(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Director, Football Communications
Browns’ 1st-year head coach becomes just 2nd in franchise history to earn the honor
By Andrew Gribble, ClevelandBrowns.com Senior Staff Writer
Kevin Stefanski took home the top honor for his profession Saturday when he was named the Associated Press’ NFL Coach of the Year.
Stefanski, who led the Browns to their first playoff appearance since 2002 and their first playoff victory in 26 years, joins Forrest Gregg (1976) as the second coach in franchise history to earn the honor. He’s the third first-year coach in the last four years to win the award.
“Kevin is more than deserving of this award as he has consistently messaged and embodied a team-first approach in everything he does,” said Dee and Jimmy Haslam. “While Kevin will most certainly downplay his personal contributions, his steady demeanor and servant leadership have been and will continue to be incredibly impactful for our football team and entire organization. We are proud to have Kevin as our head coach and this honor reflects his and our team’s collective accomplishments.”
Stefanski delivered a video acceptance speech at the NFL Honors awards show — a fitting culmination for a season in which Stefanski and coaches around the NFL conducted the majority of their meetings from behind a computer screen.
“I’m incredibly humbled, especially given some of the coaching we’ve witnessed this season around the NFL,” Stefanski said. “My name may be on this award but I think this speaks to the amazing support I get day in and day out from my coaching staff with the Cleveland Browns. I’m very glad I don’t have to do this by myself.
“Then the players — it helps to have good players. I appreciate how they work every single day, week in and week out and how they fought. I appreciate that from those guys.”
Stefanski earned similar honors last month from Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers of America. He’s the first to earn all three awards in the same season since Sean McVay in 2017.
“For him to be a first-time head coach, no real offseason and navigating the challenges of an NFL season amid a global pandemic, it’s remarkable,” Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry. “His poise, his ability to handle adversity and ultimately lead our team through adversity the entire year, whether it was a loss, injuries, having players, coaches, staff out for COVID-related reasons, he never lost his cool, he never lost his poise. It obviously showed with the on-field results.”
Stefanski, who joined the Browns in January 2020 after a long stint in various positions with the Minnesota Vikings, notched the most wins by a first-year Browns head coach since Paul Brown had 12 in the team's inaugural season in 1946. His winning percentage (.688) was the best since Blanton Collier (.714) in 1963 and the third-best overall in franchise history.
Stefanski's 11 regular season wins were the most by any first-year head coach in 2020 and marked just the 11th time since 1970 a first-year coach has won 11 or more games. The Browns were the only team to make the playoffs this season with a first-year head coach.
Cleveland was one of just four teams in the league to not lose consecutive games, something that was another credit toward Stefanski’s leadership, Berry said.
“Every Monday, win or loss, was really the same thing for us,” Berry said. “He really did a great job of protecting our cocoon, so to speak. The season can be emotional. It can be emotional particularly externally whether you have a big win or an ugly loss. Kevin's mindset was when we come in on Monday, we should look to improve and we should look to work. It really should feel the same regardless of the outcome on Sunday. That's a credit to his steady hand.”
Stefanski was also the play-caller for a Browns offense that posted some of its best numbers in generations.
Cleveland's 408 points were its second-most in franchise history, as the Browns finished third in the league in rushing with an average of 148.4 yards per game (best since 1978) and 12th in quarterback rating (96.6). Under Stefanski's tutelage, third-year QB Baker Mayfield saw his quarterback rating jump from 78.8 in 2019 to 95.9 in 2020 while increasing his touchdown passes (22 to 26) and drastically decreasing his interceptions (21 to 8).
Stefanski did it all while navigating the new realities and norms presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, making his first year on the job unlike any other. Browns Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta recalled a conversation he had with Stefanski last March, when Stefanski jokingly asked him “Where is it in the first-year head coach's handbook about dealing with a global pandemic?”
“It's sort of the way he attacked everything all year — a sense of calm, a great sense of humor, undaunted regardless of the challenges that were thrown his way,” DePodesta said. “He was open-minded and flexible in terms of dealing with whatever came up on the field or off. Even in those really difficult times, being himself and being authentic. All of those things were evident to our players and ultimately translated to a phenomenal year as a head coach.”
Stefanski’s first offseason program, where the team installed a brand new offensive and defensive system, was entirely virtual, and he led the vast majority of it from his old residence in Minneapolis. Stefanski and his coaching staff didn’t meet most of the players in-person until training camp, which was completely revamped to adhere to the league’s protocols. During the second half of the season, the Browns dealt with numerous stops and starts to their schedule, including complete closures of the team facility, because of positive COVID-19 tests. Stefanski, himself, tested positive in the days leading up to the Browns’ Wild Card victory over the Steelers and, along with a handful of players and assistant coaches, was forced to miss the trip to Pittsburgh.
From start to finish, Stefanski presented a no-excuses, next-man-up mindset that permeated the entire organization.
“There was never a sense of feeling sorry for ourselves or the proverbial ‘here we go again,’” DePodesta said.
“You think about what he had to endure through the course of this year. Ultimately he didn't just endure — he thrived.”
Stefanski’s efforts to bring the team together when COVID-19 forced them apart went beyond X’s and O’s.
As protests for social justice erupted all across the country during the summer, Stefanski carved out meeting time to allow the players time to discuss how they felt in the moment. They were also given time off during the funeral of George Floyd, whose controversial death spurred the movement. Stefanski then empowered them to “get in the arena” and use their platform to make a difference however they saw fit.
During training camp, Stefanski helped the team forge a bond by having players, coaches and other members of the organization share their four H's — history, heroes, heartbreak and hopes. The exercise allowed players to get to know their teammates — old and new — on a more personal level while breaking down the barriers presented by all of the rules that limited their social interactions.
“Kevin was very thoughtful and creative and deliberate in the manner he tried to create a level of camaraderie, community and team even though we didn't have the same in-person opportunities we would in a typical year,” Berry said. “It wasn't like there was any existing foundation in place for our players, coaches and staff to bond. The fact he was able to accomplish that as everyone was interacting over laptops is remarkable.”