With a 4-1 record through five weeks, the early returns for the Cleveland Browns under head coach Kevin Stefanski are impressive, but just as notable as what he’s doing with the Browns is what he is no longer doing with the Minnesota Vikings.
Outside of week one of the season, no one is talking about Stefanski in terms of being a rookie head coach. It’s entirely a discussion about how smoothly the Browns are operating during games to this point.
Gone are the delay of game penalties or the rushed snaps where Baker Mayfield can’t see what the defense is doing and go through his checks or even utilize presnap motion, in a race to beat the play clock. Instead, plays come in quickly and Mayfield has the time to go through his checks, the Browns use a significant amount of motion and put the offense in the best position possible.
To this point, the Browns haven’t been called for illegal formation. The Browns in 2019 were so disorganized that veterans like Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham would be lined up wrong, causing a needless penalty, putting the offense at a disadvantage.
These are pretty basic improvements, but that was the level the Browns were operating. More advanced is how well this coaching staff has managed the game. They don’t waste timeouts and they’ve done a great job when it comes to managing the clock at the end of the first half, producing points while the opponent can’t do anything but go to the locker room to regroup.
The offense flows naturally and makes adjustment in real time. Rather than halftime adjustments, the Browns are always evolving, finding opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities in the defense in real time. Players are being utilized to their strengths and consistently put in position to succeed.
This is because of the operation they have when it comes to offense. Kevin Stefanski may call the plays, but Alex Van Pelt and Ryan Cordell are a big part of the process. Cordell is providing data and finding information on the fly that helps Stefanski make informed decisions. Van Pelt is not only helping Stefanski live, but he and O’Shea are game planning quarters ahead, incorporating input from Stump Mitchell and Bill Callahan, who are excellent assistants in their own right.
Stefanski understands how to incorporate data and math to makes informed decisions on when to go for it on 4th down, often being aggressive. It’s not only prudent, but it also instills an unwavering confidence in the team to execute, which only increases the buy in from players.
Along the same line, in concert with general manager Andrew Berry, the Browns created an environment that encourages an open dialogue within the team. Focused on social justice to provide a forum for players to speak out on what’s important to them in the world around them, it has helped to take down some walls and bring this team closer, which has carried over to the field.
Players not only feel empowered by the organization, that they are able to make a difference and truly helping to build something within this team, they are also playing for each other.
Sheldrick Redwine and Rashard Higgins came up with big plays to help the Browns defeat the Indianapolis Colts, despite not having played much this season and echoed this sentiment.
Redwine was asked if it was frustrating to not have played.
“No, it was not frustrating. It is just a process. I am a strong believer in trusting the process. Everything is going to happen the way you want it to happen. It is just a matter of time. It just that belief in myself. I never got down about it. Just playing my role until my role expanded. They needed me to come in and play defense, and I came in and I just did what I had to do.”
Higgins was asked how Stefanski has handled him this season as it relates to his opportunity to play.
“Coach believes in me. I would not be on the team for no reason. He knows what I am capable of, and I do at a high level every time. He kept me on the team for a reason. He believed in me. He trusts in me. The whole staff upstairs, they believe in me. They know what I am capable of. There is nothing to question. I am on the team for a reason. When I am called upon, I have to do my job.”
Winning helps. Finding the right people to be in the locker room plays a role. It’s also indicative of a coaching staff that’s putting in the work to create an inclusive environment where players feel valued, that they are a part of something as opposed to replaceable cogs in a system.
All of this plus a significant amount of talent has enabled the Browns to get to a 4-1 record through five games. Meanwhile, the team that Kevin Stefanski left to take the Browns head coaching job, the Minnesota Vikings, currently sits at 1-4.
The Vikings aren’t losing games by wide margins as two of their losses are by a single point. Nevertheless, something seems to be missing. Kirk Cousins threw six interceptions in all of 2019. He has seven in five games this season.
Mike Zimmer has been a high level defensive coordinator and helped to build that side of the ball for the Vikings into an impressive group. The salary cap forced them to overhaul the corner position this year, but with time, Zimmer will likely get that squared away.
The problem with Zimmer is he lacks imagination and it can and has limited the offense. In 2018, John DeFilippo proved to be a terrible fit as the offensive coordinator for the Vikings. Part of the problem was a mandate put on him by Zimmer to run the ball.
DeFilippo’s biggest strength was crafting the passing game. With Cousins signing a huge contract and having Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph, he was looking to play to the team’s strengths and use the passing game to set up their offense.
Continuously mandated to run the ball under the belief that as long as they shorten the game and play good defense, they would always be in position to win the game, it proved a terrible fit with DeFilippo. He was fired.
Stefanski took over the offensive coordinator duties in 2019 and the mandate continued. Fortunately, Stefanski under the guidance of Gary Kubiak, was able to put together an effective running game, which helped the Vikings win games and get into the playoffs.
The side effect was that when Stefanski was considered for the head coaching job for the Browns, now for the second time, plenty of critics looked at the offense in Minnesota and came to the conclusion that Stefanski ran too much and didn’t do enough in developing a dynamic passing attack. Some of that was the mandate from Zimmer.
As Stefanski was interviewing for the Browns, Zimmer was demanding a contract extension. The Vikings found themselves at a crossroad, even if they never acknowledged it.
Stick with the unimaginative, conservative Zimmer who had piled up a good record, including two NFC North division titles and three trips to the postseason, including a trip to the NFC Championship or make what might have been an unpopular move, opting to go with a younger, up and coming, albeit unproven coach who was entirely a homegrown product.
No one knew Stefanski better than the Vikings as he had been there 14 seasons. They also know exactly what they have in Zimmer, who is currently in his seventh season. Had the Browns not hired Stefanski, he likely would’ve eventually gotten the head coaching job with the Vikings, but they seemed intent on waiting for Zimmer to truly fail as opposed to replacing him after a 10-6 season and a huge upset win in the playoffs in New Orleans against the Saints.
This is relatable for the Browns dating back to Romeo Crennel in 2007. Crennel was a really nice guy and was the head coach of the team when the team went 10-6 only to miss the playoffs. Despite major concerns about Crennel as a head coach, they extended his contract and brought him back in 2008. The team fell apart completely and went 4-12. Crennel was then fired.
Maybe the Vikings will find a way to turn around their 1-4 start. They have talent, added pieces late in the process like Yannick Ngakoue and are losing close games. Maybe they start winning the close games, gain some momentum and charge into the second half of the season, becoming a factor in the NFC North and the playoff race.
The loss of Stefanski appears to be a major factor and if the Vikings can’t turn this season around, they could ultimately make the decision to part ways with Zimmer. They will undoubtedly regret keeping Zimmer for 2020 rather than promoting Stefanski. Instead of being able to promote a coach they watched grow over 14 years, who was a well known commodity for the players and wouldn’t require overhauling the offense, they will likely have to go outside the organization for their next head coaching hire with all the uncertainty and risk that comes with it.