Browns notes: Andrew Berry says Kevin Stefanski 'can manage everything on his plate'

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal
Cleveland Browns GM Andrew Berry, left, and head coach Kevin Stefanski watch the team practice during NFL football training camp, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Berea, Ohio.

General Manager Andrew Berry didn't hide the bottom line about the underachieving Browns offense when he addressed the state of the team Wednesday during its bye week.

“We all think the offense can play at a higher level,” Berry said on Zoom.

However, Berry isn't blaming the man who calls the offense's plays — coach Kevin Stefanski.

“I have a ton of confidence in him as a play caller,” Berry said.

Stefanski said Monday he isn't going to cede play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, but it's going to be a hot topic unless the Browns (6-6, last place in the AFC North) score more beginning with their next game Dec. 12 against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.

The Browns have scored 14, 17, 10, 41, 7, 13 and 10 points in their past seven games. The outlier is a 41-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 7.

The lack of firepower wasted strong defensive performances Oct. 31 in a 15-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1) and Sunday in a 16-10 defeat to the AFC North-leading Ravens (8-3).

Let's play fantasy football for a moment: If the Browns had won those two games, they would be 8-4 and sitting atop the division.

“Entering the bye week at 6-6,” Berry said, “obviously that does not reflect the aspirations that we had at this point in the season.

“The different phases of our team have kind of been on or off throughout the first 12 weeks. I know that's something that obviously we're hard at work analyzing with our coaching staff so that we can ultimately play our best ball in December.”

The reigning NFL Coach of the Year, Stefanski became known for instilling discipline last season, when the Browns went 11-5 to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

But this season, the Browns rank fourth among the NFL's 32 teams for most enforced penalties (85) and third in penalty yards (771).

“I think we all know how disciplined and organized that Kevin is,” Berry said. “It's obviously something that we have to minimize and get fixed moving forward.”

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Perhaps Stefanski could focus on the big picture as a head coach and help the Browns reduce penalties — they had 12 men on the field after a timeout Sunday in Baltimore — if Van Pelt were to take control of play calling.

Berry disagrees.

“No, I don't think it's a function of that,” Berry said. “I think we've seen enough evidence over time that Kevin can manage everything on his plate. I think it really starts with accountability for every man that's on the team. Look, I have a ton of confidence that is something that we'll get fixed moving forward.”

It's no secret quarterback Baker Mayfield hasn't played well enough this season for the Browns to consistently win, but the offense's struggles have led some fans and media members to question Stefanski's abilities, too.

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Still, Berry said he thinks Stefanski is the right coach to lead a turnaround.

“Kevin, he has all of the virtues and characteristics that are important for the leader of our organization,” Berry said. “I think it starts with his self-awareness and accountability. It goes to his level of introspection in terms of the team and the job that our group is doing, and it also goes to his open-mindedness and his ability to adjust.

“I think he has been very transparent with you guys in terms of the areas where he has felt like our team can perform at a higher level. I talk about adversity. I think Kevin’s level of accountability is exactly what you want in tough stretches, and I think our guys take their cue from him.”

Even if the Browns miraculously win out with five games left and make the playoffs, one must wonder if they put themselves in this position by taking last season's success for granted.

“I don't get a sense that there is a level of entitlement or that we have arrived because quite honestly we have not. We haven't gotten there yet,” Berry said. “We haven't had the sustained success as some of the great teams and organizations in our sport. I think everybody is hyper-aware of that. You really do have to work on it on a yearly basis.”

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3) jogs on the field during the first half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Cleveland Browns General Manager Andrew Berry laments 'divorce' from Odell Beckham Jr.

The passing game of the Browns is broken. In recent weeks, opposing defenses have been selling out to stop the run and daring Mayfield to beat them through the air.

Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. forcing his way out of Cleveland a month ago hasn't helped the Browns command respect from defensive coordinators, even though the offense overcame his absence last season after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

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Berry spoke about Beckham's departure when it happened, but a relevant question moving forward centers on how the Browns can prevent something like that from happening again.

“I think the Odell situation is probably singularly unique in probably the past couple of years without going into the details,” Berry said. “You never like to see a divorce, so to speak, of that nature, and you try your best as an organization to prevent that type of thing from occurring, but it does happen in the NFL. It's unfortunate, but it's something that we're moving forward from.”

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Berry characterized the receiving corps as “inconsistent” this season. Jarvis Landry's knee issues, including a sprained medial collateral ligament that cost him four games earlier this season, and Donovan Peoples-Jones dealing with a groin injury in recent weeks has hurt the group. Meanwhile, Stefanski made Rashard Higgins a healthy inactive Sunday.

“I'm looking forward to hopefully having that group being at full health or at least close to full health after the bye,” Berry said, “and I think that will certainly help.”

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Landry is coming off his most productive game of the season. He had six catches on 10 targets for 111 yards Sunday, increasing his lackluster season totals to 33 receptions for 356 yards in eight games.

A sixth-round pick in last year's draft, Peoples-Jones has 18 catches for 340 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. He ranks second among wide receivers but fifth on the team in receptions. He and tight end David Njoku are tied for first in TD catches.

“With Donovan, he has probably come along more quickly than I would have anticipated when we drafted him, and that's a credit to him,” Berry said. “In terms of his next steps, obviously, he has a really great opportunity in front of him. I think part of it is he has probably been a little bit of stop and start this year from the injury side of things, but he obviously has and will continue to play major role in the passing game for us this year. It's an incredible opportunity for him to continue to make plays and ultimately help us win games.”

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) pitches the ball to running back Devonta Freeman, not visible, as Cleveland Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) applies pressure during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Will the Cleveland Browns try to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney?

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney joined the Browns in April by signing a one-year contract worth up to $10 million with incentives, and Berry spoke as if he would be interested in re-signing the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

“I think JD has done a really nice job for us. Run and pass game, he has been very disruptive, and he has had a handful of games where really he and [defensive end] Myles [Garrett] have really taken it over for us on the defensive side of the ball,” Berry said. “I've been very pleased with the results that we've seen from him on the field. In terms of the long-term stuff and contractual stuff, we'll have plenty of time for that, but I think he has had a really nice season for us.”

In 11 games this season, Clowney has compiled 26 tackles, with eight for loss, 3½ sacks, 13 quarterback hits and a pass defensed.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com.