There was great disappointment in the way the 2019 Cleveland Browns performed this past season. I still don’t understand how such a talented team only mustered a 6-10 record, when they very easily could have (and probably should have) been at least 10-6 and making their first playoff appearance since January 2003.
Former head coach Freddie Kitchens was fired after the team’s loss at Cincinnati to end the season on December 29th. Rumor has it that he was fired right after getting off the team bus once he arrived back in Cleveland. He didn’t even make it to Monday.
But the Browns spared no expense in finding his replacement. After an exhaustive two and a half week coaching search that included the likes of former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, the Browns chose former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to be their newest head coach.
Admittedly, I did not know much about Stefanski before the team hired him, other than he was intrigued on working with current Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. But now after having done some research, I’ve learned a little bit more about his background. Let’s take a look at the new man at the helm in Cleveland.
Coach Stefanski is a young head coach at 37 years old. At the start of his NFL coaching career back in 2006, he first served as the assistant to then-Vikings head coach Brad Childress. Stefanski then steadily climbed the ranks as a coach on the offensive side of the ball. His positions before assuming the head coach position with the Browns included: assistant quarterbacks coach (2009-2013), tight ends coach (2014-2015), running backs coach (2016), quarterbacks coach (2017-2018), interim offensive coordinator (2018), offensive coordinator (2019). As you can see, his background includes a wide variety of expertise working with all the different offensive player groups.
My initial opinion on the hiring of Stefanski was mixed to negative. But that was likely due to seeing many of these past head coaches fail to pan out. The Browns have not had a legitimate, proven head coach in Cleveland since Bill Belichick was in Cleveland from 1991-1995. They have mainly hired offensive and defensive coordinators in the hope that one of them would become a legitimate head coach. My initial issue with the hiring of Kevin Stefanski was not with who the man is, or his knowledge of the game. He seems extremely intelligent. But he has a long way to go until he turns the Cleveland Browns into a consistent winner. The turnaround will start with a coach who can keep all the loud personalities on his team in line.
While a flashy offensive system is interesting and fun to watch, it is most important for a winning Browns coach to be a disciplinarian. Sure, the team still is incredibly talented. But when there is no discipline, you have what happened in 2019: Personalities not playing as a cohesive unit, and overshadowing the common team goal, which is to win consistently. There is a quote from Stefanski that has already raised my opinion of him. In his introductory press conference, when asked about how he’d manage the personalities on the team, he simply said: “Personality is welcome. Your production is required.” If Coach Stefanski can stick to that mindset, and instill discipline when Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and others step out of line, it’ll pay dividends on the way to getting the Browns to where they should be as a winning football team.
State of the coaching staff
Along with having the right attitude, a successful head coach needs the right staff of men to support him as coordinators and position coaches. No head coach can win by themselves. Nor should they try. As of January 28th, the Browns coaching staff around Stefanski is not yet complete. But according to WKYC Channel 3 in Cleveland, Coach Stefanski has kept three coaches from Freddie Kitchens’ previous staff: Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer, assistant special teams coach Doug Colman, and running backs coach Stump Mitchell. While I do not know much about Doug Colman, the retention of Mike Priefer and Stump Mitchell make sense to me. Priefer previously worked as the Special Teams Coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, while Stefanski was with them. So there’s a prior relationship between Stefanski and Priefer.
Last season in Cleveland, Stump Mitchell helped develop one of the most potent running backs in the league last year in Nick Chubb, who ran for 1,494 yards in 2019. Stump also worked with Kareem Hunt after his return from a suspension, and was able to turn him into an important part of one of the best 1-2 punches in the NFL, and make the Browns a legitimate threat when running the football.
While attending the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards on January 22nd, Coach Stefanski was very clear about why he kept Stump Mitchell on his coaching staff: “I really like the way he teaches. I love the toughness that he brings to our staff room, to our field, and I think the proof is in the pudding. He had two really good players playing this year. So I think he’s an excellent coach, and excited that he’s going to be part of our future.”
As for the other key positions on the staff, Coach Stefanski has hired the following assistant coaches: Bill Callahan (offensive line coach), Drew Petzing (tight ends coach), and Chad O’Shea (wide receivers coach). I am most intrigued and excited about the hiring of Bill Callahan for a number of reasons. The offensive line was shaky and weak at times last season in protecting Baker Mayfield, which often was a contributing factor in bad decisions on his part. Baker is at his best when he is given time to throw thanks to solid pass protection. The running game also flourishes when there is effective blocking, and when the offensive linemen win the battle in the trenches and control the line of scrimmage.
According to Damien Woody, a former NFL offensive lineman who is currently a commentator for ESPN, Bill Callahan is a master technician at developing and mentoring offensive linemen. “You don’t necessarily have to be the strongest. It’s about your hands, your feet, and your leverage. Bill Callahan is just a master technician in drilling these things down day after day. And he is relentless in that. He will not stop. He will continue to do that every day, and that’s what makes him special.”
In addition to his wealth of experience in working with offensive linemen throughout the NFL and college ranks over the past three decades, Callahan has also held head coaching positions on three separate instances. He was with the Oakland Raiders from 2002-2003 (appeared in Super Bowl XXXVII), with Nebraska from 2004-2007, and served as the interim head coach of the Washington Redskins in 2019 following the dismissal of Jay Gruden.
New General Manager: Andrew Berry
In addition to assembling the coaching staff, Stefanski has been working with Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, to find their general manager. On January 27th, they made it official: They found their man in Andrew Berry. Berry will serve as both Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager. Berry previously worked with the Browns from 2016-2018 as Vice President of Player Personnel under previous Browns General Managers Sashi Brown and John Dorsey. According to the Browns team site, in each season Berry was with the team, the Browns selected a future Pro Bowler (Joe Schobert, linebacker, 2016; Myles Garrett, defensive end, 2017; Denzel Ward, cornerback, 2018; Nick Chubb, running back, 2018).
Berry is now the NFL’s youngest General Manager at 32 years old, but he has seen firsthand what it takes to stockpile and acquire talent to improve a team. And even though he is still very young in executive circles, there is a reason Berry is this high within an organization at his age. He’s incredibly intelligent, and his colleagues that he has worked with around the NFL trust him to make big-time decisions.
The only issue I have is knowing if Coach Stefanski, and Berry will get along. I still do not know if hiring a GM after hiring a head coach is a good way to go about things because of the relationship dynamic, and because a GM is usually a head coach’s boss. Although perhaps the Haslams are interested in assembling a non-traditional front office structure. Coach Stefanski also did have a say in who the new General Manager was going to be before Berry was hired. This looks like a non-traditional power structure that will be more collaborative in nature, rather than top down. In a typical front office, which operates with a top down dynamic, there are three levels to the power structure:
- The Owner: The ownership group spends the money to hire General Managers, the head coach and his coaching staff, and the players. Also determines what the overall vision and culture for the football team should be.
- The General Manager: Answers to the Owner, assembles a team that the owner wants in order to be in line with the owner’s vision and culture. Scouts, signs and drafts players who they believe will be a good fit for the team.
- The Head Coach and his staff: Hired by the General Manager. Answers to the General Manager, and coaches the players that the General Manager signs and drafts.
It remains to be seen if this kind of collaborative front office is going to turn out really great, or be a mistake. I personally am not a fan in messing with tradition when it comes to the power structure of a football team. Can an unorthodox power structure succeed? Absolutely. However, there is a reason most successful front offices are built in the top down way I described, and why most winning teams follow this structure: IT WORKS. If something has been proven successful many times, I see no need to reinvent the wheel. Browns ownership should focus on creating a winning culture and football team before they try to outsmart everyone else in the league.
Berry replaces former Browns GM John Dorsey, who was relieved of his duties on New Year’s Eve, despite acquiring talented players such as Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham Jr. Following the 2019 season, Browns Owner Jimmy Haslam wanted Dorsey to take a reduced role in the organization while still retaining the title of GM. But Dorsey declined, and parted ways with the team.
Overall, I am keeping a wait and see attitude with everything. The Browns still have the talent to compete with, and beat most teams in the NFL on the way to a great season in 2020. But it all hinges on getting the right people to Cleveland who run the show. Hopefully the Haslams, Paul DePodesta, Coach Stefanski, and Andrew Berry find the right people and players to restore the Browns to what they once were: A proud, successful, bedrock franchise of the National Football League!
Damien Woody on Bill Callahan:
Information on Andrew Berry:
Browns coaching staff updates: