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Browns coaching debuts through the years

Kevin Stefanski will make his head coaching debut on Sunday. How have Cleveland’s other head coaches fared in their first games?

NFL: Cleveland Browns-Training Camp Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns will open the 2020 NFL season today at 1 p.m. when they take the field at M&T Bank Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens.

The game will also mark the debut of Kevin Stefanski as a head coach after 14 years as an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings.

This has been one of the strangest off seasons in league history as teams have dealt with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There were no organized team activities, training camp practices were different, and the lack of preseason games means that today will be the first time the Browns will line up against an opposing team under Stefanski’s watch.

Through it all, Stefanski has remained a calming presence, working through every obstacle to get the team ready for whatever may lie ahead this fall.

When the teams hit the field this afternoon, Stefanski will become the 18th full-time head coach in franchise history — starting with Paul Brown in 1946 and continuing through Freddie Kitchens in 2019.

While we wait for kickoff to arrive, let’s take a look at how the debut games went for Cleveland’s head coaches through the years.

Coach Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns Players

Paul Brown, September 16, 1950. Cleveland 35, Philadelphia 10

The Cleveland Browns were ready for their NFL debut after dominating the All-America Football Conference for four years. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell thought he would teach the upstarts a lesson by scheduling the opener on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending league champions.

But the Browns refused to play along as three touchdown passes by quarterback Otto Graham - including a 59-yarder to running back Dub Jones for the team’s first NFL touchdown — helped the Browns score 35 consecutive points and signal to the rest of the NFL that there was a new king in town.

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns

Blanton Collier, September 15, 1963. Cleveland 37, Washington 14

Just like Paul Brown did 13 years earlier, Blanton Collier opened his coaching account by leading the Browns to a decisive victory, this time over the Washington Redskins.

The Browns had 543 total yards of offense in the game as Jim Brown had 162 rushing and 100 receiving yards while scoring three touchdowns. Quarterback Frank Ryan got in on the action as well, throwing for 334 yards and two touchdowns, including an 83-yarder to Brown.

Cleveland Browns

Nick Skorich, September 19, 1971. Cleveland 31, Houston 0

Nick Skorich kept the tradition of impressive wins alive in his Cleveland debut as the Browns rolled over the Houston Oilers to the delight of 73,387 fans at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The Browns were led by a pair of one-yard touchdown runs from running back Leroy Kelly, while the defense held the Oilers to just 35 rushing yards and forced six turnovers, including five interceptions.

Cleveland Browns

Forrest Gregg, September 21, 1975. Cincinnati 24, Cleveland 17

Forrest Gregg became the first Browns head coach to lose his debut game, but Cleveland did not go quietly into that good night.

After falling behind the Bengals in the third quarter by a score of 24-3, the Browns mounted a comeback as an eight-yard touchdown run by Greg Pruitt and a fumble recovery in the end zone by linebacker Charlie Hall cut Cincinnati’s lead down to just seven points heading into the fourth quarter.

But the Browns twice failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities as they were unable to score on fourth-and-goal plays on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter, running a total of six plays inside the Cincinnati two-yard line and coming away with zero points.

Cleveland Browns

Sam Rutigliano, September 3, 1978. Cleveland 24, San Francisco 7

Sam Rutigliano got the Browns back on the winning track in his debut game as the Cleveland defense forced six turnovers and held running back O.J. Simpson to just 11 rushing yards in the second half in a win over the San Francisco 49ers.

The Browns took a 14-7 lead into halftime thanks to a 33-yard touchdown run by rookie tight end Ozzie Newsome. After a scoreless third quarter, Cleveland put the game away in the fourth quarter on a 69-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brian Sipe to wide receiver Reggie Rucker, followed by a 23-yard field goal from Don Cockroft.

Cleveland Browns Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Marty Schottenheimer, September 8, 1985. St. Louis 27, Cleveland 24 (OT)

Marty Schottenheimer had taken over the Browns on an interim basis midway through the 1984 season, but this game marked his first as the full-time head coach of the Browns.

In what was perhaps an omen of what was to come under Schottenheimer, the Browns came back from a 17-3 deficit in the fourth quarter behind a 13-yard touchdown run by running back Kevin Mack and a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gary Danielson to tight end Harry Holt. Danielson then hit tight end Ozzie Newsome with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds remaining to give the Browns what looked to be a 24-17 victory.

But the Cardinals quickly moved down the field thanks to a 43-yard screen pass to running back Ottis Anderson, scored a touchdown on a five-yard pass from quarterback Neil Lomax to Pat Tilley, and won the game in overtime on a Neil O’Donoghue 35-yard field goal.

Cleveland Browns v New York Jets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Bud Carson, September 10, 1989. Cleveland 51, Pittsburgh 0

In one of the most-surprising games in franchise history, the Browns gave head coach Bud Carson a debut to remember as they rolled over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cleveland’s defense dominated the day as it held the Pittsburgh offense to just 53 yards of total offense, sacked quarterback Bubby Brister six times, and forced eight turnovers — three of which they returned for touchdowns.

The offense got in on the fun as well, as running back Tim Manoa scored a pair of touchdowns and running back Mike Oliphant scored the only touchdown of his career on a 21-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Bill Belichick, September 1, 1991. Dallas 26, Cleveland 14

It was a rough start to the Bill Belichick era in Cleveland as the Browns had no answer to a potent Dallas offense at Cleveland Stadium.

The Cowboys faced little resistance from Cleveland’s defense in putting up 395 yards of total offense behind running back Emmit Smith 112 rushing yards, wide receiver Michael Irvin’s 123 receiving yards and quarterback Troy Aikman’s 274 passing yards.

Still, the Browns managed to make a game of it after quarterback Bernie Kosar hit wide receiver Webster Slaughter with a 62-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to cut the deficit to just 20-14.

That would all the scoring the Browns would do in the second half, however, and they went on to drop the game.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cleveland Browns Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Chris Palmer, September 12, 1999. Pittsburgh 43, Cleveland 0

Chris Palmer’s first game as head coach of the Browns was just as memorable as Bud Carson’s first game — albeit for all the wrong reasons.

After a three-year absence, the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 and for some strange reason the league decided the first game should be a nationally televised Sunday night tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Browns were an expansion team and completely unprepared for the moment. The offense finished with just 40 total yards, including nine rushing yards, two first downs, and held the ball for all of 12 minutes in the game.

The defense was just as bad in allowing Pittsburgh to roll up 464 yards and 33 first downs on the night.

Browns v Bengals Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Butch Davis, September 9, 2001. Seattle 9, Cleveland 6

The game was closer but the result was the same for the debut game of head coach Butch Davis.

The offense was only able to muster 239 yards of offense, but thanks to four sacks and a pair of turnovers by the defense, the game looked to be heading into overtime after a 22-yard field goal by Phil Dawson tied the game with two minutes remaining.

But Cleveland’s special teams broke down on the ensuing kickoff and allowed a 49-yard return to give the Seahawks a chance. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck did just enough to get Seattle into position and kicker Rian Lindell converted a 52-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to send the Browns to defeat.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Romeo Crennel, September 11, 2005. Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 13

The Browns hung around for a half against the Cincinnati Bengals, but ultimately came up short in the debut of Romeo Crennel as head coach.

Quarterback Trent Dilfer hit wide receiver Frisman Jackson with a 68-yard touchdown pass shortly before halftime for Cleveland’s only offensive touchdown of the day. It was a rough day otherwise for Dilfer, who tossed a pair of interceptions and also lost a fumble.

The Browns were also hurt by having both a punt return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown called back by penalties. That, combined with the defense allowing Cincinnati’s offense to amass 420 yards of total offense, were enough to send the Browns to defeat.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns 1-2-2011 Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Eric Mangini, September 13, 2009. Minnesota 34, Cleveland 20

The Browns fell apart in the second half of Eric Mangini’s debut as head coach as they were overwhelmed by the Minnesota Vikings and running back Adrian Peterson.

Cleveland carried a 13-10 lead into halftime following a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown by Josh Cribbs, but everything went sour after the teams returned to the field for the second half.

The defense allowed 24 second-half points and had no answer for Peterson as he ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns in the second half to shutdown any hope the Browns had of winning and signaling what life would be like under Mangini.

San Diego Chargers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Pat Shurmur, September 11, 2011. Cincinnati 27, Cleveland 17

A new head coach presented the Browns with the opportunity to find a new way to lose a game in Pat Shurmur’s debut.

After coming back from a 13-point deficit, thanks to a pair of touchdown passes by quarterback Colt McCoy, the Browns were clinging to a four-point lead with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game. Unbeknownst to Shurmur, the Bengals had the Browns right where they wanted them.

Facing a third-and-11 from Cleveland’s 41-yard line, Cincinnati backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski snapped the ball while the Browns defense was still in the huddle and hit wide receiver A.J. Green with a touchdown pass.

The Browns had two more possessions to right the ship, but could manage just one first down. Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson sealed the loss when he went 39 yards four a touchdown just after the two-minute warning.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Rob Chudzinski, September 8, 2013. Miami 23, Cleveland 10

The Browns kept the game close through three quarters, but ultimately came up short as head coach Rob Chudzinski became the seventh consecutive Cleveland head coach to lose his debut.

The offense was ugly in the first half with five penalties and three interceptions by quarterback Brandon Weeden, but the Browns still manage to take a 7-6 lead into halftime.

The Dolphins pulled away in the second half as quarterback Ryan Tannehill hit wide receiver Brian Hartline with a 34-yard touchdown pass where Hartline schooled Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine. Tannehill would later complete six-of-seven passes on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that sealed the win.

Weeden was sacked six times on the day, and running back Trent Richardson managed just 47 yards on 13 rushing attempts.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns

Mike Pettine, September 7, 2014. Pittsburgh 30, Cleveland 27

The Browns turned a halftime rout into one of the best comebacks in franchise history before once again falling short at the final whistle in Mike Pettine’s debut as head coach.

After falling behind the Steelers at halftime by a score of 27-3, quarterback Brian Hoyer rallied the Browns in the second half. A pair of touchdown runs by Isaiah Crowell, a 25-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff and a nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Travis Benjamin brought the Browns all the way to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.

Victory was not be, however, as the Browns went three-and-out on their final offensive series of the day and, after a punt, the defense was unable to stop Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from putting together a quick drive that culminated in Shaun Suisham converting a 41-yard field goal to win the game as time expired.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

Hue Jackson, September 11, 2016. Philadelphia 29, Cleveland 10

The Browns traveled to Philadelphia for the debut game under head coach Hue Jackson, but the results were far from what happened in 1950.

Quarterback Robert Griffin III was ineffective in his first game with the Browns, finishing with a quarterback rating of just 55, the offense only managed 288 total yards, and the Browns gave up a safety when center Cameron Erving’s snap sailed over Griffin’s head and into the end zone for a safety.

The loss would be the first one under Jackson but far from the last one, as the Browns would go 1-15 that season and follow it up the next year by going 0-16.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Freddie Kitchens, September 8, 2019. Tennessee 43, Cleveland 13

The Cleveland Browns entered the 2019 season as one of the most-hyped teams in recent memory under first-time head coach Freddie Kitchens.

The hype appeared to be justified when the Browns opened the game against the Tennessee Titans with an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that finished with a four-yard run into the end zone by running back Dontrell Hilliard.

After that drive the Browns fell under the weight of 18 penalties, three touchdown passes by Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, three interceptions by quarterback Baker Mayfield, and a 73-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass by Tennessee running back Derrick Henry.

Things were never as good for the Browns as on that first offensive drive, although a three-game winning streak in November gave the team some hope before everything fell apart down the stretch, leading to Kitchens being let go at the end of the season.

So if you have been scoring at home, Cleveland’s last 10 full-time head coaches have all lost their debut game.

Of course, none of that matters today, just as it does not matter that the Browns have not won a Week 1 game since 2004. This is a new season, a new team and a new head coach looking to write their own chapter in franchise history.

But you only get to make your debut once, so what better way to do that than to pick up a win?