I’ve never been a great list maker like my wife who is always writing a daily list of her tasks for the day. I like to think I have everything listed up in my head, which I do for the most part and I think most that know me would acknowledge. So when I was recently reading about our new Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and how he was given some recent advice going into this first year with the Browns to write down a list of tasks and to check them off as he went to help him manage the season, it reminded me of just what type of coach the Browns now have. A very hard-working, detailed oriented and structured coach. And then when you combine that with the numerous individuals, from his former high school head coach in Philadelphia to his past high school football teammate, who have all said Stefanski’s ability to connect and reach others is off the charts. Then you now have a people person who has that knack to show off his empathetic side and belief in his players. And so far, those coaching skillsets are paying off with the Browns carrying a 4-2 mark into Cincinnati this Sunday.
When you start diving into the details of Stefanski’s upbringing and knowledge of the game it really does suggest to the loyal Browns fan that this guy does get it and could very well be the Browns coach of the next decade. The carousel of coaches that have passed through Browns’ headquarters in Berea over the last decade has been the main reason that the Browns have continued to struggle, last having a winning record in 2007 under then-coach Romeo Crennel, when the Browns went 10-6.
Stefanski worked in the Minnesota Vikings organization since 2006. Last season, he was promoted to the offensive coordinator position on Viking coach Mike Zimmer’s staff. He was well-liked in Minnesota and was respected by his fellow coaches and the players. The Vikings offense under quarterback Kirk Cousins excelled in Stefanski’s offensive schemes. Cousins only had six interceptions last season, while throwing 26 TDs and a QB rating of 107, a career season. Without Stefanski, the Vikings offense has taken a nosedive this season, with Cousins already throwing 10 interceptions and 11 TD’s and the Vikings stand at 1-5.
Prior to coaching at Minnesota, Stefanski’s knowledge for the game started early when he was growing up in the Philadelphia area. His former St. Joseph Prep coach Gil Brooks has mentioned Stefanski being a smart and bright guy who was always able to understand the game beyond his years. One of his former high school teammates and friends from his youth, John Mantay, has also shared Stefanski’s knowledge for the game at an early age. He described Stefanski’s ability to understand every other position on the field and what each player had to do as uncanny when he was in high school.
With that ability to see the game and schemes, Stefanski propelled up the NFL ranks while in Minnesota and now has the job in Cleveland. But what really brings Stefanski’s strengths out are when you start learning about his high character and his desire to bond teams and players together. He has been very vocal recently with the surges in social justice protests, wanting to hear his players’ concerns and developing a game plan with his team to help in the local community. Players on the Browns now talk in the media about the trust they have in Stefanski and how they feel more valued than in the past. WR Rashard Higgins, who spent most of his season last season in previous Browns coach Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse, said this about Stefanski, “Coach believes in me…he trusts me!” Nick Chubb recently said of Stefanski, “…I feel like he has been a head coach for many years. We all trust him. One of the things that stuck out to us when he came here, he said, ‘embrace the suck.’
Well, the Browns do not suck anymore. At 4-2, the Browns have certainly embraced their coach and are now at the edge of being a legitimate playoff team. That bond amongst his players and coaches got a boost when Stefanski had a Zoom meeting earlier this summer with Virginia Commonwealth University basketball coach Mike Rhoades who shared a team-building practice he does with his players, the 4-H strategy. This strategy has players share stories about themselves including the players’ history, their personal heartbreak, their heroes and their hopes. So earlier this summer Stefanski implemented this practice with his own players. And it has paid off two-fold as the season has progressed as the players’ understanding of each other more has built a team trusting one another more and more.
Browns player Joel Bitonio recently said of Stefanski, “He’s the same guy every day… no matter what the situation is…” in regard to the team building activities, Bitonio concluded, “…he had us sharing our personal stories with each other so us players could get to know each other…”
So that empathetic approach for coach Stefanski coupled with his talent as a play-caller all has these Cleveland Browns realistically looking forward and building a team that all Cleveland fans have hoped for the last 20 years. Let’s hope Stefanski keeps checking his lists off in building his team and that his players on the team continue to believe in themselves and their new coach. Stefanski’s coaching approach certainly seems like a winning strategy so far.