Kevin Stefanski wins NFL Coach of Year in first season with Browns
Kevin Stefanski proved the fifth time's the charm for Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
A little more than a year ago, Stefanski became the fifth head coach hired by the Haslams since they purchased the Browns in 2012.
The decision on a recommendation by Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta appears to be a brilliant move.
On Saturday, the most successful Browns season in 26 years was punctuated by Stefanski being named the Associated Press Coach of the Year during the 10th annual NFL Honors — the league's version of the Oscars.
In recent weeks, Stefanski had won other Coach of the Year awards, including ones given by the Pro Football Writers of America and Sporting News. But the NFL recognizes the AP award voted on by a national panel of 50 media members as the official honor. Stefanski is the first coach to earn all three awards for the same season since the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay in 2017.
According to AP, Stefanski received 25 votes, far outdistancing the Buffalo Bills' Sean McDermott (seven) and the Miami Dolphins' Brian Flores (six).
Stefanski is the second Browns coach to win the AP award. The other is Forrest Gregg, who received the honor in 1976 after going 9-5 in his second season. Stefanski is the third first-year head coach in the past four years to win the award.
“I’m incredibly humbled, especially given some of the coaching we’ve witnessed this season around the NFL,” Stefanski said in a video acceptance speech. “My name may be on this award, but I think this speaks to the amazing support I get day in and day out from my coaching staff with the Cleveland Browns. I’m very glad I don’t have to do this by myself.
“Then the players — it helps to have good players. I appreciate how they work every single day, week in and week out and how they fought. I appreciate that from those guys.”
With Stefanski serving as a head coach for the first time at any level and calling the offense's plays, the Browns went 11-5 in the regular season and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
They earned their first postseason win since Jan. 1, 1995, with a 48-37 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 10 at Heinz Field. Stefanski was forced to watch the wild-card game from home because he had contracted COVID-19, but he still had his assistant coaches and players ready to snap a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh.
The Browns' best season since 1994 ended with a 22-17 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 17 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Stefanski finished with the most victories by a first-year Browns coach since Paul Brown in 1946, the club's inaugural season. Stefanski's regular-season winning percentage (.688) was the franchise's best since Blanton Collier (.714) in 1963. Stefanski's winning percentage at home (.750) was the best by a first-year Browns coach since Brown (.833) in 1950, the year the team joined the NFL.
Another feather in Stefanski's cap: He succeeded in helping quarterback Baker Mayfield bounce back from a 2019 season in which the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft regressed.
“Not only does it appear they have the right coach in position at this point, it is going to redound to the benefit of Baker Mayfield tremendously,” CBS analyst and former Raiders CEO Amy Trask said in a videoconference last week. “In his first three years, [Mayfield] had three head coaches – four if you count the interim head coach [Gregg Williams in 2018] – and a number of different offensive systems. So my point in sharing that is I think we've only just started to see what can be done in Cleveland. Now with some consistency and a system in place that Baker can adapt to and grow in and be comfortable with, I think we'll continue to see improvement.”
Stefanski also led the Browns through countless obstacles created by the pandemic en route to their first winning season since 2007, when they went 10-6 but missed the playoffs. Stefanski waited seven months after the Browns hired him on Jan. 12, 2020, to conduct his first practice. Teams throughout the league implemented virtual offseason programs. Stefanski used creative team-building exercises. He also spearheaded discussions about social and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day.
The Browns held their first training camp practice on Aug. 14. All preseason games were canceled.
Of the five head coaches hired in the 2020 offseason, Stefanski became the only one to produce a winning record.
“Being able to indoctrinate people to your program and your culture and your beliefs over the airwaves by Zoom, what have you, it's remarkable,” retired NFL coach Brad Childress told the Beacon Journal last week by phone. “It's really astounding and speaks to his ability to teach and get buy-in, not only with coaches and staff, but obviously with the people who are most important — the players.”
Another fascinating element of Stefanski's start with the Browns is the Haslams passed on an opportunity to hire him in 2019, when former General Manager John Dorsey recommended Freddie Kitchens instead.
After Kitchens flopped in a 6-10 season, the Haslams fired him and agreed with Dorsey to part ways. Then they hired Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry, DePodesta's picks.
Childress is one of Stefanski's mentors. They met in 2005 when Stefanski was an intern with the Philadelphia Eagles and Childress was the offensive coordinator. In 2006, Childress took the helm of the Minnesota Vikings and hired Stefanski as the assistant to the head coach.
Stefanski stayed with the Vikings for 14 seasons before the Browns hired him, and his final year in Minnesota proved to be crucial. Not only did he get his first full season as an offensive coordinator under his belt, but he also learned the heavy wide-zone, play-action system – essentially the same one he brought to Cleveland – from Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak, who had been hired by the Vikings as an offensive adviser.
“Gary is a great sounding board to bounce things off of,” Childress said. “He wasn't calling plays, but he was advising, and he could give you thoughts during a series, he could give you thoughts in between series, he could give you thoughts on the practice field, in the meeting room. I think that's just great.”
In other words, Stefanski's delayed arrival to Cleveland worked out well, and Childress pointed out his protege also benefited from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer blocking him from the New York Giants' offensive coordinator job in 2018 under coach Pat Shurmur. Shurmur coached the Browns from 2011-12, and Childress was his offensive coordinator for the second of those two seasons.
“Go back and take it to another year delay,” Childress said. “I know he desperately wanted to go with Pat Shurmur to the Giants, and Zim said, 'You ain't going.' I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, that's not fair. Not only is it not fair, it's not fair financially and it's not fair family-wise – he's got [family] on the East Coast. But if he'd had done that, in two years he would've been out on his ass, and he wouldn't be the next hottest thing.”
The Giants fired Shurmur after going 5-11 in 2018 and 4-12 in 2019. Stefanski stayed with the Vikings for those two seasons, eventually landed with the Browns and is now considered among the best in the business.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.