From Coach of the Year to coach of the flop of the year: Browns' Kevin Stefanski loses his way

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal

BALTIMORE — The reigning NFL Coach of the Year is a shell of his 2020 self.

No adjustments. No passing game. No assertiveness, at least publicly. No points. No discipline, at least when it comes to his players.

Last season, first-year coach Kevin Stefanski navigated the Browns through constant disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic and led them to an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance since 2002. They were so well organized that they won a wild-card playoff game in Pittsburgh while Stefanski watched from his basement with a case of the virus. They nearly pulled off an upset of the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.

Now they can’t even count to 11.

Stefanski spent the previous 14 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before the Browns hired him. Working his way up from Vikings coach Brad Childress’ gofer and given a full season as offensive coordinator after he was passed over by former Browns General Manager John Dorsey in 2019, Stefanski seemed ready.

He was poised and confident. His answers gave no shred of doubt, even in situations that warranted it, like having his best receivers deemed close COVID-19 contacts for a road loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 27. He excelled as a play-caller.

Now he’s regressed as badly as his team. He’s been reduced to taking the blame weekly and vowing to fix things, and nothing gets fixed.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks on during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Browns have scored more than 17 points only once in the past seven games. In that span, they’ve averaged 16 points, and that’s skewed by the 41 they put up against the Cincinnati Bengals. Losing two of their last three, the Browns have totaled 27 points.

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Last season, when Stefanski had a healthy Baker Mayfield at quarterback, the Browns scored 25.5 points per game. This season, they’re at 21.2 and dropping like a rock.

“It’s frustrating. It is very frustrating,” Stefanski said. “To not score enough, it’s always a combination of things — it's staying on the field on third down, it's trying to run the ball effectively and getting in the red zone, all of those things. But we’re just not doing a good enough job, and that starts with me.” 

Sunday’s 16-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium dealt a severe blow to the Browns’ playoff chances, and Stefanski fell on his sword three more times.

On why running back Kareem Hunt, the Browns’ fourth-leading receiver coming in despite just being activated from injured reserve, caught no passes, “Yeah, not good enough.” 

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On failing to get the right number of players on the field three times on special teams, including getting caught with 12 before and after a timeout, “That’s coaching. That’s on me. Bottom line.” 

On what was going on that led to the 12-men penalties, “Again, that’s coaching. Put that right on me.” 

With those personnel snafus, madness ruled as the Browns ran on and off the field. That was a new issue.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski touches the helmet of quarterback Baker Mayfield after an injury during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Another for which Stefanski has been taking the blame for weeks is penalties, and miscues continue to plague them. The Browns committed five for 45 yards against the Ravens. Their 85 penalties are the fourth-most in the league and their 771 penalty yards third most.

Stefanski has tried yanking the offender immediately. He is starting practice periods over when the players make a mistake. And yet defensive tackle Malik McDowell shoved Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and was flagged for a late hit out of bounds. McDowell has drawn frequent flags, as has backup defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. Yet those who lack self-control continue to play and continue to make bad decisions that cost their team.

On this front, there aren’t enough mea culpas for Stefanski. It’s all on him.

The lack of adjustments also looms large. The Browns’ scoring woes date back to Oct. 3, a 14-7 victory at Minnesota. Part of it is due to Mayfield’s litany of injuries — a torn labrum in his left shoulder suffered in Week 2, a groin strain, a left heel problem. Stefanski seems incapable of determining how a banged-up Mayfield can be effective.

“I think there are definitely things we're doing OK. There are things that we’ve got to improve,” Stefanski said in regards to adjustments. “I think it’s a bunch of different areas that we have to get better.” 

Perhaps as a result of the problems Mayfield’s injuries have presented, Stefanski is resorting to trickery. It blew up in his face again Sunday when receiver Jarvis Landry took a direct snap, was sacked by Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh and fumbled. A year ago, those calls were succeeding. Now that they are failing, his play-calling looks average at best.

“The Jarvis play, listen, hindsight is 20-20. If I had known that was going to happen, obviously, I wouldn’t have called it,” Stefanski said. “But he's been really good in those moments with the ball in his hands and making a play when it's there and making a play when it's not there. Unfortunately, lost the ball on that play.”

Against Detroit the previous week, Landry scored a similar call, a 16-yard run up the middle that was supposed to be a pass.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield checks his plays on his wristband during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Stefanski knows the Browns (6-6) are underachieving. He knows they have talent. Yet on Sunday night, no receivers could get open, Nick Chubb and Hunt had no running room, the offense couldn’t take advantage of four interceptions of Jackson, producing only three points.

Stefanski could be feeling pressure from above. Odell Beckham Jr. forcing his way off the team may still have ramifications in the locker room. Some players could be losing faith in Mayfield if the social media posts of their fathers are any indication. Hunt had his father take down a critical Facebook post hours after it went up.

Asked what he needs to do better, Stefanski said, “All of the above. Put a better plan together. Put the guys in positions to make plays.” 

Last year during the bye week, the Browns threw out what didn't work on offense, figured out what they did best, and Mayfield got himself on track.

This week’s bye has an entirely different feel. Stefanski must get himself back on track. He's gone from Coach of the Year to coach of the flop of the year.

Finding someone who can count to 11 might be a good start.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.