There is no shortage of indicators that Kevin Stefanski is the Browns’ best coach in a long time, but by one measure, at least, you may be surprised exactly how long.
By one measure, Stefanski is already the Browns’ best coach since Paul Brown, who was their first coach, and the man the team is named after. That measure is this: most wins by a Browns coach in his first year as coach.
In his first year on the job Stefanski, so far, is at 12-5 (and counting). That’s the most wins by a Browns head coach in his first year as coach since Paul Brown hung a 13-2 record on the All-American Football Conference in 1946, that conference’s — and the Browns’ — first year of existence. Brown’s Browns also won the conference championship that year.
In the 73 years since then, the Browns have had 17 head coaches, and only three of them had a winning record in their first year. Blanton Collier was 10-4 in 1963, Nick Skorich 9-6 in 1971 and Bud Carson was 10-7-1 in 1989.
All the rest had losing records in their first years as coach of the Browns, including Bill Belichick, who was 6-10 in 1991. From Belichick to Freddie Kitchens, the Browns had 10 head coaches who in their first year on the job had a combined record of 48-112, which is a winning percentage of .300.
Stefanski, in his first year on the job, has a winning percentage of .706. This is what those in the coach-hiring business call “a keeper.” In the 45 years B.S. (before Stefanski), starting with Forrest Gregg in 1975, the Browns had 14 head coaches and 13 of them had losing seasons in their first year.
From 2005 through 2019, the Browns had seven coaches in 15 years who in their first year as coach produced a combined winning percentage of .294. Stefanski’s winning percentage, again, is .706.
So you might say he’s gotten everyone’s attention.
Great coaches don’t always arrive with trumpets blaring. In some cases, they are hardly known at all. Some were career nobodies until the planets suddenly aligned. Others are merely the latest shot in the dark by a clueless owner.
What many great coaches have in common, however, is the organizational chaos that preceded their arrival.
In 1969, the Steelers hired Chuck Noll, who became their fourth head coach in six years. Noll coached Pittsburgh for 23 years, took the Steelers to the Super Bowl four times and won them all, in the span of six years.
In 1979, the 49ers hired Bill Walsh, who became their sixth head coach in five years. Walsh coached the Niners for 10 years, took them to the Super Bowl three times, and won all three.
In 2000, the Patriots hired Belichick, who became their sixth head coach in 12 years. Belichick has coached the Patriots for 21 years, gone to the Super Bowl nine times, and won six of them.
In 1959, the Packers hired Vince Lombardi, who became their sixth head coach in seven years. Lombardi coached the Packers for nine years and took them to five championships: the first two Super Bowls and, before that, three NFL championship games.
I’m not suggesting that Stefanski — who, when hired, was the Browns’ seventh coach in nine years — is going to walk in the Hall of Fame shoes of any of the above legends. But I’m also not saying that he won’t. The year before the 49ers hired Walsh, their record was 2-14. Their first year under Walsh: 2-14.
The year before Noll took over the Steelers they were 2-11. Their first year under Noll: 1-13. The year before the Patriots hired Belichick they were 8-8. Their first year under Belichick: 5-11. The year before Lombardi became coach of the Packers they were 1-10. His first year on the job: 7-5.
Last year the Browns were 6-10.
This year they’re 12-5.
Lombardi, in his first year, won the NFL Coach of the Year Award. Noll, Walsh, and Belichick did not. Stefanski is the presumptive winner of that award this year.
Clearly, Stefanski has qualities his players respond to. That was never more evident than the second win over the Steelers, when Stefanski outcoached Mike Tomlin from his basement.
Stefanski’s impact on his players was immediate. The dramatic reduction in penalties being one of many examples. But Stefanski is also the head coach, meaning he coaches his coaches. Those coaches deserve as much credit for that win-for-the-ages in Pittsburgh as do the players.
From the play calling, to the sideline demeanor of everyone, to the final score, it looked exactly what it looks like when Stefanski is there.
This is the first year of Stefanski’s five-year contract. Historically, first years, even for great coaches, can be ugly. Stefanski’s? A masterpiece.
It now looks like a team that won’t be changing coaches for a very long time.