As the seemingly annual Browns coaching carousal made yet another stop last week when Kevin Stefanski was hired as the 18th full-time head football coach, much has been made of the Minnesota Vikings offensive performance in the Bay Area. More accurately, the lack of an offensive performance has caused many fans to question Stefanski’s immediate hiring the morning after Minnesota’s loss to the 49ers, a game in which they were held to seven first downs, 21 rushing yards and 147 total yards. Some may be shocked, however, to discover that this dreadful result, no matter how dreadful it is, has no effect on Stefanski’s ability to be a head coach.
Despite admittedly hilarious tweets from Cleveland “social media personalities” such as McNeil (@Reflog_18) poking fun at the ugly timing of the hire, they painfully miss the point of what a head coach actually is. Sadly, too much attention has been given to the duties of “play calling” and “scheming,” which are secondary to the process of building a winning a football team. That mindset led to the unfortunate hiring of Pat Shurmur, Hue Jackson and later Freddie Kitchens. Fine coordinators who proved to be aptly suited to drawing up plays and creative formations. The truth is that being a head coach requires an exclusive set of skills like managing, problem-solving, communicating and running an operation with careful attention to detail. Most coaches in the NFL are not fit to handle these responsibilities. Many teams around the league replace their “coordinators” with ease, proving that head coaching is a completely different job, far removed from the commonplace gig of “calling plays.” Hue Jackson admitted this himself in a recent interview with on Fair Game in November: “The CEO game doesn’t fit me… I’m a play-caller. I’m a strategist.” The story was repeated after Freddie Kitchens was hired for his eight games of dialing up wishbone formations.
Stefanski is different. His Hollywood looks don’t align with his personality. Many folks in Minnesota have said his play calling is “not creative enough” and “too conservative.” This might be an issue if he was hired as Browns offensive coordinator, but he was not. Chief Strategist Paul DePodesta, who has taken the lead in this round of “organizational realignment,” spoke about the new coach in similar terms I’ve covered here: “In our research around the game to get advice on what makes a great head coach… most of them would actually downplay the importance of scheme, X’s and O’s. It really is about leadership, more than anything.” The former baseball executive turned football analytics guru might be on to something, given Jimmy Haslam ignored his suggestions two consecutive times prior. Neglecting to hire Sean McDermott despite DePodesta firmly warning Haslam about Hue Jackson, and choosing Kitchens over Stefanski last year, the owner fell into the same trap much of this fan base has been fooled by. As always, there are no promises with Stefanski. There should be no bold predictions in January after a meaningless press conference. But it seems the Browns have finally hired a head coach who has the mindset of a head coach. Stefanski developed this after Brad Childress hired him as an “Assistant to the Head Coach” in 2006 with the Vikings. Working as a “gatekeeper,” Ryan Ficken, another Vikings assistant, expressed that Stefanski “put out fires before the fires were to ever come up,” as covered by Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com in September.
It’s important to note that Sean McDermott took the same path as Stefanski, being a head coach’s assistant under Andy Reid in Philadelphia before ascending the ranks of the position coaching staff. McDermott has proven to be a playoff coach since taking over in Buffalo, with far inferior talent than the Browns have. Now, DePodesta gets a chance to prove everybody wrong with his next man, Stefanski, in Cleveland.