Cleveland Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski Flourishing In His Biggest Challenge Yet


One of the first indications the Cleveland Browns had found a keeper in coach Kevin Stefanski came in his first year on the job, in 2020, when the rookie coach overcame all the hurdles and challenges the COVID season threw at coaches, especially rookie coaches, and, in this case, a rookie coach taking over one of the NFL’s most inept franchises.

It was amazing that Stefanski was even interested in the job, given that Browns officials, after interviewing him for their head coaching job the previous year, instead hired Freddie Kitchens.

The Kitchens Era lasted one season, after which the Browns came back again to Stefanski, who at the time was in his 14th year on the coaching staff of the Minnesota Vikings, as the offensive coordinator. This time the Browns offered him the job. He accepted, and the team has not had to hire a head coach since.

Stefanski’s arrival fundamentally changed the arc of the franchise, and it did not take long for that change to occur. In his first year coaching the Browns, in 2020, Stefanski guided them to a regular-season record of 11-5, the franchise’s first winning season in 12 years and only its second winning season in 21 years.

The icing on the cake that season was a 48-37 Cleveland win over the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, in a wild card game, a victory that Stefanski orchestrated from the basement of his home in the Cleveland area, to which he was quarantined after testing positive for COVID.

The Browns then lost 22-17 to Kansas City in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Cleveland finished the year with a record of 12-6, and the team’s dramatic turnaround led to Stefanski, in his first year on the job, being voted the NFL’s Coach of the Year.

In hindsight, that season underscored a seismic shift in the history of the franchise.

Consider the following: in the last four years (2016-19) prior to the hiring of Stefanski, the Browns had a record of 14-49, which is a winning percentage of .222.

In the first four years since hiring Stefanski (2020 through the first 10 games of this season), the Browns have a record of 33-27, which is a winning percentage of .550.

The Browns’ last division title came in 1989, when coach Bud Carson led them to a record of 9-6-1. Since then they have finished last in their division 17 times in 30 years. Over those 30 years, they have, generally speaking, changed coaches every other year: 17 coaches in 30 years.

Even Bill Belichick, the third-winningest coach in NFL history, and a six-time Super Bowl-winning coach, had a losing record (36-44) in his five years of coaching the Browns, from 1991-95.

That’s why the arrival of Stefanski has been so significant for the Cleveland franchise. It hasn’t been all seashells and balloons. In his second and third years on the job, 2021-22, he had a combined record of 15-19. But as league play resumes on Thanksgiving, only one AFC team – the 8-2 Baltimore Ravens – has won more games than the 7-3 Browns.

Since being hired by Cleveland, Stefanski has also had to deal with a rotating cast of quarterbacks. In the last 3 ½ years Stefanski has worked with seven different Browns quarterbacks: Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, Nick Mullens, Jacoby Brissett, Deshaun Watson, P.J. Walker, and the current starter, rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

Stefanski’s biggest coaching challenge might be his current one. Watson, the $230 million quarterback who was supposed to lead the Browns out of the wilderness, is two years into his five-year contract, but he has made virtually no impact at all, due all the games he has missed due to injuries, as well as having to serve an 11-game suspension handed down by the NFL for violating the player conduct policy.

In Cleveland’s 33-31 win over Baltimore on November 12, Watson suffered a season-ending fracture in his right throwing shoulder. He will go into next season having played in just 12 of the 34 games the Browns will have played in the 2022-23 seasons.

Cleveland’s curious decision to begin the 2023 season without an experienced backup quarterback has come back to bite the front office. Watson’s season-ending injury exacerbates that situation even more.

Thompson-Robinson, who at this stage in his career is more rookie than a quarterback that challenges opposing teams’ defenses, is scheduled to start Sunday’s game in Denver.

P.J. Walker is the team’s other backup quarterback, but he’s been plagued by interceptions in his brief stints on the field. The Browns this week also signed 38-year-old veteran quarterback Joe Flacco, who at least gives the team some experience at that position.

Stefanski’s impressive start to his head coaching career is getting severely tested with this year’s injury-depleted roster, which, oh, by the way, does not include, among others, star running back Nick Chubb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season.

Through it all, however, the 41-year-old Stefanski has not just persevered, but flourished as an NFL coach. The fingerprints of his steady hand and calm demeanor are all over his team’s last two games, both of them last-second, game-winning field goals.

As a rookie, he was the NFL’s Coach of the Year.

He might be even better this year.


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