'I'm sick about it': Browns coach Kevin Stefanski laments ill-fated Kareem Hunt draw call
When it comes to officiating, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski gave himself the same pep talk he delivered to his players.
Stefanski said he became “too wrapped up” in what quarterback Baker Mayfield said were two missed pass interference penalties on a second-down play with 2:55 remaining Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. Stefanski said that affected the ill-fated draw to Kareem Hunt he called on third-and-9 in a 47-42 loss at SoFi Stadium.
“In hindsight, I definitely wish I did something different,” Stefanski said Monday. “This is where I have to put our guys in position to succeed and I didn’t do that there and I’m sick about it.
“Definitely got too wrapped up in the previous play call with the clock stopping and how that unfolded. I’ve got to put our guys in position and I can’t do that to our team.”
On second down from the Cleveland 15 with the Browns leading 42-41, Mayfield threw a deep incompletion to receiver Rashard Higgins. Mayfield said safety Derwin James Jr. interfered with Higgins, while cornerback Michael Davis did the same with receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Hunt netted only 3 yards on the draw, and the Chargers marched 48 yards to a touchdown on the next possession to take a 47-42 lead. The Browns got the ball back with 91 seconds to go.
The previous week in a 14-7 victory at Minnesota, Stefanski called a Hunt draw on third-and-20 from the Cleveland 26 in the second quarter and Hunt gashed the Vikings for 33 yards. So Hunt knew what Stefanski had in mind.
“He's the coach so I understand whatever he calls in the moment," Hunt said Monday. "If it had worked, it would have been a great job, but it did not.”
Asked whether his “wrapped up” comment referred to the no-calls, Stefanski said, “I would just tell you, I’m never going to rely and we as a team are not going to rely on the officials. I need to in the moment — whether something gets called or doesn’t get called — I’ve got to move on and make sure I give the guys a chance to succeed.”
The Browns were still stinging from a 33-yard pass interference play on cornerback A.J. Green during the Chargers’ 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the score at 35 with 7:24 to play. CBS replays showed receiver Mike Williams blatantly grabbing Green’s jersey.
Stefanski was also second-guessed for his clock management on the final possession, as the Browns gained only 11 yards on the first three plays that consumed 50 seconds. Higgins caught a 6-yard pass, followed by throws of 3 and 2 yards to Hunt that left the Browns with only 41 seconds.
“We had four verticals called that we checked it down to Kareem. Then it was a third-and-1 where we were aggressive to Kareem in the flat to try and get the first [down]. That’s the truth of it,” Stefanski said. “The first goal of that drive was to make sure we were in location to throw a Hail Mary. Obviously, we’d love to get as close as possible to do that, but that’s what happened there.”
After the game, Stefanski referred to protection issues that affected his play-calling. Starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. was inactive with an ankle injury, forcing Blake Hance into the lineup. Then with 13:59 to go in the fourth quarter, right tackle Jack Conklin suffered a knee injury and was replaced by rookie James Hudson III.
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During the 2020 season, COVID-19 caused issues on the offensive line, but Stefanski didn’t seem to take the same conservative approach with his calls. He said Monday that the fact that Mayfield is playing with a partially-torn labrum in his left shoulder didn’t play a part in his decisions against the Chargers.
“No, it wasn’t [a factor],” Stefanski said. “Certainly understand that we had some guys playing in positions where I need to make sure I call the game in an appropriate fashion, but that doesn’t excuse not being aggressive when it’s called for.”
Stefanski said the issues in Los Angeles won’t prompt him to cede play-calling to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and serve as the overseer.
“I think we have a really good collaboration on game day,” Stefanski said. “It’s a lot of us on there, but particularly AVP, [offensive line coach] Bill Callahan do a great job in making sure our operation is how we want it. Certainly there’s going to be moments where I need to do better, but I’m getting a ton of help throughout the game.”
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Defensive end Myles Garrett likely set himself up to be fined by the league for his comments on the pass interference call on Green.
“It was terrible," Garrett said Sunday. "I mean, you've seen pictures. You've seen videos. It was a terrible call. It is what it is. The refs are humans, and they make mistakes, but we get held to a high standard and a high degree of excellence [as players], and so should they.”
Asked if he was OK with what his players said about the officiating, Stefanski said, “They can say what they want to say in those moments, and it is the emotion of that that certainly gets us, but we can’t rely on the officials.”
Hunt said it is hard not to get frustrated when such calls go against the Browns.
“Yeah, it is tough. Sometimes they just have to let us play,” Hunt said. “Some big calls during that game. It is what it is. We still should have found a way to win that football game. I do not necessarily just put it all on that.”
After the game, Mayfield pointed to missed opportunities. That was the same approach defensive tackle Malik Jackson took.
“There were a lot of opportunities we left on the field from just running games the right way and making little tweaks here and there to really combat what they were doing,” Jackson said Monday. “Of course, it would be easy to blame the refs, but I think it is us. We look in the mirror, and it is us missing opportunities and not doing the little things to get to the big reward, which is getting off the field.”
Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. no factor in fourth quarter
The Browns ran eight plays in the final 1:31, including a Mayfield spike, but none had star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as the intended target. Two went to Hunt, two to Higgins, one to tight end David Njoku and one to Donovan Peoples-Jones. On the Hail Mary, Njoku, Higgins and Peoples-Jones were in the end zone cluster.
“There was a couple of opportunities, but the coverage took the quarterback elsewhere,” Stefanski said of the last series. “That is really the simple answer to it. We just have to make sure that we find ways to get [Beckham] the ball and all of our guys the ball. We have a bunch of different guys that can do something with the ball in their hands.” Stefanski mentioned Njoku, who had a career day with seven catches for 149 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown.
In his third game back after Nov. 10 ACL surgery, Beckham managed two catches for 20 yards on three targets. Beckham was targeted seven times at Minnesota and caught two for 27 yards. He was more productive in his 2021 debut against the Chicago Bears, pulling in five of nine for 77 yards.
On fourth-and-2 from the Chargers 17 in the second quarter, Beckham dropped a short pass that would have gone for a first down. Stefanski did not believe that caused Mayfield to lose trust in Beckham, especially on a fourth-quarter throw to Higgins when Beckham looked open.
“No, I do not think so. Any receiver throughout the course of a season, you are going to have drops. It just happens. We trust our guys,” Stefanski said. “On that particular play, he thought he had an opportunity to Rashard down the field, but it was just an unfortunate play.”
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After the game, three-time Pro Bowler Beckham was seen sitting on the bench alone.
Hunt believes Beckham and Mayfield will develop a connection.
“Odell, he’s a soldier. He’s a beast. He just wants to win and wants to be able to do what he does,” Hunt said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he will learn from some things he did wrong in the game. He did a ton of great things in the game. Nothing for him to be hanging his head on.
“Odell’s a great teammate, a great person and a player. I feel like him and Baker will be just fine. Those guys click at practice, I’ve seen it, and I’m not too worried about it.”
Coach unsure whether Cleveland Browns receiver Jarvis Landry will be activated from IR
Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah flew back to Cleveland Monday morning after being released from a hospital near SoFi Stadium. The rookie was taken there after suffering a throat contusion during the game.
On Monday afternoon, he tweeted, “All is well, health wise. #Week6Focused.”
In other injury news, Stefanski said starting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was not inactive against the Chargers because of the elbow injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday and limited him on Friday.
“With Jadeveon … through pregame, his knee got sore,” Stefanski said. “That is really what held him out of the game.”
Receiver Jarvis Landry is eligible to come off injured reserve after missing three games with a sprained MCL suffered in Week 2 against the Houston Texans, but Stefanski was non-committal.
“I do not know yet. He is running today, and we will see how that goes,” Stefanski said of Landry, a five-time Pro Bowler.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
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