The Cleveland Browns are always “on paper” one of the best teams in the NFL each season. Then the games begin, and the kinks in the armor begin to show.
Now in his fourth season, head coach Kevin Stefanski remains the play-caller on offense. This has been questioned for three seasons now. Perhaps he needs to just be the head coach? Jim Schwartz runs the defense while Bubba Ventrone controls special teams. Why not find someone who can successfully perform the duties of play-calling each game?
Or perhaps the players aren’t executing his plays? Are these guys taking the wrong lanes or issues with the offensive line staying engaged?
Stefanski’s only winning year was during the pandemic in 2020. In the playoffs, he was a state away in his basement watching the lone playoff win.
He is 18-21 since the pandemic year which is below .500. To date, this screams average at best. There have been questions as if his players don’t relate to him. In the last four minutes of the game, does he have many wins?
What is frustrating for fans is the amount of money they pay for mediocre performance on the field. Nobody wants to pay $500 a game for club seats when at halftime the game is essentially over.
Here at Dawgs By Nature, we have assembled a nice array of Browns affiliates to discuss what the issues and shortcomings of the head coach might be.
The Dawgs Podcast
Am I the only one scratching my head at the play calls by Kevin Stefanski, especially early in games? Whether it’s starting in an empty set on the road in Pittsburgh with a designed pass to the third-string tight end, or the triple flipper-rooskie pass to WR Elijah Moore against the Titans. The Browns’ offense continues to look overly forced and, honestly, dumb.
It was the last game against the Baltimore Ravens, though, that I realized I’ve had enough of the play-calling shenanigans from Stefanski. With QB Deshaun Watson ruled out, the Browns started 2023 fifth-round rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson in his first-ever NFL game. But watching the offensive play calling, you would think no one told Stefanski.
The Browns opened the game with seven of their first ten plays through the air. The rookie quarterback was asked to throw 70% of the opening script against a strong Ravens defense. In a game where RB Jerome Ford ripped off a 26-yard run to start the game (though it was reversed due to a holding penalty), the Browns seemed to have no interest in slowing down the game for the rookie signal caller and establishing the run. And what happened on the seventh pass? It was intercepted and returned to the Browns 10-yard line, setting up an easy first score of the day for Baltimore.
Okay, so the rookie just threw his first career interception (almost a pick-six) on his second drive. How did Stefanski approach the offense on the next drive? Three straight rushes by RB Kareem Hunt and a quick pass to Moore. Excellent! Finally, the Browns were going to slow the game down, let Thompson-Robinson get calm, and establish a rhythm on offense…right?
No. Stefanski came back with the tricker-rooskie! On third-and-one, third-string TE Harrison Bryant slyly lined up under center, took the snap, and tossed it back to Thompson-Robinson, who chucked the ball 40 yards downfield and was nearly intercepted a second time. Fortunately, WR Amari Cooper was able to draw a pass interference call to move the Browns down to the Ravens’ 19-yard line.
Now things looked better despite that weird play that didn’t matter due to a penalty. The Browns were in range to make this a 7-7 ball game. Stefanski called a jet sweep with Moore who ran for 20 yards…the wrong way. Juking and jiving, Moore ran back, back, back until the Browns were set up with second-and-30. What a great play to help out the rookie quarterback. The Browns now had to attempt a 53-yard field goal, and luckily K Dustin Hopkins drilled it. And those were the only three points the offense could muster.
We have great players. Our o line this year does not helping at all. Injuries onnthe specific line hurt us. Coaches and owners are a small part. The way we played this year falls on mistakes of the players on the field. I'd think. Some calls crazy but players need to step up too— jaMetriss79 (@jaMetriss79) December 13, 2022
If the eyeball test wasn’t enough for me to demand Stefanski forfeit the clipboard, this next stat was the nail in the coffin. According to Jimmy Watkins from Cleveland.com, Stefanski called a pass play 57.6% of the time while the Browns were within one score. With a rookie quarterback who had already thrown an interception and looked completely overwhelmed, Stefanski chose to call 15 passes on the 26 plays while the Browns were within one score or less.
And there’s a second stat that Watkins cites that makes this even worse. Through the first three weeks with 3x Pro Bowler Watson at quarterback, Stefanski called a pass play 51.8% of the time within one score. With a rookie starting his first game, Stefanski opted to go more pass-heavy than he has with his normal starter.
According to Mary Kay Cabot from Cleveland.com, Stefanski admitted after the game that he didn’t change from his “Watson-centric game plan.” Even though Watson did not throw all week at practice, even though Thompson-Robinson took all the reps, even though Stefanski said he still didn’t know who was going to start when he got to the stadium, he was not prepared with a second, simplified game plan in case his rookie had to play.
That screams egotistical coaching to me, and if Stefanski thinks a fifth-round rookie can execute his offense the same as Watson, then the Browns have a serious problem on offense. And it starts, like this article’s title appropriately says, at the top.
I don’t think Stefanski is a problem, but I’m not sure he is the cure right now. It’s odd but this team’s problems are the offense, and when you are an offensive coach that calls plays, that lands squarely at your feet.
When things are good for the Browns, it’s really good. But when Stefanski and this offense sputter, they rarely seem to find their way. Now we can play QB play at times, the offensive line has been a mess and of course, losing RB Nick Chubb hurts, but this is the NFL. Every team has injuries. Every team struggles at the line of scrimmage at times.
You have to adjust and that is my problem with Stefanski.
You trade for Moore and they seem to want him to play some kind of quasi-Demetric Felton role? Let him go be a WR. Where has the creativity for TE David Njoku been? I’m not asking for a reinvention of the passing game as we know it, but week in and week out we see teams tailor their offense to the strengths of their best players and it is something we rarely see in Cleveland when things aren’t working.
I’m not advocating for the ouster of Stefanski, but I want to see some growth from him and this offense.
Shenanigans CLE Sports
- I think this team is for the most part as complete as it’s ever going to be. It has very fixable issues and we can get on track to have a good season and playoff run.
- Thought the offense rhythm was starting to get there in the Tennessee Titans game and was excited to see it get into it further. They certainly have had their chance to correct things during the bye week.
- The defense has put us in a position to win every game this year. Allowing very little yardage and making other team’s offenses earn their points.
- Hopkins and P Corey Bojorquez both have done a great job in the kicking and punting game. Bojo has put our team in good field positioning and Hopkins has done great getting points on the board.
- Running game: Ford and Hunt don’t seem to be doing enough. If we can get at least an average running game going it will help the offense. Maybe in the bye week, they can see what Pierre Strong can do at RB and if he can do a better job then that is who we go with.
- Punt return: I think we need to go from Donovan Peoples-Jones to someone who will become more than a “punt catcher” and be someone who can average more than eight yards a return.
Horribly managed. We didn’t want to pay Brissett and afforded him an opportunity to start elsewhere (didn’t happen). We get Dobbs back and trade him pre-season for near nothing. We rely on a rookie in DTR who is not ready. Now, Watson is hurt (not clear to what extent) and we’re…— Jesson Prohaska (@JessonProhaska) October 11, 2023
- Better option at backup QB: I think they should have had someone like Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, or Carson Wentz. We should be able to rely on a backup QB to come in and keep the team together with the possibility of getting wins in spot starts.
- Schedule: Browns are 1-2-0 in the division and 2-2-0 as they entered the bye week. We are left with very little room for error for the remainder of the season. We will need to go 2-1 in the rest of the division games and probably need to be at 11 wins to make the playoffs.
Players to target: QB Joe Flacco (FA), QB Colt McCoy (FA), RB Chuba Hubbard (Panthers), RB Josh Jacobs (Raiders), RB Matt Breida (Giants), Tyler Allgeier (Falcons)
Susquehanna Browns Backers
While I like Stefanski as a head coach, he has proven himself a play-caller who lacks imagination with a seemingly dogged desire to call plays that have been run that failed miserably earlier in the game or earlier in the season. Without the great talent of Chubb available to him, Stefanski falters and flails in his game planning especially as soon as the Browns get behind. The most recent game against the Ravens is an example where he called Moore’s number out of the backfield again (seven times on the season so far) and now has three total yards on that same Jet Sweep out of seven runs.
There appear to be no true second-half adjustments. Adversity destroys the offense and its ability to function at times while Stefanski continues to call the plays. DC Jim Schwartz calls the defensive plays, Special Teams Coordinator Bubba Ventrone calls all the special teams plays but yet Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL QB (Stefanski was a college DB at Penn), coaches the quarterbacks. While Bill Musgrave, a former NFL QB & a seasoned NFL and college OC, is the senior offensive assistant. This is a muddy offensive power structure that gets mediocre results.
Stefanski should turn over the play-calling duties to Van Pelt and the QBs to Musgrave. Van Pelt called the plays in the Browns’ playoff crushing of our rivals a few seasons ago while the HC was home with COVID. This would leave Stefanski the time to be the CEO and manage the needs and egos of the players - especially his $230 million guaranteed QB whom he finally turned loose in the shotgun formation during that romp against the Titans.
I seem to be at odds with a lot of people in the Browns’ universe with respect to expectations for this team and the timeline fulfillment thereof. Like just about everyone I would prefer the team be 4-0 or 3-1 right now instead of 2-2. However, everyone wants their team to win every week and there’s only ever been one perfect season in league history.
Editor’s note: There has been only one unbeaten/untied team in NFL history. However, there have been several NFL teams to end their season without a loss but with ties. Also, other clubs in other NFL-rival leagues have gone unbeaten/untied including the 1948 Browns which went 14-0-0.
We are not all that far removed from not getting two wins over two full seasons, so to be where we are at the moment is less than ideal, but holy moly is it better than it could be?
Now that isn’t to say that we should be judging these things from the worst possible point in our history, but it is to try to put a bit of a global perspective to his question about the efficacy of Stefanski. Life isn’t always black and white, certainly, there are shades of grey. But in this, all we are really doing is tap-dancing around the ultimate question of “since the Browns haven’t built upon their playoff success of his first year, should they bring in someone else to replace him who would do better?” So that’s fairly binary.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with the guy. Like, at all. Could he be better? Sure, we all could be - including every single head coach in the NFL today. Great coaches are better today than they were yesteryear. Andy Reid and Bill Belichick have both been fired in the league. Nine of the last ten Super Bowls have been won by coaches that have been fired.
The question I have about it, the only question that actually matters in my view, is are we more likely to be most successful long-term staying with Stefanski and experiencing his growth as a coach, or by bringing in someone else and hoping they have the cure-all?
Seems there are risks on both sides of this question. In the first place, if Stefanski is just incapable of being that guy that can win us a championship if he has the right pieces in place, then it’s not worth sticking it out with him. Of course, how can anyone know that right now (spoiler: they can’t)?
The countervailing risk is that whoever the new guy is won’t be any better, but there DEFINITELY will be structural changes that are sure to cause some stepping back from the progress that has been made, and to deny progress has been made is just being obstinate (which many fans and media are happy to be). New coach means new systems, new position coaches, new roles for guys that were brought in previously to fulfill other roles, and so on and so on. Can it work? Sure, it’s possible. Is it likely (in an over-arching question about championship likelihood)?
Welp, to answer that question let’s look at our own history. After Romeo Crennel was fired following the 2008 season (after a 24-40 four-year stint) the team did some heavy experimentation with this thought process. From 2009 to 2019, we employed a total of seven head coaches (Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinkski, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson, Gregg Williams, Freddie Kitchens). That’s a fat average of 1.6 years per coach. Clearly we were about the next guy coming in, pretty much every other year.
So, how’d that work out? Well over those 11 seasons we went a solid 47-128-1 (.267). Now, the counter to this is always some flavor of ‘well, you can’t count that, we just kept hiring bad coaches’. Ok, I can buy that, but when we hired them, did we think they were bad coaches or did we think they were the answer? Thus if our coaching evaluation could be that consistently bad for that long, what on earth would lead anyone to believe it will definitely be an upgrade to do so now? Remember (and this isn’t arguable), at one point Hue Jackson was the hottest coaching prospect on the market. No joke.
Now there are structural things that happen during these conversions that sort of mitigate the coach’s ultimate responsibilities in these scenarios, but that’s kind of the point. Very rarely do you keep everything in place, change the coach, and improve all that’s wrong. Sure it is possible to happen, it just never, ever does with us (or, really most teams that go through this).
It happens that there are pretty stark examples of the opposite approach within our own division. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches over the last 50 years. Before you say ‘well it’s different if you hire good coaches’, go back and look at Chuck Noll’s first few years.
How about Baltimore? Three head coaches in their history. Now it helps to have had GM Ozzie Newsome building the roster the entire time but just consider the schematic and familiarity advantages those teams have had over us through those years. While everyone they bring in is learning the same system everyone on the team already knows, and they do only that thing from the time they get there, we are always doing different stuff, installing new systems and just burning up former high draft picks in the process. It’s hard to argue against stability when you consider their examples versus ours.
To tie a bow on this entire thing: Stefanski ain’t been that bad, y’all. Like, for real. When he had good QB play out of Baker Mayfield in 2020, the team had its greatest success of this generation. Since then the QB play, outside of some flashes from Watson, has pretty much been trash and as a result, the team has been middling. Not bad, middling. Should he be 86’d over that? I’d say most definitely no, and it’s especially crazy to be thinking about it when he hasn’t even had a full season with Watson yet.
This weekend we play the San Francisco 49ers, and their coach Kyle Shanahan. I happen to think is one of the finest offensive minds of modern times and he’s considered to be one of the best coaches in the league. Well, Stefanski through his first 56 games (including playoffs) is 29-27. Shanahan, over the exact same number of games to start his career, was 27-29.
We’re better off exercising patience. I know nobody wants to hear that, but we’ve gone the impatient route and the results have been what they’ve been. We’d be fools to do it again.
Honolulu Hawai’i Browns Backers
How do Cleveland Browns Fans Think?
Adages are short phrases that reflect lessons learned in life and are handed down for generations because these proverbs usually hold specific meanings.
- Don’t believe your own press – Just because Stefanski was named Coach of the Year a while back doesn’t make him that now.
- You have to pay dues daily – Making people loyal to your product is something that requires constant work.
- Who are you trying to impress – Really? Two handoffs & a flea flicker all eight yards behind the line of scrimmage.
- By impressing yourself you impress no one – No explanation needed.
- Self-praise is for losers - Be a winner.
- When you lose, talk little, When you win talk less – Don’t blame others for your defeats. Take responsibility for a loss like a man and move forward.
- Winning fixes everything – Just win!
- Mrs. Browns Fan didn’t raise no dummies – You can’t fool Cleveland Browns Fans. Their loyalty is held at the highest level. Don’t take that fact for granted.
DBN Staff Writer
There are many issues with Stefanski, but his main problems are twofold: play calling, and the inability to adjust his game plan during games.
For the third season, folks have called for Stefanski to hire someone to call plays. He has little imagination and is predictable. GM Andrew Berry gathered all this talent at wide receiver with a highly-paid tight end in Njoku, and none of these players are used very often and have little to do with the outcome. What happened to this assumed “Air Raid” offense? Other than WR Amari Cooper, which Browns receiver is even on a roster in your fantasy league?
I wrote two articles before the season began that questioned why this year’s roster was devoid of a competent backup at both quarterback and running back. Since the Berry/Stefanski era began in 2020, the roster always had a veteran backup at quarterback, plus the luxury of Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson at the running back position. My article asked the question of what happens to this offense if either Watson or Chubb go down with an injury?
Well, guess what? That is happening right now.
It made zero sense to trade away a capable backup quarterback in Josh Dobbs. The Browns had signed him for peanuts in the off-season but had NFL experience. Yes, Thompson-Robinson (DTR) lit up the preseason as a rookie. But his time under center was against second-team guys, not the Ravens who are known for having a stingy defense. Dobbs is doing well as the starting guy with the Arizona Cardinals. Our backup is horrible and the guy behind him was signed by Cleveland to the practice squad.
The game plan against Baltimore was for Watson, not DTR. Despite playing a lot of college games, the NFL is such a different animal. As a quarterback at this level, you do not have the luxury to sit in the pocket and look over the entire field and throw when you are ready. So far this season, the Browns offensive line has allowed an average of just 2.6 seconds to throw the ball and has given up an average of four sacks a game. A lot of veteran QBs have trouble with so little time much less a rookie in his first NFL start who was clearly over his head as expected.
14 year olds playing Madden and Kevin Stefanski, are the only people calling those plays, in that situation.— FoCo-BB-Prez (@cleisinme) October 2, 2022
Stefanski has a game plan against each opponent. But when that isn’t working, he rarely makes any adjustments at the half, or at all. Coaches should have contingency plans for game situations, and simply move on to the next strategy as the one that was expected to work, didn’t.
Schwartz does on the defensive side of the ball. Against the Ravens, their first five possessions were three three-and-outs, a touchdown (after a gimmy interception) with four punts. Then the offense could not move the ball and began getting penalties and turnovers that eventually enabled Baltimore to build a lead. Schwartz has shown how being prepared along with a good scheme can make a huge difference as the action unfolds.
Stefanski’s play-calling with a rookie QB just wasn’t smart. He isn’t going to read a defense that is complex such as the Ravens. They make their living from devouring quarterbacks and DTR was the weakest in the herd. Trick plays and long throws are not the answer for a young mind. Before jet sweeps and reverse plays are used, the offense should have to find a rhythm first. The plays called should have been a much simpler attack in order to keep the confusion to a minimum and help DTR get some confidence going early.
When Watson is playing, it seems to me this offense does not play to his strengths most of the time. Stefanski has been slow to implement Watson beginning each play in the shotgun which is how Watson has performed all the way back in his sophomore year at Clemson University.
It is how and when a play is called that needs the most work.
The head coach needs to game manage while the game is going on. As the NFL has become more and more complex over the years, very few head coaches succeed at in-game management plus the extra duty of play calling.
What is most amazing to me is this: Between Stefanski and Schwartz, only one of these two men is successful this season. Cleveland’s offense is dead last in passing and 15th in rushing. Their defense is Number 1 against the pass and has allowed the fewest yards gained on the ground.
Stefanski has had four years with the Browns, yet Schwartz has had just four games.