The Cleveland Browns—finally, at long last—appear to have finally gotten a ‘good one’. The floundering franchise has been searching for answers for decades at this point, looking for a leader who will help steer their ship in the right direction, and you can’t deny the results of Kevin Stefanski’s first season as head coach.
After more than a decade of losing seasons, rarely ever even hitting five or six wins, the Browns finished the 2020 season with an 11-5 record, making the postseason for the first time since 2002. They even defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wildcard round—their first postseason victory since 1994.
Perhaps, just perhaps, they could have gotten there one year earlier. This was the second offseason in a row in which they hired a new head coach, as Freddie Kitchens was promoted to that post in 2019 before taking the team back and being dumped after one season. Stefanski was among the finalists for the job then.
But would he have been the same coach then that he is now? Not to speak of the potential differences in the roster—although I don’t suppose, outside of the offensive line, which is admittedly significant, you can say that their level of talent was significantly different between the two years.
Stefanski seemed to suggest that he doesn’t feel he would have been the same coach a year earlier, or as prepared for the job, and that is in no small part due to the influence of Gary Kubiak, under whom he had the opportunity to work during the former’s one season with the Minnesota Vikings, in 2019, as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor.
“For years, that scheme has been very hard on defenses, when you talk about defending the run game and the play-action game”, he told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. “I had never been in that scheme specifically. I’ve been in other ones, and I had my own thoughts about the run game and play-action game, but to be able to be exposed to coach Kub and the different nuance that he had into those plays was was incredible for me”.
While Stefanski ran his own system, and called the team’s played, as he had done in Minnesota, you could certainly see the influences of the Kubiak system in the way that he ran the Browns’ offense, particularly in the run game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, which is the engine that drove them.
Kubiak just retired from the game, and now Stefanski is in the running for Coach of the Year. Would he have been in that position without that one year under Kubiak’s influence in 2019? In so many words, he told Cabot that he was grateful in a way for the Browns passing on him that year to gain that experience, in turn making him a better coach and setting him up for success in the long run.