CLEVELAND — One year ago today, the Cleveland Browns hired another first-year head coach, hoping just maybe he’d be the guy to turn things around. A year later, the Browns won their first playoff game in 27 years as Kevin Stefanski has built the winning culture the franchise so desperately needed.
Two days after his hiring (one day after the team made it official), Stefanski held his first press conference and showed us what the Browns might look like under his leadership.
Here’s a look back at his words from Jan. 14, 2020, and what unfolded after.
An improved Baker Mayfield
One of the most important tasks Stefanski faced was getting quarterback Baker Mayfield back to being the gun-slinging star Cleveland came to love in his rookie year.
Last season, Mayfield threw just 22 touchdowns with a whopping 21 interceptions. Concerns rose over whether he was a franchise quarterback.
“I’ve worked with a lot of quarterbacks, a lot of great ones over the years, and I’m looking forward to hunkering down with him and getting to work,” Stefanski said during his first press conference as Browns head coach. “Like any one of our players, when they walk in the building, we’ll have a detailed plan for them about how they’re going to improve. And Baker, as a young player, the sky is the limit, but we’re going to put in the work to get it done with Baker.”
And get it done they did.
Mayfield ended the regular season with 26 touchdowns, just one shy of his rookie year performance, and eight interceptions, nearly half fewer than he threw his first year and almost three times fewer than last season.
Stefanski said when he first arrived in Cleveland that he had watched Mayfield a lot and thought his mechanics were great, but he believed he could bring in some schematic changes that would help Mayfield’s production.
Before the start of the season, Mayfield was asked about the new scheme, and the third-year quarterback sounded optimistic.
“I think it matches up very nicely with being in control, getting checks in the run game and just being efficient. Last year, I know, was not a great year for turnovers, but I have always prided myself on not turning the ball over. That is something in the conversations we have had is where we do take our shots, it has to be smart decisions and there is nothing wrong with throwing an incompletion every once in a while. Scheme-wise, I think my skill set matches up to that very well and also how he is coaching it. I think it is going to be a great fit,” Mayfield said back in May.
With Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt working with Mayfield on his footwork and getting him acclimated to the wide zone scheme—running play-action and boots and creating lanes for the star-studded backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt—Mayfield was able to thrive this season and led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2002 and first playoff win since the 1994 season.
Speaking of the Browns’ scheme, Stefanski said during his first press conference as head coach in Cleveland that one of his top priorities was to establish schemes and techniques within the offense that would help develop players.
“I’m talking about schemes and techniques. We’ll be diligent about working with our players so that they can develop into the best versions of themselves,” Stefanski said last year.
Stefanski talked about being “multiple” in the offensive approach—marrying the run and pass game.
“These defenses are so good in the NFL that if you’re one-dimensional, they can kind of pin their ears back, so we’ll try to be explosive, obviously, in the run and the pass game, but starting with the players as we start putting our scheme together we’re going to start with our guys and then we’re going to maximize the talents of the key players,” Stefanski said during that first press conference.
Stefanski was definitely successful in making the Browns multiple in their offensive attack.
Chubb surpassed 1,000 yards this season, despite missing four games, and Hunt ran for 841 yards, making them the only pair of teammates in the league with at least 840 rushing yards.
The Browns' run game was dominant throughout the season, but Mayfield (and a few others) kept the passing game just as much of a threat.
Mayfield threw for 3,563 yards during the regular season, joining Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck as the only players in NFL history to record at least 3,500 passing yards with at least 20 touchdown passes in each of their first three seasons.
Stefanski kept things interesting all season, running trick plays that put other players at quarterback, including wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who completed all four pass completions, one for a touchdown.
In Stefanski’s first season with the Browns, he kept his promise to “maximize the talents of the key players” including Rashard Higgins, who bounced back after not being utilized last season, notching the second-most targets and receptions of his career and tying his career-high number of touchdowns.
From the tight ends to star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., before he was injured for the season, to the offensive linemen—everybody knew their role and everybody had a chance to shine in Stefanski’s first year.
When Stefanski first arrived in Cleveland, fans wanted to know, “Will he call plays?”
Cleveland had seen the failed attempt of former first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens as he struggled to make in-game decisions while juggling play-calling responsibilities.
Stefanski said in his first press conference that he didn’t mind one way or the other and appeared to be ego-less when it came to the matter.
“I've had really good conversations with a bunch of head coaches—some who have called the plays, some who have not—and I just think we need to work through that as we put our staff together. I'm all about what's best for the Cleveland Browns. If that's me calling the plays, great. If it's not, I'm fine with that, too,” Stefanski said last year.
Stefanski announced in September that he would, in fact, be calling the plays, and unlike what happened in 2019, Stefanski was successful in managing the play-calling while also making smart, on-the-fly, in-game decisions.
Stefanski is excellent at managing the clock, not wasting timeouts and being smart about when to challenge calls—all while successfully calling solid games.
It also reflects positively on Stefanski that his coaches were ready to assume his duties when called upon. Unable to coach after contracting COVID-19, he handed the reins over to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and assigned play-calling responsibilities to Van Pelt.
The team had a plan in place for this contingency all season. Both coaches were ready when the moment came.
No hype, all work
Another promise Stefanski made during his first press conference as head coach of the Browns was to instill a strong work ethic within the organization, and he underscored that promise with a memorable quote.
“I don't mind personality, because I respect guys who work. So, personality is welcome. Your production is required,” Stefanski said.
The Browns fell victim to the hype in 2019 and suffered a disappointing end to a season that seemed to have so much promise.
When Stefanski first arrived in Cleveland, he said he wouldn’t make any predictions and would only promise to put in the work to turn the franchise around.
“I’m not going to stand up here and make any bold predictions about what we’re going to do this year. I’m not going to speak anything into existence right now. I can just promise you that we’re going to work,” Stefanski said in his first press conference. “I’ve spoken to a few of our players already, and that’s what I’m about. I’m about working and I’m about putting a foundation together.”
Now, advancing into the playoffs, the Browns, led by Stefanski, have been able to block out the outside noise and not fall victim to being over-hyped—taking the season one game at a time and mimicking the head coach in his even-keeled nature.
Throughout the season, Stefanski and Mayfield both have been described as the “same guy every day” by players and coaches alike, and the team has rallied around that continuity to push them into all sharing a winning mindset.
Hands down, the hardest challenge Stefanski faced when taking the job as head coach of the Browns was dismantling years and years of loss and dysfunction.
In 2019, the Browns, despite having talent, lacked discipline and accountability. From numerous penalties to missed assignments to blown routes and plays, the Browns were just plain messy.
After his first season with the team, Stefanski has turned the Browns from the team with the third-most total flags in the league to just the 12th.
“We’ll have a culture of accountability. We’ll have structures in place. The players will understand our rules and what we’re about, and we’re going to be demanding. We’re going to hold each player accountable,” Stefanski said last year.
In a rather drama-free year, sans COVID-19 issues, of course, Stefanski has kept the Browns a respectable, accountable and well-disciplined organization.
With the attitudes of the players, alongside the success of the team as they continued to win and demand more of themselves—Stefanski helped the Browns create a culture that both the organization and its fans can be truly proud of after years of misery.
Many people had their doubts on Jan. 12, 2020, when they heard Stefanski would be the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns (see the comment section on any social media post announcing the decision), but in just one year he has not only made a name for himself as a Coach of the Year candidate but proved himself to the organization and to the fans that the Browns finally got it right.