and see how it works out.”

Kitchens reportedly avoided questions related to his job status during a post-practice press conference in Cleveland on Thursday, but even Dave Shula got five years in Cincinnati and it seems unlikely the Bengals would make a swift change from Taylor. The bigger question in Cincinnati is how much his staff and roster will be overhauled during the offseason, especially as Taylor has the ability to rebuild around a No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020.

Taylor said those are things to discuss after the season.

“As soon as the season is over, there are plenty of offseason topics that we’ll sit down and discuss and make sure we’re all on the same page with before moving forward,” Taylor said. “Fortunately, we have a few more days before we have to deal with all of that.”

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Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo would seem to be the easiest target.

Hired just a few days before the NFL Combine and after several others reportedly turned down the job, Anarumo leads a unit that ranks last in rushing yards allowed, 30th in total defense and 25th in points allowed. The defense has improved during the second half of the season and ranks among the best in red zone touchdown prevention, but many believe he was a near last-resort pick and the position could be upgraded.

“The season started off poorly for the whole team,” Taylor said when asked to evaluate Anarumo. “You come back after the bye, and you get the chance to focus on a lot of things. The defense has made a lot of progress in a lot of different areas. On Sunday, we didn’t play well enough on either side. Leading up to that point, we had seen some things that were really positive. I believe that we’re heading in the right direction there with Lou.”

MIAMI, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals reacts against the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals reacts against the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The Browns may not believe there is room to improve with Kitchens, though. He was promoted from offensive coordinator to the head coaching position during the offseason and replaced interim coach Gregg Williams, the team’s second-year defensive coordinator who stepped in when Hue Jackson was fired midway through the 2018 campaign.

Williams was 5-3 in eight games leading the Browns, but the team's success on offense and the belief that Kitchens' relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield would make for a good fit paved way for change. The addition of wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry also raised expectations, but the Browns rank just 18th in total offense (342.8 yards per game) and 22nd in points scored (20.2 per game), and Mayfield seems to have digressed from a promising rookie season.

Mayfield has thrown 18 interceptions and has a 79.1 quarterback rating, which is down from 93.7 last year.

“So much of it has to do with the people around you,” Kitchens said. “Baker needs to play better. He knows that. He has been playing better as of late, but everyone has to do better around the quarterback and the quarterback has to do better. It’s an all-encompassing thing. When things go wrong, the quarterback is going to get all the blame. When things go right, the quarterback is going to get all the credit. That’s been since Day 1 of football, back in Pop Warner.”

Kitchens said maneuvering through all the changes that come with a new coach has proved problematic, and that’s likely the case for Taylor, too.

“You just have to continue to keep focused,” Kitchens said. “It’s the same way you try to do with players, you try to keep them focused on the task at hand. You cannot control anything other than what you’re doing at the current moment and be 100 percent with whatever you’re doing at the present time.”

Soon enough all that will be left to deal with is the future.

SUNDAY’S GAME

Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 1o4.7