Cleveland Browns: Alex Van Pelt isn’t guaranteed upgrade at play-caller

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) meets with Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, center, and Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]Browns 10
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) meets with Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, center, and Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]Browns 10 /

Be careful what you wish for, fans, if Alex Van Pelt calls plays for the Cleveland Browns, there’s no guarantee that he is better than coach Kevin Stefanski. 

Many fans, including this one, have been critical of play calling of Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski at times, but when did offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt become the play calling guru of the NFL?

No offense to Van Pelt, who has done a nice job of installing Stefanski’s unique two-tight-end-based scheme, but there’s no assurance that Van Pelt is a better play caller than Stefanski.

Van Pelt did have a major success in the 2020 playoff game in which the Browns beat up the Steelers in the playoffs while Stefanski was out with Covid. Of course, it helped that the Steelers began the game with center Maurkice Pouncey snapping the ball over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and Karl Joseph fell on it for a touchdown.

Roethlisberger contributed four interceptions which also helped the Browns to score points. It was a great game! But it was just one game, gang! One game and that makes Van Pelt the best play caller for the Cleveland Browns?

Cleveland Browns Alex Van Pelt: History as a play-caller

It has been correctly pointed out that Van Pelt is a veteran NFL assistant coach who has had experience calling plays for the 2009 Buffalo Bills. But is that actually a positive?

Consider this: the 2009 Buffalo Bills had Trent Edwards and also Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. We know Fitzpatrick in particular could play. They also had Fred Jackson, who posted 1,000 yards rushing that season. They also had Marshawn Lynch, another 1,000-yard back who they made second string.

At wide receiver, they had Lee Evans, who had posted a 1,000-yard receiving season the previous year. Plus they had signed Terrell Owens alongside him.

So why couldn’t they score any points? They managed only 16.1 points per game, which was 28th in the league. When has there ever been a team with four players who had 1,000-yard seasons within the past year, including a Hall of Famer (Owens) and a near Hall of Famer (Beast Mode Lynch), and yet they could not score points?

Not that it was necessarily the fault of Van Pelt, but Jackson was the only player who had a good year. Fitzpatrick, Lynch, Evans, and Owens all underperformed in 2009. Moreover, they all got better in 2010 without Van Pelt.

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So that’s why we want Alex Van Pelt to call plays for the Cleveland Browns? No offense to Van Pelt, but wow.

Of course, Van Pelt has had 13 years to learn and improve his game by working with quarterbacks including Aaron Rodgers, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, and Baker Mayfield. Working with Aaron Rodgers was quite an impressive resume item, but he was also fired from that job.

Stefanski screwed up a lot in 2021, no doubt. If you’re read other articles by your humble correspondent, you are aware that he has not held back from blasting the game plans and play calling, especially versus Arizona, Green Bay, and the first Pittsburgh game last season.

So should Van Pelt call plays just because he’s not Stefanski? That’s not a path to the Super Bowl. That’s a path to mediocrity or worse. No, there should be a clear purpose in making a change, and it has to be the coach’s own decision.

Worst of all is the suggestion that Jimmy Haslam III should force the coach to relinquish play-calling duties or the coach is fired. Only the Browns would think this could be a good idea. No other team would consider making the head coach subservient to the offensive coordinator — well, except maybe the Dallas Cowboys and we’re not trying to be them.

Hue Jackson was given less authority than Todd Haley and we remember how well that worked out. You can’t humiliate the head coach like that and expect the players to respect him. If the head coach does not have the final say-so, then he’s not the head coach. Just fire him and get it over with.

The fact that Stefanski made mistakes is serious, but should not be fatal. Football is not a game where things are nice and neat and go exactly according to plan. Like Mike Tyson says, “Everyone’s got a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”  Super Bowls have been lost due to bonehead play calls. Ask the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons fans about that and they will tell you all about it.

Chaos reigns in football, and if Stefanski made some mistakes in the Baker Mayfield era, to some extent it’s to be expected. The real issue is whether he learns and improves. Similarly, if Van Pelt’s duties are expanded to include play calling, there will be some growing pains along the way.

Getting the offensive coordinator and quarterback involved in play calling does not have to be a giant soap opera. To cite one counter-example, if you will recall the huge third-and-15 play in Super Bowl LIV, Andy Reid made the decision by asking Patrick Mahomes, “Well, what do you want to run?” Mahomes asked for the play and Reid gave it to him, and the result was a 44-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill.

Certainly, there should be no problem for the coach to ask his offensive coordinator and/or quarterback for input, especially during a time out, and then make the final decision based on their recommendations.

The most reasonable course of action is for the coach to continue to call most of the plays in the Deshaun Watson era. The play calls just might start making more sense if Watson is the quarterback rather than an injured Baker Mayfield desperately looking for a new contract. Things just got kind of squirrely in 2021. Let’s just see if the bogus play calls diminish this year.

Switching to Van Pelt would be a leap into the unknown. Nobody has any reason to believe it would lead to excellence; it would just be a more or less random selection. If fans are expecting zero mistakes from the play caller, that is just not realistic.

Let the coach decide who should call the plays; if you don’t like it, fire him. Above all, the idea that the Browns can improve the team by having the owner emasculate the head coach and take away his authority over the offensive coordinator is a very bad idea. It did not work for Hue Jackson and it should never be used again. Let’s call off the dawgs on that one.

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