Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski had a bad year in 2021, but overall he’s a promising, smart coach.
Kevin Stefanski is the first head coach to have taken a Cleveland Browns team to the playoffs since Butch Davis in 2003, so there are definitely some positive things that have happened in his two years thus far. However, for those who want to complain about Stefanski, don’t worry, there will soon be a follow-on article to this one that will discuss the five worst decisions in his head coaching career. Some of them he may even agree with.
Overall, the view from this corner is that Stefanski is a major improvement over Freddie Kitchens, though not all of the coaching hires have been bad. We could debate whether Gregg Williams or Mike Pettine might have been better. Generally, Browns ownership has not had the patience to work through problems, and their solution is to fire coaches, general managers, and quarterbacks. More about that next time. For now, let’s identify the positives that the team has to work with and build upon.
Currently, there’s a lot of buzz about play calls, meaning that the coach goes for it too often on fourth down or passes when he should have called upon Nick Chubb. We’ll get into that a little bit next time, but for now, we’ll identify some major moves that paid off, especially on offense, which is Stefanski’s specialty.
Best decisions from Kevin Stefanski with the Cleveland Browns
No. 5: Two tight End Offense
Wouldn’t it be a dream to have two Pro Bowl wide receivers with 1,000-yards receiving, plus a Pro Bowl running back who finishes top three in rushing yards, and total yards from scrimmage?
What about adding a second Pro Bowl running back at midseason? If so, your dream was realized in 2019 with the offense by former coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken. However, this Browns team finished 6-10 and if they called themselves the Dawgs, they were absolute dogs offensively, finishing 22nd in yards.
In came Kevin Stefanski and his two-tight end offense for the 2020 season. They went out and, well, overpaid for a free agent tight end (Austin Hooper), drafted a good one in Harrison Bryant, and decided to rehabilitate David Njoku, who Kitchens was happy to leave on the inactive list.
He got buy-in from Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry that they might not have as many targets as they did in 2019, but promised them more wins. He also put in a good word with Andrew Berry for fullback Andy Janovich.
That team started to win on ball control. They got 841 rushing yards from Kareem Hunt versus only 179 the previous year. Rashard Higgins posted 599 receiving yards versus 55 the previous year. David Njoku was injured but still posted 213 yards versus 41 the previous year. D’Ernest Johnson had 544 all-purpose yards (still not nearly enough) versus 230 in his rookie season.
Not everything worked, but at least they spread the football around, especially as the season progressed. The Browns upped their rushing total to 2,374 yards, an improvement of 473 yards.
Even though OBJ was injured in Week 7, Baker Mayfield had a much better season and cut way back on his INTs, from 21 in 2019 to just eight in 2020. Mayfield has gotten his share of criticism — much of it justified — for attempting to play hurt in 2021 and playing way below his normal level.
However, it would be disingenuous to claim, as some fans have, that he has never shown improvement from Kitchens to Stefanski, either. 6-10 is not the same as 12-6 and a road playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. 21 INTs are not the same as eight. Stefanski and his quarterback both deserve great credit for the improvement. And, by the way, were it not for a bum call that completely missed an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit on Higgins, the Browns could have beaten Kansas City, too.
The two-tight-end offense is one that is salary-cap-friendly. Tight ends cost less than wide receivers. As outrageous as Hooper’s salary seemed to have been, it was not as high as Landry’s or OBJ’s.
The two-tight-end offense seemed to be a good thing. Not everyone in the Dawg Pound wants to go back to the conventional three-wide-receiver look, but that seems to be what the Browns want to do, upon the advice of new quarterback Deshaun Watson, based on his skill set.
There are a lot of things that make this observer uncomfortable about the 2022 Browns, but okay. There are quite a number of successful teams that operate without the two-tight-end offense. Plus they still have two tight ends in Njoku and Bryant. They do need to find depth at the position, but maybe they will find it in training camp.