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What Should the Browns Want in a Head Coach?

As the Cleveland Browns continue to struggle in the standings, the focus is increasingly turning to head coach Kevin Stefanski and his job security. What should the Browns want in a head coach and how does Stefanski measure up?
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It's easy to understand why a fanbase would be so frustrated with the Cleveland Browns. After going through 1-31, they've seen improvement, won a playoff game with Baker Mayfield only to then falter and trade for Deshaun Watson, a controversial pivot to say the least. Even with Watson on the team, the fanbase has effectively been asked to wait another season, an all too familiar refrain from an organization that hasn't won a championship since 1964.

That frustration is continually turning its focus the the team's head coach, Kevin Stefanski, as some fans and even media have suggested his seat should be warming if they aren't outright calling for him to be fired.

If one was going to come up with the qualities necessary to be a good head coach in the NFL, what would that look like and how does Stefanski measure up?

1. Ability to Maximize the Quarterback Position

Far and away the most important thing the head coach of any NFL team must get right is quarterback. Not only being able to effectively coach it, but consistently showing the ability to highlight their strengths and put them in position to succeed. It's the most important position in this sport and arguably any team sport.

Every coach that has been fired since the Browns came back in 1999 was fired for their inability to find a quarterback or develop one. The last two coaches in Browns history that were able to maximize the position were Bill Belichick and Marty Schottenheimer.

Jacoby Brissett is a journeyman. He is currently enjoying the best season of his career even if only slightly. The Browns record may not be great, but in several games, Brissett had the ball with a chance to win. Plays were there to be executed and it didn't happen consistently, none of which changes the fact that Brissett was put in positions to succeed and win.

Baker Mayfield was outstanding in 2020. No amount of revisionist history is going to change that. Stefanski again was able to put him in positions to succeed. That year, the quarterback play was better and games that have been lost this year were won that year, which led them to the postseason and a playoff victory.

Personal issues aside, Deshaun Watson has exceptional ability at the quarterback position. If you don't believe Mayfield was a good quarterback, then you have to give even more credit to Stefanski. Even if you believe Mayfield was a gifted quarterback, you can still appreciate what Stefanski has been able to do with Brissett. Watson is watching these games and has to be chomping at the bit to play in this offense because he sees how often receivers are schemed open and how often he would be put in position to excel.

That goes hand in hand with the staff's ability to call plays. It's year three. It cannot be dismissed as a fluke just how effective Stefanski's staff has been able to put together game plans and set up plays during games. In three of their seven games this season, the Browns have scored a touchdown on their opening drive. In two of those games, the Browns scored touchdowns on their first two drives. 12 teams in the NFL have 21 points or fewer in the entire first quarter. 22 teams including the Buffalo Bills have 35 points or fewer in the first quarter. The Arizona Cardinals have just 6.

There are critics who argue that Stefanski is a good offensive coordinator and simultaneously should give up play calling. The Browns play calling is a collaborative process. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt is one of several coaches who contribute and undoubtedly will call some of the plays, even if it's just to start drives as Stefanski is keeping tabs on other aspects of the games and making tactical decisions. Those coaches were heavily involved in the game planning process, so they know what the team was trying to do for the week. They are also the group who is working on adjustments during the game as Stefanski oversees the rest of the team. Regardless of who is calling the plays, the Browns are very good at it.

There are always going to be play calls that a coach wishes they had back. Stefanski isn't Andy Reid. Reid is also 24 years older and has been a head coach 19 more seasons than Stefanski. Sean Payton was a head coach for 15 years with the New Orleans Saints. Some fans want to believe the Browns can get Payton, but ignore the fact that he would have to want to come here and the Browns would have to trade for him. That's going to be pretty difficult when they've given up so many assets for Watson. Those are two coaches with endless experience in the job. It's bizarre that people seem to ignore the fact that Stefanski is only going to get better with time and reps. He's already shown that as he's been able to keep his offense a step ahead against defenses trying to stop him, especially within the division.

The 3rd-and-2 call against the Baltimore Ravens was the right call in the situation. The Ravens defense loaded up to stop the run. Amari Cooper was lined up against Marcus Peters, a corner the Browns had already beaten deep twice in the game including earlier in the same. He had no safety help. The Browns went with that call on third down because they were planning to go for it on 4th-and-2. 

You don't call a play worrying about the possibility of offensive pass interference any more than you do holding on a running play. It's an unfortunate result, but it's about the process. The play was there to be made and would've given the Browns the lead. That was their priority. Any concerns about draining the clock were a distant second. Points were there to be had, so they went for it.

The needless obsession on Nick Chubb's carries is a waste of time and energy. Not only do the Browns do research into sports science and figuring out the exact point when Chubb traditionally wears down in games, which is helpful both within a single game, but also in allowing Chubb to be at his best in year five with no signs of slow down. Amari Cooper has been great for the Browns this year and is being paid $60 million over the next three years. If they can't go to him in a clutch situation, why bother acquiring him in the first place?

No one's complaining about Cooper's targets. In previous years, when the Browns were losing, there were complaints Odell Beckham Jr. wasn't being targeted enough. The focus should be on the bigger picture, the offense as a whole, which is consistently creating opportunities to be successful.

Did the Browns get the look they wanted against the Ravens defense on 3rd-and-2? Absolutely. Single coverage against their best receiver by a corner they've already found repeated success. If Cooper catches the ball, people talk about Stefanski having the stones to be aggressive and go for the win.

Were the Browns out of downs in the event it was unsuccessful? No. Whether the penalty was called or not, the Browns had another play to pick up the first down.

2. Staffing Hires

A common refrain in criticizing Stefanski, people continue to despise defensive coordinator Joe Woods and special teams coach Mike Priefer. We'll get there, but let's start on offense.

Alex Van Pelt as the offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan coaching the offensive line, Chad O'Shea as the passing game coordinator and wide receiver coach, Stump Mitchell over the running backs, that group is loaded. The Browns have never been so well coached on the offensive line. The Browns have a good trio of pass catchers with young players still to develop, they keep finding productive backs and the tight ends continue to be key contributors in both the pass and running games.

As for the defense, Stefanski may need to make changes. Whether that rises to the level of Woods or simply some of his assistants, it's up to him to make that call. Could the Browns do better? Probably, but they can explore that in the offseason. The Browns don't benefit from a midseason firing and their focus should only be on what's best for the team, not satiating an irrational fanbase's appetite only to have another craving a week or two later.

It's going to be more challenging to hire great candidates if Stefanski embarrasses coaches for the sake of appeasing critics. These are people with dignity and families who put endless hours into the job.

I have a far bigger issue with Priefer than I do Woods. He's led bottom three special teams units in his first two seasons and the blunders continue in year three despite increased investment. I disagree philosophically with his approach to multiple aspects of the game.

First, I think his aggression on kickoff return is totally unfounded and the risks continue to outweigh the rewards. They don't get productive returns, so why risk penalties and injuries to get little if anything past the 25-yard line?

Second, the Browns struggle on punt return. Chester Rogers is decent at it, but he's not always activated. So when the Browns are effectively relying on Donovan Peoples-Jones to field punts, prioritizing a return rather than being aggressive and trying to block punts at a higher rate seems illogical. It may give Jones more room to run and even if it doesn't, he's basically back there to fair catch it anyway. Put stress on the punter. Even if they don't get the block, it may cause rushed punts that could be shorter or shanked entirely. If they do block a punt, it's a game changing play that has a dramatic impact on a team's chances of winning a game.

None of this changes the fact that firing Priefer midseason wouldn't help anything. The assistant special teams coach, Steven Bravo-Brown likely takes over and some other staffer is tasked with assisting him. Are the Browns better for it? Doubtful. It may not be good, but it's at least somewhat orderly.

Those types of staff changes need to come in the offseason when there is time for a new coach to implement a new philosophy, tactics and techniques. The notion the Browns should fire Stefanski because he isn't replacing assistants quickly enough is silly. Neither Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers or John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens is doing that and their fanbases are constantly criticizing their offensive coordinators. In the case of the Ravens, this is Greg Roman's second stint in the job.

There may ultimately come a point where Stefanski's assistants ultimately cost him the job, but the Browns are nowhere close to that.

3. Consistency and Accountability

This has everything to do with how he relates to the players in the locker room. Any coach needs to be who they truly are, not pretending to be someone else. Players see through it and it wears out quickly. Players want expertise but they demand authenticity and consistency.

Accountability is a word that has lost all meaning this year. Some fans and media seem to think that coaches need to be accountable to them. In reality, it means being accountable to the team and its best interests.

To this point, Stefanski has always shouldered the blame for failure above anyone else. He is also quick to give all the credit to players when the team succeeds. A good place to start, acknowledging mistakes he makes to players behind closed doors is important as well. If he's willing to do it in public, it stands to reason he does so in private as well. But when it comes to benching players, perhaps sending a message to the team with his actions, it has to be through the lens of what's best for the team.

Even as the Browns have struggled in the standings, the response from players this season has been that it's not been a coaching problem, but an execution issue. It's always possible that some players would say something differently in private, but the sheer number of players saying this is notable. 

Although there are times like against the New England Patriots where the defense genuinely looked discouraged, the effort is there. Any idea that players are quitting on this coaching staff are baseless, critics seeing what they want to see rather than what's actually there.

If the game against the Ravens showed us anything, it was that player investment was an issue. After being called out for it publicly, the defense suddenly performed at a much higher level. That needs to carry over as the organization is evaluating these players and if they feel players aren't putting in the work necessary, they could see themselves replaced in the offseason when the Browns are likely to add more veterans to that side of the ball.

The consistency aspect of this comes down to Stefanski being an authentic person who communicates what's demanded from his team. It shouldn't take long for a player who joins the team to figure out the expectations the coach has for any player. When people are suggesting that Stefanski needs to be more fiery and angry on the sideline, they are asking Stefanski to be someone he isn't. 

While it may sound good in the moment, it will not work on players. If it's not authentic, players will see through it. Worse, they will feel like they are being shown up in the moment, which will only escalate a bad situation or lead to lasting resentment. No one is asking Bill Belichick to do this because it's idiotic.

Stefanski is not here to be an actor or entertainer. He's here to be a coach and his entire focus must be on what's best for the team.


Let's say the Browns fire Stefanski at the end of the season because it's a bottom line business and they simply didn't win enough. They would then be tasked with replacing the only head coach of this millennium who has shown the ability to maximize the quarterback position. Replicating that is far easier said than done, which should be obvious given the fact Stefanski is the 12th head coach since the year 2000 and the previous 11 failed in that capacity.

The other aspect that should not be ignored is that since Stefanski has become the head coach is you aren't hearing about ridiculously childish behavior about his dealings with players, which has often been the case for this team. Hue Jackson was an insecure buffoon, both obsessed with keeping tabs on his assistants while also having an endless amount of former players who are all too happy to regale anyone who would listen of their nightmarish encounters with him.

Freddie Kitchens would tell players one thing only to be overruled by the general manager John Dorsey, creating a toxic workplace for players.

This isn't a recent phenomenon either. Butch Davis played favorites and blew up draft strategies. Romeo Crennel flipped a coin to determine who would play quarterback one season.

Meanwhile, if the belief is that the Browns should fire Stefanski because of his coordinators, the best coaching staff this team has had in the 21st century was under Pat Shurmur. In 2012, Brad Childress was his offensive coordinator with Dick Jauron running the defense. George Warhop was the offensive line coach and remains one of the best in the business. Chris Tabor was in charge of special teams. That group was not only fired after going 5-11 that year, but Shurmur has been a head coach two other times, one of which was an interim and has amassed a record of 19-46.

So while the frustration is entirely understandable and criticizing the team for its failings is fair game, people may want to think hard about what firing Stefanski would actually mean for this organization. This is all without getting into what an ordeal it would be to hire his replacement, both because of the ownership and the still ongoing legal issues of the franchise quarterback.