With the Browns firing head coach Freddie Kitchens and mutually parting ways with general manager John Dorsey following asking him to take a lesser role, they are hitting the reset button once again. This will give Baker Mayfield his third coach in three professional seasons and the new regimes could view certain players currently on the roster completely differently than the last. Not only does this directly mean a change in organizational leadership, but it also means new schemes, new players and new personnel altogether. Considering that many of the best players on the roster like Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb are on their rookie contracts combined with the perennial studs that already have large contracts like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landy and Joel Bitonio, as well as a nice mixture of many other quality talented players on the roster, it appears the Cleveland Browns are in the middle of a real window. With that being said, the importance of this offseason cannot be understated and it is certainly the most crucial in my lifetime. If they do not get it right this time, many of these wildly talented players might want to move on and the best QB the franchise has had in years, Baker Mayfield could be potentially ruined as a result of the failure.
The good news is that there is evidence to think that the chief strategy officer for the Cleveland Browns, Paul DePodesta, is the right man to be in charge of this immensely important coaching search. He is well known for his role in the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics and is indirectly portrayed by actor Jonah Hill, which showcases his outstanding talent and success with analytics in sports. It is well documented that DePodesta advised the Browns to hire Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott rather than the man who needs no introduction, Hue Jackson, as well as supporting Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski, who is scheduled to interview next week, over Freddie Kitchens. He seems to have been correct in his analytical evaluations in both of the hiring processes he has been involved with but the team chose against his advice. Now that the DePodesta power play is complete, we hopefully will not have to worry about the coach we could have had any more as it seems like he is fully capable of making the correct choice, so the third time’s the charm. Once the next head coach is found, he will help in making the decision on who will be the next general manager along with DePodesta and the front office members already in place.
The Browns seem to be casting a much wider net this time around trying to do their due diligence in learning about several candidates for the job and they have already requested interviews with many coaches around the league. They have already completed four interviews with Packers ex-HC Mike McCarthy, Ravens OC Greg Roman, Chiefs OC Eric Bienemy and 49ers DC Robert Saleh. Beyond that, the Browns plan on interviewing Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski who was DePodesta’s choice last year, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels and Bills OC Brian Daboll who was the team’s former OC under Eric Mangini. Some of these guys could be serious candidates and others could just be interviewed to try and find out what the successful teams have in common that could be incorporated into Cleveland’s strategy, which in theory, should lead to better success for the Browns. Out of these names, I would guess Daboll and Saleh are just being used for information while Stefanski, McDaniels and McCarthy are the likely front runners for the position.
If those three are the final contenders, I would assume DePodesta would once again favor Setfanski with McDaniels being the second most likely and McCarthy the least likely of the bunch. I fully support that decision judging that he fits Cleveland’s roster makeup quite well, particularly Baker Mayfield, and if analytics was able to predict the profound success of Sean McDermott, it would make sense that there is great potential for the analytical strategy to work yet again. The biggest potential hurdle with Stefanski, though, is that there is a growing belief in the possibility of the Vikings promoting him. However, Mike Zimmer is a quality head coach and after the nice victory over the Saints, it would be extremely difficult to justify cutting ties with Zimmer.
So why exactly does Stefanski make the most sense and why is he heavily backed by analytics?
Essentially, analytics gives the answer to questions that can either be vague or extremely specific about the team, contracts, personnel, etc. An easy example would be if the Browns should run or pass on 3rd and short where analytics just looks at the information to give an answer, so one could simply look at the team’s previous 3rd and short attempts to see if the run or pass had a higher success rate. According to John Kosko of Pro Football Focus as of December 17, Baker Mayfield’s overall grade over the past two seasons with two wide receivers on the field is 85.0, which is the 8th-best in the NFL at QB whereas his grade with three-or-more on the field is 72.9, good for the 16th best. Kosko also pointed out that this season as of December 17, the Browns were the 4th best team in expected points added per pass play (EPA/pass play) and 9th in overall success rate with two or fewer wide receivers on the field, but they were the 25th best in EPA/pass play and 27th in overall success rate with three or more wide receivers on the field. Guess who runs the most two wide receiver sets in the NFL? The Vikings, led by coordinator Kevin Stefanski, so he is quite honestly the perfect fit for Baker on paper with what he is trying to do.
Beyond that, Dalvin Cook had a monster season where the offense was truly built around him. In the Browns’ case, the same type of offense would be built around Nick Chubb, who is one of the best running backs in the NFL. After this offense establishes the run and continues to dominate on the ground, it opens up the passing game much more for the two superstar wide receivers, Odell and Jarvis. The run game also sets up Baker Mayfield to use one of his greatest strengths, play action, where he can move around in the pocket and dissect the defense following play fakes to Chubb. Regardless of who fans want as head coach, I think everyone can agree that Nick Chubb should have gotten more opportunities than he did, which is exactly what Stefanski’s philosophy would bring to the team.
Of course, the personnel Stefanski would bring to the team with him is of crucial importance as well. It would make a lot of sense for experienced NFL coach Gary Kubiak to join Stefanski as offensive coordinator and play-caller along with several other members of the Vikings offensive staff. The defensive side of the ball and his front office counterpart is a bit more difficult to predict. I have seen many rumors about a potential connection with the Eagles’ vice president of football operations, Andrew Berry, to become the new general manager of the Browns. This name might sound pretty familiar to Browns fans as he was the vice president of player personnel and considered a rising star within the organization before taking the promotion with the Eagles back in February 2019. Only one year removed from the team, he is familiar with DePodesta and shares his vision of analytics. Combine that with the fact that he has one of the best, young front office minds in football and he seems like he could be a really great fit coming back to Cleveland. As for defensive coordinator, it could honestly be just about anyone that is available that Stefanski likes to run the defense, so any name I would throw out would be nothing more than a wild guess. At the end of the day DePodesta running the show with Kevin Stefanski at HC, Gary Kubiak at OC and Andrew Berry at GM with the rest of the front office still in place is an incredible start.