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NFL Coach of the Year Award: Diving into the candidates for 2023 including Kevin Stefanski

Browns Kevin Stefanski might lead the way but other candidates are in the competition

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

To say that the Cleveland Browns have had an outstanding season is without question. Take a gander at their injured reserve list, and you will see an almost entire roster from quarterback to safety.

And yet, the Browns are 10-5-0 with the #5 seed heading into the final stretch of the schedule with just two games remaining. This has been accomplished without All-World running back Nick Chubb, three starting offensive tackles, their leading tackler, plus grinders along the defensive line.

Last season, Cleveland limped to a 7-10-0 season. This year has been a roller coaster, but so far instead of falling apart with all of the injuries to so many starters, the franchise has been winning crucial games.

This has placed head coach Kevin Stefanski in the inevitable place of his name being tossed into the hat for this year’s NFL Coach of the Year Award.

The Award

Who gets selected as the NFL Coach of the Year?

One would assume it is always the coach of the league’s best club. So, this year’s achievement would go to either John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens (12-3-0), Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (11-4-0), the Kansas City Chiefs (9-5-0) head man Andy Reid, or perhaps Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins (11-4-0). Correct? Or whoever wins the Super Bowl must be the precise answer.

It is not that easy. In the past, that was usually the case.

But for the longest time, the award goes to the coach who has initiated the largest turnaround since the season before and not to the coach whose team has the best record, wins the most playoff games, or takes home the coveted Lombardi Trophy signifying that his club has won the league title.

The Sporting News began this award back in 1947. The Chicago Cardinals had just won its second-ever NFL title and their head coach Jimmy Conzelman won the initial designation. The following year, it went to Greasy Neale whose Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Cardinals 7-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

Cleveland Browns Coach Paul Brown
Paul Brown
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For 1949, though, the award went to Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown in an odd twist. Why? Up to that point, the NFL champion’s head coach had been chosen. The Eagles won back-to-back championships in 1948-1949 which is quite an accomplishment. So, the odds would go to Neale winning the distinction in consecutive years one would assume.

But Coach Brown of Cleveland won it. With a team in another league. That was an NFL-rival league no doubt. Awarded to a non-NFL team’s coach.

Talk about controversy. And what was even stranger was that the 1948 Browns team had gone 14-0-0 making that squad the second-ever professional football club to finish their season unbeaten and untied (1937 Los Angeles Bulldogs 8-0-0). Why didn’t Coach Brown win the award in 1948 instead, or that year as well?

And that was how the award was given out for the most part. The league champion’s coach got the award, or in some irregular instances, the runner-up head coach depending on their team’s record before the championship game.

The tide turned after the 1972 Dolphins became the third pro football team to go unbeaten and untied in a single season as head coach Don Shula won that year’s achievement.

Editor’s note: Although other pro football clubs have gone unbeaten and untied in a single season before 1972, the Dolphins became the first and only team to go unbeaten and untied in a single season in the NFL.

The following season of 1973, the award went to Chuck Knox of the Los Angeles Rams. His Rams had a fantastic roster and finished 12-2-0, tied with the Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings for the league’s best record but were beaten in their first playoff game. It was Knox’s first season at the helm of Los Angeles who had gone 6-7-1 the season before. The Sporting News thought the turnaround was a huge accomplishment and voted Knox the winner.

And, except for a few instances, that is how it has been since. The new idea was which coach did the greatest job of taking a horrible team and with basically the same roster, transformed it into a contender?

In 1957 the Associated Press began their NFL Coach of the Year Award. Today that is the standard and has been the most widely used because of their media association with sports writers.

Other publications that have garnered their own award have been Pro Football Weekly (1968-2008), the Pro Football Writers of America, UPI (1955-1996), Kansas City Committee of 101 Awards (1969-present), and the Maxwell Football Club (1989-present). The Sporting News still names an annual winner while the UPI named two Coach of the Year honors divided into American Football League and National Football League and then after the 1970 merger, American and National Conferences.

New York Football Giants head coach Brian Daboll won the award last year as his team went 9-7-1 after a horrid 4-13-0 record the year before. The Giants went to the post-season and won a playoff game.

Cleveland Browns
Marty Schottenheimer
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Head coaches who have been associated with the Browns to win the Coach of the Year Award among every publication or entity listed above include Paul Brown, Ray Rhodes, Lou Rymkus, Don Shula, Marty Schottenheimer, Bruce Arians, Kevin Stefanski, Bill Belichick, Dick Jauron, Bill Cowher, Chuck Noll, Forrest Gregg, Weeb Eubank, Todd Haley, Lindy Infante, Tony Sparano, Walt Michaels, Doug Peterson, Eric Mangini, Lou Saban, Mike Holmgren, Raymond Berry, Sam Rutigliano, Chuck Pagano, and Kyle Shanahan.

The Award 2023 version

There are six head coaches on the menu for this year’s NFL Coach of the Year. They are Dan Campbell – Detroit Lions, Kevin Stefanski – Browns, Mike McDaniel – Dolphins, DeMeco Ryans – Houston Texans, Shane Steichen – Indianapolis Colts, and Kyle Shanahan – 49ers.

Before the 2023 season even kicked off, Campbell opened as the favorite to win the 2023 NFL COY award with +1100 odds while the Denver Broncos’ Sean Payton had the next best odds at +1200.

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Before this weekend’s games, the best betting odds listed on Draft Kings were Campbell (+165), Stefanski (+230), Shanahan (+400), Steichen (+650), McDaniel (+650), and Ryans (+750).

Often, the award goes to the coach who turned around a bad team early in his tenure or one whose team still won a lot of games while playing without some of their stars. The latter identifies the Browns and Stefanski to a tee. Campbell has the Lions looking like real contenders this season.

Payton’s odds now are +5,000.

Before this week’s final scores, the newest contender for Campbell and Stefanski was Steichen of the Colts. Indianapolis had won five of their last six games and had climbed into the #7 seed in the AFC after being out of the playoff hunt for the early part of the schedule.

But a 29-10 loss to the hungry Atlanta Falcons and their attempt to win the NFC South Division now has Steichen’s odds down a bit. Indianapolis remains in play to win the division as there are three teams with identical 8-7-0 records.

With either Campbell or Stefanski in the driver’s seat, Steichen is a close third and has a very good chance of taking home the hardware if they can win the division.

Cleveland’s roster has been decimated by injuries yet has found ways to win, including riding a three-game win streak with their fourth starting quarterback. These facts alone are what the voters look for in today’s NFL for the coveted coaching award. They like grit and perseverance as well as wins and losses. The Browns have all of that.

The Lions have not only clinched a playoff spot after this weekend but are indeed the NFC North Division champions for 2023. Last year they went 9-8-0 but finished four games out of the division race and lost a tie-breaker with the Seattle Seahawks for the conference’s final playoff seed.

In the 2020 pandemic NFL season, Detroit struggled to win five games under defensive guru Matt Patricia who was fired after beginning 4-7-0. Campbell was appointed head coach in January. After famously announcing in his hire press conference that his roster of guys was going to “bite a kneecap off”, his 2021 squad began 0-10-1 before ending his maiden season 3-13-1. Then the nine-game win season, and in just his third season the Lions are not only division champs but are one of the league’s most improved clubs.

Stefanski won the Coach of the Year Award in just his first NFL season as a head coach in 2020. This was a full COVID year. The Browns went from a 6-10-0 season under Freddie Kitchens to 11-5-0 under the rookie Stefanski. Cleveland also broke a nearly two decades streak of going to the playoffs in the same swing of events.

This was followed by a 9-8-0 season and then the team finished 7-10-0 last year.

Cleveland Browns Press Conference Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Along with Campbell and Stefanski, Shanahan and McDaniel also have exceptional teams. The 49ers currently have the #1 seed in the NFC while the Dolphins are seeded #2 but could grab the coveted first slot depending on the final two weeks of play including a game next week against Baltimore which will determine the #1 seed. Miami won nine games in 2022 while the 49ers went 13-4-0 so the mystic of the comeback isn’t exactly there.

Indianapolis went 4-12-0 last year under Frank Reich and is currently 8-7-0 with Steichen. Voters love the big turnaround stories.

The Texans were a miserable club last year under Lovie Smith going 3-13-1. Now, Ryans has them a respectable 8-7-0 with an improved defense. An earlier trade of QB Deshaun Watson to Cleveland gave Houston a bounty of top-tier draft picks with which to work to aid their rapid improvement.

Both Indy and Houston are located in the same division as Jacksonville and each has the opportunity to win that division. This alone will make voters perk up and take notice from three and four-win teams to division crown winners.

Is Stefanski the likely Coach of the Year winner or is someone else in the lead?