It is no longer scandalous to say the Cleveland Browns made an ill-advised choice naming Freddie Kitchens coach in 2019. It’s clear now the decision was illogical, like hiring a plumber to landscape.
Kitchens might have been good calling plays – that’s still debatable. But he’s was largely unprepared to keep order in a clubhouse filled with egotists and eccentrics.
So the Browns fired him, and days later, John Dorsey, the man who hired him, left in a huff over philosophical differences.
The Browns were expected to win last season. Some among the more overzealous media mavens even suggested they would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Alas, the Browns did not win or impress. Despite an offense filled with playmakers, Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb, they finished 6-10.
That’s why the next step this franchise decided to take would be considered its most important for years to come. And the Browns made the leap over the weekend by signing Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to a five-year contract to be their head coach.
“My leadership style is to be authentic,” Stefanski said at his introductory press conference on Tuesday. “I will be direct with my players. They will get to know me and I will get to know them. I’m ready, willing and able to lead from out in front.”
Stefanski is 37 years old. He fits the demographic of many of the new NFL coaches, young and progressive-minded, hopefully innovative and bright. The Browns hope he is all of the above because they have not been to the playoffs since 2002 and he will be their 10th coach since returning to the NFL in 1999.
“I won’t make any bold predictions about what we’re going to do this year, but I can promise you that’s we’re going to work. That’s what I am about,” Stefanski said. “We will be methodical about it. We won’t skip step two and three to get to four.”
If there’s concern, it’s likely that Stefanski, who was an assistant with the Vikings for 14 years, has never been a head coach at any level. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, the team owners, don’t seem hesitant about the fifth coach they’ve hired since the took over the team in 2012.
Stefanski interviewed for the job last year before the hiring of Kitchens. This time around, the search committee, headed by chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, vetted 15 candidates before settling on their man.
“Not one person we talked to said they thought this [situation] would be rebuild,” Jimmy Haslan said at the press conference. “We’re highly confident that he will be our coach for a long time.”
According to The Athletic, one of the main attractions to Stefanski was his commitment to analytics, something DePodesta values highly.
The timing of the hiring is somewhat unusual because the Browns have yet to replace Dorsey. While Stefanski will likely have some say who is hired, the frontrunner seems to be Andrew Berry, who left the team last year to work for the Eagles.
When the Browns promoted Kitchens to offensive coordinator last season following the firing of Hue Jackson, he had never called an NFL play in hs life. They won’t have the problem with Stefanski. He called the plays for the Vikings coach Mike Zimmer beginning with the last three games of the 2018 season.
It will be Stefanski’s job to bring Mayfield to life.
“Personality is welcomed, but performance is required,” Stefanski said. “I really think this kid has a chance to take off. I also talked to Odell. We’ll be explosive.”
Mayfield was last among qualifying quarterbacks in touchdown-to-interception ratio (22 touchdowns to 21 interceptions) and next-to-last in passer rating (78.8) and completion percentage (59.4%).
“We need to do everything we can to help Baker realize his full potential,” Haslam said on Jan. 2. “That is something all of us in this organization are focused on.”
According ESPN Stats & Info, one of the ways Stefanski might be able to help Mayfield is with his accuracy outside of pocket. Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins completed 62 percent of those throws. Mayfield connected on only 36 percent, which was 30th in the league.
“I’m obviously happy for him. I think it’s a great role for him. He’s a great leader, he has a great demeanor, and I have so much respect for him and the way that he carries out his life, his business – and thankful for his support and everything he’s done for me over the years,” Vikings receiver Adam Thielen told Browns.com. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him and am happy for him. It’s really cool to see a guy that just grinded.”