BEREA, OHIO – Kevin Stefanski, the NFL's reigning Coach of the Year and one of its more persistent bootstrapping success stories, was overlooking his new team's practice fields when he was presented with the popular notion that it's essentially a nightmare serving as offensive coordinator under his old boss, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
"Yeah, well, that couldn't be farther from the truth," the offensive play-calling Browns head coach said Thursday, three days before he matches wits with the defensive play-calling Zimmer at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"Zim was so helpful giving me insight into what the defense was thinking week in and week out. He was incredible on the practice field, in the games. He was as helpful to my career and my development as anybody I've been around."
But Zimmer also served as one of the speed bumps in Stefanski's rise from Brad Childress' unglorified gofer in 2006-07 to Cleveland's first NFL Coach of the Year since Forrest Gregg in 1976. Though Zimmer retained Stefanski off Leslie Frazier's staff and gave him his first position to coach in 2014, he also blocked Stefanski from following Pat Shurmur to the Giants as offensive coordinator in 2018. Zimmer then refused to promote Stefanski from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, essentially saying Stefanski owed him his loyalty.
"In the moment, was that hard? Sure," Stefanski, 39, said. "I think any coach wants to advance his career. But I also understand completely where Zim and [General Manager] Rick Spielman were coming from. I think it's probably pretty similar to what I did with David Njoku."
Njoku, a tight end, was Cleveland's 2017 first-round draft pick and one of the first fires Stefanski had to extinguish after becoming the Browns' 12th head coach since their re-emergence as an expansion team in 1999. After catching five balls in four games in 2019, Njoku demanded a trade after Stefanski and new GM Andrew Berry signed another tight end, Austin Hooper, to a mega deal in free agency.
Today, Njoku is all-in as essentially a blocking tight end in Cleveland's punishing ground game. All thanks go to Stefanski's firm but nonabrasive demeanor.
"Kevin and I kidded about Njoku," Childress said. "I said, 'Kevin, I got a feeling you probably dealt with that differently than I would have.' The top of my head would have blown off at Njoku demanding a trade. But Kevin, he's just wired differently."
“He was as helpful to my career and my development as anybody I've been around.”
"I think that's the Irish coming out in Coach Childress," he said. "Sometimes, players might not want to hear the truth, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to give them the truth. David is a great example of a guy who certainly there were challenges early, but now he will do anything for his teammates. Even if it means blocking 70 straight plays. I'm so proud of him."
By the same token, Stefanski and Shurmur had to accept the decision Zimmer made.
"The rule has since changed to where now, if it's a promotion, they have to let you go," Stefanski said. "But everything happens for a reason. I had a great job and, not getting the Giants job, I was able to go back and learn and develop under Gary Kubiak for a year."
"I wasn't angry," added Shurmur, who is now the Denver Broncos offensive coordinator. "Kevin and I would have worked well together. But I think Zim was smart keeping him there. And we all know it was only a matter of time before Kevin was going to get his opportunity to prove he's ready, which he has."
Zimmer has had six offensive coordinators in eight seasons. Norv Turner quit midseason in 2016; John DeFilippo was fired after 13 games in 2018; Kubiak re-retired after last season, and his son, Klint, is off to a fast start as the current coordinator.
"Every situation is different, so people shouldn't read more into it or jump to conclusions that aren't necessarily there," Turner said when asked if Zimmer is too hard on offensive coordinators. "In two cases, guys became head coaches. Kevin did it like we used to in the past by working his way up the hard way.
"What happened with me, that's old news," Turner added. "My first couple years we had Teddy [Bridgewater] and we were rolling … not rolling, but getting better. Teddy knows how to win football games and, hell, we won the division my second year. I think things were pretty smooth with me and Zim. Then sometimes things happen and it's time to leave. I'm not going to revisit any of that."
As for DeFilippo, the proverbial writing was on the wall pretty much from the time he was hired away from the Super Bowl-champion Eagles.
"Dude, that Seahawks game on Monday night, there was tension between Zim and Flip," said former Vikings and current Browns defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, referring to the 21-7 loss that got DeFilippo fired the next morning.
DeFilippo called deep passes on third and fewer than 3 yards three times with the score 3-0 and 6-0.
"I know the play that got him fired," Odenigbo said. "What could have been an easy run, Coach Flip said, 'Screw it' and went for the play-action bomb. It was a complete debacle. Those two were like oil and vinegar.
"And you look at it and you see Kevin and how long he had been in Minnesota. Ivy League guy from Penn. Smart. Great communicator. And you ask, 'Why didn't he get the job in the first place?' But after we lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game the year before, it was literally, 'If you can't beat them, join them.' So they hired Flip."
Stefanski stepped in as interim coordinator and brought the offense back to a run-first mentality.
"Kevin was the same guy when they hired DeFilippo," receiver Adam Thielen said. "That's what makes him special. Then, when he stepped in as the interim, the way he handled the room that first day, it was like he'd been offensive coordinator for 10 years."
Head of the 'Underworld'
Born in Philadelphia on May 8, 1982, Stefanski is the son of NBA executive Ed Stefanski. Kevin played defensive back at Penn before becoming its assistant director of football operations in 2005.
That summer, he got an internship in operations with the Eagles through a connection with fellow Penn alum James Urban, who was coach Andy Reid's gofer and is now the Baltimore Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach.
"I stocked the Gatorades, drove Coach Reid to practice," Stefanski said. "Grunt work."
Childress hired Stefanski a year later when he went from Eagles offensive coordinator to Vikings head coach. Stefanski's first NFL "office" was a cubicle right outside Childress' office.
At the time, Stefanski, offensive assistant Chad O'Shea and defensive assistant Brendan Daly called themselves the "Underworld" — the grunts who made things go at Winter Park.
"Kevin was the head of the Underworld," said O'Shea, Stefanski's receivers coach and passing game coordinator. "When you needed something done or had a problem, you went to Kevin first. Need an ink cartridge, the copier's jammed, don't have enough chairs in the meeting room, whatever, he'd fix everything.
"The guy has no ego. Zero. Still doesn't. How he was then is how he is now. Kevin is at his very best when things aren't going well."
For 14 years, he didn't have to move to get experience. The experience came to him.
"Think about it," Childress said. "He survived three head coaches. He coached tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks. Then Pat Shurmur comes in as a West Coast guy. Norv leaves midseason and it's Kevin who helps Pat adjust to Norv's offense, which is totally different."
Having that cramped cubicle within earshot of Childress also paid dividends.
"I got to see every day what came into that office and the fires you have to put out every day," Stefanski said. "I think that's helped me maybe not get surprised by some of the things I now deal with."
Within two weeks of being hired in Cleveland, Stefanski was confronted with incidents involving two star players. TMZ released a video of Kareem Hunt being pulled over by police and cited for speeding and having marijuana and an open container of vodka in the car. And Odell Beckham Jr. was seen on camera handing out wads of cash to LSU players — including Justin Jefferson, now with the Vikings — after the national championship game.
"That was a test," Stefanski said. "In any of my dealings with the team I'm just going to be me. The one thing I will always do for the players is I will be honest and I will be transparent and I'm not going to pull punches with them. That's definitely, definitely an influence I got from Coach Zimmer."
Doug Dieken played left tackle for the Browns from 1971 to '84. Then he stepped into the radio booth as an analyst for the next 36 years, and counting. He has seen in person all but two Browns games the last 50 years and 20 head coaches.
"This guy is the closest thing to Cool Hand Luke that I've seen," Dieken said of Stefanski. "He's as steady as I've ever seen. He doesn't change. As a ballplayer, you want a coach who is consistent and dependable. Kevin has answered with bells and whistles on that one."
'An easy sell in Cleveland'
The Browns could have had Stefanski a year earlier but promoted Freddie Kitchens after being split on Stefanski. Paul DePodesta, the team's chief strategy officer, and Berry, the vice president of player personnel at the time, liked Stefanski. John Dorsey, the general manager at the time, and quarterback Baker Mayfield liked Kitchens.
Owner Jimmy Haslam sided with Dorsey. The Browns were talented and a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, but the overmatched Kitchens took them on an emotional roller-coaster ride to 6-10.
"We ask all the time on the radio, 'Who's the most valuable player on the Browns?'" said ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi, who has covered the team for 40 years. "I say, 'Stefanski is the MVP.' No doubt in my mind, too. Changed the culture and he's got them all playing together, thinking together, working together."
“Kevin is at his very best when things aren't going well.”
When Kitchens was fired, Dorsey was shown the door, too. DePodesta, a Harvard grad, stepped in, hired Stefanski and completed the Ivy League triumvirate by bringing Berry, 34, back from a year in Philadelphia to be the team's fourth general manager in six years.
It was just par for the course for the NFL's infamous "Factory of Sadness."
"We put the fun in dysfunction," said Childress, who was Browns offensive coordinator in 2012.
Under the Ivy League triumvirate, the Browns posted their first winning season (11-5) in 13 years, their first playoff appearance in 18 years and their first playoff win in 26 years.
"You can say Ivy Leaguers and smart and all that," said quarterback Case Keenum, Browns backup and former Viking who helped author the improbable run to the NFC title game in the 2017 season. "But there are a lot of smart people who can't talk to people. In 2017, Shurmur was the big-picture guy, but Kevin was the guy who had an answer for everything I asked. He's the guy who last year, we didn't even see his face without a mask all year and he has a great first season."
Because of the pandemic, Stefanski was still coaching virtually from his home in Edina in May, four months after being hired. He didn't see his new team in person until training camp.
"He's been through things no other first-year coach ever has," said Mike Priefer, the former Vikings special teams coordinator now serving that role with Cleveland. "Then he gets COVID and we never miss a beat in the playoff game against the Steelers because Kevin already had a detailed plan in place just in case that happened."
Priefer was acting head coach in that victory over the Steelers. Stefanski watched from his basement at home.
"Maybe the only problem he had was his family was upstairs watching the game and Kevin's TV downstairs was three or four seconds behind," Priefer said. "Every time we did something good, Kevin heard his family going crazy upstairs before he was able to see it."
Browns fans are in Year 56 of waiting for their first Super Bowl appearance. The only other teams not to play in a Super Bowl are the Lions, Texans and Jaguars.
"You sit there for 20 years and you say, 'When are we going to get this right?'" Dieken said. "Finally, last year, the games they'd always find a way to lose, they're finding ways to win.
"I think people believe Stefanski is the guy. Let's face it, you win Coach of the Year as a first-year coach, that speaks for itself. You go 11-5 and beat the Steelers in back-to-back weeks, including the playoffs? Let's just say Stefanski's an easy sell in Cleveland."