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Making the case for Kevin Stefanski as Coach-of-the-Year

Browns may make playoffs in head coach’s first year

Cleveland Browns Introduce Kevin Stefanski Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The 2020 Cleveland Browns are poised to make the playoffs. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.

They currently have the league’s longest streak of post-season drought at 17 years. In 2002 under second-year head coach Butch Davis, the Browns finished 9-7-0. Three clubs finished 9-7. Cleveland had clinched the sixth seed in the AFC instead of Denver or New England based on better conference records (7–5 to Denver’s 5–7 and New England’s 6–6).

They were pitted against in-rival foe Pittsburgh Steelers who had taken the division crown that year. In the third quarter of their playoff game, the Browns were up in the third quarter 24-7 only to lose.

At this point, the very worst Cleveland can post is a 9-7-0 record thus breaking the streak.

Regardless of where Cleveland finishes in the win-loss column, or if they make the playoffs or not, isn’t it feasible that Kevin Stefanski should be voted as the NFL Coach-of-the-Year?

2020 Browns

Before the season began, who predicted Cleveland to have a winning record much less in a good position at a post-season run?

The Browns are built to run the ball. The offense is stacked to the gills with talent. Last season, the Achilles heel were the problems with the offensive line, inconsistency with the tight end position, plus inadequate linebacker and safety help. This year, veteran Jack Conklin was signed to a huge contract in free agency to take over the right tackle spot whereas Jedrick Wills, Jr. was selected in the first-round to man left tackle.

Tight end Austin Hooper was named to two consecutive Pro Bowls and became a key signee in free agency to compete with former first-rounder David Njoku. Then the club drafted the Macklin Award winner Harrison Bryant in the fourth-round as quality depth.

Suddenly, units of despair became the club’s most premier.

Currently, the offense is ranked eighth in passing and Number 1 in rushing. Not bad for a rookie offensive-minded head coach.

Cleveland has the most rushes for 20 or more yards (18) of any team in the league. They rank second in the categories of yards-per-carry average (4.9), gains of 40-yards or more (3), plus rushing attempts (388).

The running backs are listed in the Top-10 of yards-after-contact: Kareem Hunt #5 (404 yards) and Nick Chubb #9 (340). Both backs are also listed in the Top-10 of broken tackles with 15 each.

Stefanski also wanted a fullback mixed into the equation which brought in several to compete for the job to which Andy Janovich eventually won the position. Two tight end sets were necessary so as many as seven were in training camp.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The new coach is a very good play caller. Stefanski does not set up in many regular 11 formations and uses players such as Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry for their passing skills which has kept defenses off-kilter. He is putting players in position to be successful.

Take Baker Mayfield as an example. Stefanski was involved in some manner with the offense while with the Minnesota Vikings with various position groups from 2006-2019. Five of those years as the Assistant Quarterbacks Coach and another two as the QB Coach. Suffice to say, in this department he has a ton of experience. After he jettisoned to the Browns as their new head coach, Stefanski focused on taking Mayfield to new levels.

Mayfield’s last six games include tossing 1,347 yards, 11 touchdowns with only one interception, a 69.6 completion percentage, plus a killer 129.1 QB rating.

The players overall love the new coach. And how did he form this unity in a year when there wasn’t really a training camp, zero preseason games, scores of online meetings, a new staff, new players, virtual interactions, and a brand new system?

Plus, a new culture?

How did Stefanski get his players to buy in to all this? How does he get to know these guys on a personal level in a COVID year? His team is fairly young yet they play like seasoned veterans. How do you take a franchise that is the butt of late-night jokes everywhere and install a belief system into everyone associated with the club towards a contrasting direction?

Wide receiver Rashard Higgins summed it up:

“We all believe in him. Hell of a coach. He knows what he is doing. With a great leader like that, he knows the way. He is showing us the way, and if we do it correctly, we will win games. It is obviously showing. He is doing a hell of a job leading the pack. What a great leader he is for us.”

Although there are still games to play, Stefanski should be proud of what this squad has accomplished so far despite the most problematic off-season in the history of the league.

And there have been lots of issues. Myles Garrett was hurt for two games. Heralded rookie safety Grant Delpit was lost for the entire year before it even began. The franchise has spent first and second-round picks for Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams who have been injured more than they have played. Right guard Wyatt Teller was having a Pro Bowl season and had never missed a game when he went down with a Grade 2 calf strain. OBJ is now on IR trying to make a tackle.

LB Mack Wilson missed time with a knee injury and concussion. S Ronnie Harrison was just placed on IR as did KR JoJo Natson. Several players “opted out” before the year even began. KhaDarel Hodge can’t seem to break free of his hamstring injury. Special teams ace Tavierre Thomas has had issues with his neck. DE Porter Gustin was COVID positive.

But other areas have remained relatively problem free such as quarterback. The offensive line has really jelled and looks remarkable as a functioning unit and may be considered the best in the NFL. Higgins has settled in nicely as the Number 2 receiver while S Karl Joseph and CB Terrance Mitchell have done a good job filling in with the defensive backfield. DE Olivier Vernon and DT Sheldon Richardson have had a resurgence in their respective positions as of late.

As far as early success, Stefanski did not comment much about it:

“I have a lot on my plate, and I do not really concern myself with any outside noise.”

Part of the success is the fact that Cleveland spared no expense to elevate the offensive line. They spent top dollar for Conklin, spent the 10th pick in the NFL draft on another tackle Wills when they could have taken a more sexy pick such as WR’s Jerry Jeudy, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins, Henry Ruggs or CeeDee Lamb.

Cleveland Browns Introduce Kevin Stefanski Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Stefanski is a coach who breeds confidence that now has injected into the entire organization. Even in times of uncertainty or diverse game situations, the team did not simply crumble and hide. They pressed on. Miss a yard on fourth down? The defense is relied on to make a turnover happen. QB Baker Mayfield has been scrutinized over-and-over this year, yet Sunday tied a longtime franchise record of most touchdown passes in one half.

Infrastructure and planning. A new culture.

Past Cleveland Coach-of-the-Year winners

The NFL does not select and name Coach-of-the-Year finalists and winners. Various news organizations do.

Professional baseball had been doing it for years with services such as AP, UPI and the Sporting News. Not a lot of folks paid much attention to professional football until the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Football Giants. It was the very first telecast of a championship game nationwide. Back then, it was up to each individual club to make deals with television networks, but this game was telecast to a national audience on NBC and went into overtime which amplified the excitement of the sport.

The Sporting News were the first to name an NFL Coach-of-the-Year winner in 1947. UPI and Kansas City Committee of 101 followed in 1955 while AP made their first pick in 1957. Pro Football Weekly joined the parade from 1968 to 2008 and the Maxwell Football Club began its winners in 1989. UPI stopped this award following the 1996 season.

If Stefanski were to be named this year’s NFL Coach-of-the-Year victor, he wouldn’t be the first. Not even close. One only has to be reminded that the Browns were once coached by pro football dignitaries such as Paul Brown, Bill Belichick and Marty Schottenheimer.

Paul Brown was named Coach-of-the-Year four times: Sporting News – 1949, 1951, 1953; and UPI – 1957; . He was the very first to be named Coach-of-the-Year in a non-NFL league with his reign in 1949 as coach in the All-America Football Conference after the Browns won their fourth straight league title.

1980 AFC Divisional Playoff Game - Oakland Raiders vs Cleveland Browns - January 4, 1981
Sam Rutigliano

Forrest Gregg won the AP Coach-of-the-Year in 1976. Sam Rutigliano won the AFC award in back-to-back years from 1979-1980 with UPI. Schottenheimer took home the trophy following the 1986 season from UPI.

There have been other coaches once associated with Cleveland who have taken home the honor.

Paul Brown was once again named the UPI Coach-of-the-Year winner in back-to-back seasons of 1969-1970 as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Another former Browns-now-Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg would also take home the award home in 1981.

Former assistant coaches who won are Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers (1992, 2004) and the Green Bay Packers’ Lindy Infante (1989). Schottenheimer took home the AP and Maxwell Club 2004 awards while with the San Diego Chargers plus the 1995 UPI nod as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Finally, Belichick captured the awards as head coach of the New England Patriots: Sporting News: 2003, 2007; AP: 2003, 2007, 2010; Pro Football Weekly: 2003, 2007; and Maxwell Club: 2007.

Where does Stefanski stand in the running for Coach-of-the-Year?

The answer, quite frankly, is near the top. Possibly - number two.

The Browns went 6-10-0 last season. The squad has changed in several places, but the roster has also remained exactly like it was last year. Two new offensive linemen, a new starting tight end, and a fullback added for the offense. The kicker is new, but began the season with Austin Seibert just like last year.

The defense has all four starters along the defensive line. The year began with Williams and Ward at both corner positions. The biggest changes are at linebacker and safety. Out went Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey and Adarius Taylor, while the deep positions used to be Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The nucleus of that 2019 disappointment remains intact - so the talent was there. At the beginning of this year, seven defensive starters returned. Some of the depth is even the same with LB Sione Takitaki, S Sheldrick Redwine and CB Tavierre Thomas.

On the other side of the ball, the offense has seven returning starters as well. And look at last season’s bench: RB’s Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson, OT’s Chris Hubbard and Kendall Lamm, WR’s Rashard Higgins and KhaDarel Hodge, and TE David Njoku. The same guys who have all come in and contributed.

To say that Stefanski took almost the exact same roster and molded them into winners is an amazing occurrence.

The competition

  • Mike Tomlin – Pittsburgh Steelers

Despite their first loss of the year, Pittsburgh missed the post-season last year with an 8-8-0 record. If the Steelers finish with one loss without any ties, the award will have to go to Tomlin. 15-1-0 is a remarkable feat and a similar rags-to-riches story.

  • Andy Reid – Kansas City Chiefs

The three-time award winner would be a viable choice if the Chiefs finish 15-1 or even 14-2. The offensive numbers are just staggering and nobody wants to see KC on their schedule not only because of their offensive firepower, but because of how they dominate their opponents.

  • Sean Payton – New Orleans Saints

The Saints finished 13-3-0 last year and are the best club in the NFC currently with a 10-2-0 record. Both seasons this was accomplished with the backup QB filling in and securing wins. That alone could vault weight towards Payton. Plus, he last won the award in 2006 and has made the post-season eight times since including five division titles. With all that success, he is about due.

  • Brian Flores – Miami Dolphins

Flores has done wonders in his second year at the helm of the Dolphins. He went 5-11-0 last year but won five of their last nine games including the final two. This year, Miami began 1-3-0, but has since gone 8-2-0 and is in the thick of the playoff picture; including a chance to win their division as they sit one-half games back of Buffalo. Their remaining contests are an absolute nightmare as they face the Chiefs, Patriots, Las Vegas Raiders and finally the Bills. Two of their losses were to Buffalo and New England early. But unlike Stefanski who has turned around a franchise in one season, Flores has had one full rebuilding year to develop and weed out players.

Poll

Right now today, in your opinion, who is the front runner for NFL Coach-of-the-Year?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Mike Tomlin
    (49 votes)
  • 73%
    Kevin Stefanski
    (335 votes)
  • 2%
    Sean Payton
    (13 votes)
  • 8%
    Brian Flores
    (40 votes)
  • 1%
    Andy Reid
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    My choice is not listed
    (10 votes)
455 votes total Vote Now