Nice going, Kevin Stefanski.
Cleveland had such high hopes for next spring.
The only NFL city not to play in or host a Super Bowl was handed the 2021 NFL draft. And Stefanski, the former longtime Vikings assistant, is blowing it by winning games willy-nilly with no regard for his team’s draft position.
“Kevin’s playing to his strengths,” said former Vikings coach Brad Childress, who brought Stefanski into the NFL as his glorified gofer with the Vikings in 2006.
“He’s got a great offensive line coach in Billy Callahan, and talent at offensive line and tight end. Kevin’s not averse to running the football.”
“Not adverse” is one way of putting it. Another way: Calling a game last week that humiliated Mike McCarthy, a Super Bowl-winning coach, with 307 yards rushing, the most allowed in Cowboys history. And doing so while losing lead back Nick Chubb late in the first quarter of a 49-38 win at Jerry World.
Poor Cleveland. With Stefanski off to a 3-1 start — the team’s best opening month since 2001 — Tankathon.com is now projecting the Browns to pick 22nd overall in next year’s draft. Since returning to the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999, the Browns have had 27 first-round picks, including four No. 1s and 14 in the top 10.
Way to go, Stefanski. A rookie head coach, age 38, riding a three-game winning streak while averaging 39.3 points? In the middle of a pandemic that wiped away offseason training, canceled the preseason and shortened training camp?
What the heck’s going on down there?
“I’ve known Billy Callahan since we started as graduate assistants back in 1981 at the University of Illinois,” Childress said. “He told me he’s never been around a young coach who was able to articulate his vision as clearly as Kevin did, and then tell them the exact steps they were going to take.”
Childress knows a thing or two about working for Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. He was Pat Shurmur’s offensive coordinator for one year, 2012, the year Haslam bought the team.
Shurmur, his staff and General Manager Tom Heckert were fired after that season. Now in his ninth season as owner, Haslam is on his seventh head coach and sixth general manager.
“The only thing I can say to that is continuity,” Childress said. “It helps.”
Perhaps Stefanski can buck the trend.
“He’s mindful,” Childress said. “He’s not going to talk too fast, but he’s going to tell you everything he’s going to do. He’s a great listener, very smart, a communicator, and he has tremendous flexibility from having coached quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, offensive coordinator.
“And let’s be honest, you have to have something right about you to hang around the same place for 13 years,” as Stefanski did through three head coaches in Minnesota.
The Browns haven’t had a winning season since 2007. Since then, they’ve averaged just four wins a year.
In four games, Stefanski has matched Hue Jackson’s win total in 40 games. Hue, of course, is the guy who said he’d jump into Lake Erie if he finished 0-16. Sixteen losses later, he jumped into Lake Erie.
Stefanski isn’t the only former Vikings assistant in Cleveland. The others are Joe Woods, defensive coordinator; Mike Priefer, special teams coordinator; Chad O’Shea, offensive passing game coordinator/receivers coach; Kevin Rogers, senior offensive assistant; and Jeff Howard, defensive passing game coordinator/secondary.
“Joe Woods allows him to keep his eyes on the offense,” Childress said. “And I know he has great trust in Chad O’Shea, who does a great job while having his hands full with some big personalities at receiver.”
Stefanski is comfortable delegating, but he also has a firm grip on the steering wheel, something his predecessor, Freddie Kitchens, lost control of not long after beating out Stefanski for the position a year ago.
“It’s not easy to get a guy like Odell Beckham in your corner as opposed to pouting off to the side,” Childress said. “That’s something Kevin is doing a great job with.”
Don’t crown the Browns just yet. They did open with a 38-6 loss to Baltimore. And they still have two games against Pittsburgh.
But it appears Stefanski might have what it takes to stick around a while.
“It’s funny,” Childress said. “I talked to him two or three months ago, when that tight end, [David] Njoku, demanded to be traded.
“Kevin had talked him back onto the ship. And I facetiously told Kevin, ‘You got a better temperament than me because I go from zero to 60 too fast in those situations.’ He laughed about it. He’s got a great makeup for this.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org