No. 1: Keeping Baker Mayfield on Cleveland Browns roster in 2020
This one seems kind of silly given that it was reversed after the events of the 2021 season, but Stefanski stayed with Mayfield as long as he could, and probably longer than he should have. Still, in 2020, Stefanski got the Browns into the playoffs and his team beat the Steelers in Heinz Field.
However, at the beginning of 2020, Stefanski, as a new coach, and Andrew Berry, as a new general manager, could have said, “Hey, we didn’t choose this guy, so let’s pick up someone else.”
It was by no means obvious that Mayfield had to be the starting quarterback of the team that year. In fact, there was plenty of anti-Mayfield sentiment after the 2019 letdown.
That team was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender with quarterback guru Freddie Kitchens as the coach, and Baker Mayfield as the quarterback prodigy. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that he had established a new record for touchdown passes by a rookie in 2018. No, 2018 was a fluke for many fans, and 2019 had proven that Mayfield could never make it as an NFL quarterback.
They felt that blowing it up and starting it over was the preferred course of action, and a new rookie quarterback was more likely to produce wins. In reality, “rookie quarterback” and “produce wins” should rarely be used in the same sentence, but that’s the way we have been conditioned to think after so many quarterback changes over the years.
However, Stefanski realized that what the Browns didn’t need was yet another quarterback change. Sometimes you have to blow things up and start over, but that should be the last resort, not Plan A.
Blaming the quarterback and blowing it up gets to be addictive, and the team, just like its fans, can adopt a fatalistic attitude and just fall into the same pattern, year after year, which is pretty much what the Browns had done for years. That had to stop.
There is no “Franchise Quarterback Store” where the team can just reach into a bag and pull out a “franchise quarterback.” If not a league MVP, Mayfield was good enough to run the two-tight-end scheme Stefanski had planned for the team. We are re-testing that theory in 2022, but in 2020, Stefanski opted for stability at the quarterback position, and it worked.
Choosing Mayfield to be his quarterback in 2020 proved to be the right choice. Stefanski’s confidence in Mayfield was rewarded with an 11-5 regular season and the first playoff win for the Browns since their return in 1999, over the Steelers, no less, in Heinz Field. The Browns rang up 48 points versus the Steelers.
In standing by Mayfield as long as he did, any quarterback who comes to Cleveland will feel that coach Stefanski has his back.
Stefanski continued to stay with his quarterback in 2021, and perhaps that was too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, a free agent coming to Cleveland (i.e., Deshaun Watson) can be sure that the coach is going to be loyal. He won’t be abandoned like in previous regimes, when the quarterback seemed to have been selected according to a whim of the ownership group.
It’s hard to know for sure, but think about what would have happened if Stefanski had pulled the plug on Mayfield. Would Mayfield have been a good sport and held a clipboard for Case Keenum? Or would he have thrown a temper tantrum? Would he have claimed that he was perfectly capable of playing quarterback and his coach was betraying him?
What would we have written? Probably something like this: “The well is forever poisoned! There will never be a long-term deal with Mayfield now, and it is all Stefanski’s fault!”
The problems that led to Mayfield’s offseason demotion, as viewed by this writer, had largely to do with personality conflicts gone out of control. Mayfield seemed to have mental blocks against throwing to certain receivers, notably Beckham, but including several others.
Not targeting Nick Chubb was the most serious issue. The receivers he was comfortable with were not making enough yards. Everyone knows that the play calling was atrocious at times, particularly late in the year when it counted. What we don’t know is whether it was Stefanski’s original call or whether it was changed at the line of scrimmage by the quarterback.
In any case, Stefanski put up with the three-ring circus for the entire season. Mayfield finally benched himself when the Browns were knocked out of the playoffs. Through this entire process, Stefanski has shown himself to be the most quarterback-friendly coach in the NFL.
That’s not necessarily the best thing to be, by the way, but no one should question that Stefanski stood by Mayfield longer than virtually anyone else would have.
Stefanski had a tough year in 2021. This will be discussed in an upcoming article which will deal with his worst decisions as a head coach. However, just because he has had a tough year and possibly — in the minds of some observers, at least — made some mistakes and blown a few play calls does not mean it is time to give up. All coaches do this.
The question is whether he is learning from his mistakes and improving, or whether he has peaked and is getting worse. There’s nothing to make this observer want to blow up the coaching staff again. So thanks for the suggestion, but I’m happy with our guy.