Cleveland Browns choose alignment over pedigree with Kevin Stefanski

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Kevin Stefanski talks to the media after being introduced as the Cleveland Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Kevin Stefanski talks to the media after being introduced as the Cleveland Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

After years of falling short of expectations and internal discord, the Cleveland Browns had the most important coaching search in team history and landed Kevin Stefanski.

When the Cleveland Browns fired, yet again, another coach and general manager, it was a familiar feeling in the football tortured city. The team has only had one coach last beyond their second year since firing Romeo Crennel in 2008. Unfortunately, that person was the oft-criticized Hue Jackson, who compiled a dismal 3-36-1 record and a fractured foundation in his 40 games in charge.

So, you can understand the groans and eye-rolls of fans spending another playoff season watching ownership navigate the waters of another coaching search. This one, however, felt different almost right away. When owner Jimmy Haslam spoke to the media regarding their latest conquest to find the captain of the ship, there was a sense of admittance in his tone. His chief strategist, Paul DePodesta, twice attempted to talk him out of coaching decisions (Jackson, Freddie Kitchens) that combined for a record of 9-46-1 over 56 games.

Perhaps Haslam was finally ready to take a back seat to his trusted advisor. When the names of candidates began filtering through, two names stood out: Mike McCarthy and Josh McDaniels. Both have the previous NFL head coaching experience Jimmy Haslam said the search committee was looking for and both have Super Bowl rings, though only McCarthy’s was as a head coach. McCarthy quickly disappeared as an option when he was quickly tied up by the Dallas Cowboys as their new head coach before the Browns had gotten to their second candidate interview.

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This left Josh McDaniels as the perceived favorite for the job. An Ohio native whose coaching career has been shaped by the tutelage of Bill Belichick, winning a total of six Super Bowls while a member of the Patriots staff. The John Carroll alum seemed to be a shoo-in.

But there was a word that kept coming up during the search process, alignment. Cleveland has suffered from self-sabotage within the organization on multiple occasions over the last decade.

Whether pushing Kyle Shanahan out over his doubts about first-round flame-out Johnny Manziel, Ray Farmer famously getting suspended for sending text messages to coaching staff during games relating to the aforementioned Manziel, Hue Jackson and Todd Haley’s blame-fest, Todd Monken undermining his head coach and play-caller Freddie Kitchens this season; the Browns have become the epitome of dysfunction.

What Haslam and those responsible for the coaching search cared most about was assembling a staff that would be on the same page from day one. Enter Kevin Stefanski. The Penn alum and 2002 First-Team All-Ivy league defensive back spent a remarkable 12 years on the staff of the Minnesota Vikings, starting as an assistant to the head coach, Brad Childress. The reason it’s remarkable is Stefanski lasted through multiple coaching changes, which is rare in a league where coaches want to be surrounded by staff they hand-pick.

Stefanski was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009, and then became quarterbacks coach in 2017, when he helped lead Case Keenum to a 22 touchdown and seven interception season. He has moved around to several positions on the Vikings staff from 2014-2017. After the 2017 season, New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur attempted to interview Stefanski for his vacant offensive coordinator spot, but had his request denied by the Vikings. It was apparent the team was aware they had a possible young coaching star on their roster.

After a loss to the Seattle Seahawks during Week 14 of the 2018 season, the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John Defilippo and promoted Stefanski to the position on an interim basis, making the move permanent for the 2019 season. He quickly put his belief in analytics into action in a revamped Vikings offense, helping lead the high-powered offensive attack to the divisional round of this year’s playoffs. There’s a whole discussion waiting on the playbook side as to why Stefanski’s style will benefit Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb along with Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham Jr.

That’s not this discussion. More important is the alignment within the organization. He’s a strong believer of fellow Ivy League alum DePodesta’s influence on using analytics and data. Josh McDaniels was not. Whereas McDaniels reportedly wanted a massive overhaul of the organization, Stefanski believed in what the Browns already had in place and was willing to allow team decisions to be influenced by data. While this hasn’t been a popular decision among the Browns fanbase, it was the best bet moving forward.

Next. Takeaways from Stefanski's introductory press conference. dark

Teams like the Baltimore Ravens have already shown the dominance you can have when you build your organization around an analytical approach. The Browns have the most famous name in Moneyball on staff. This coaching decision was a no-brainer and for once Jimmy Haslam listened to the right voices in the room. While it is not a “sexy” choice of a big-name coach from a large tree of coaching pedigree, hiring Kevin Stefanski is the Browns most important move towards legitimacy and getting the best out of a talented team that desperately needs true leadership at the top.