BEREA — Coach Kevin Stefanski wants his players to roll out the welcome mat when the Giants visit for a pair of joint practices Thursday and Friday.
He’s told them to leave the boxing gloves in storage.
This summer has provided more examples of joint practices across the league devolving into a series of fights. All the ingredients are in place: unfamiliar opponent, sweltering heat, the dog days of training camp.
Stefanski balked at the notion that fighting is practically a part of the practice script.
“I would not say that it is inevitable,” he said Tuesday. “I think it is incumbent upon both teams and the veterans on those teams to make sure that they understand that this is a work trip. We have two days of practice versus the Giants, we are playing them on Sunday and both teams are looking forward to getting some good work in.”
The Giants didn’t need an opponent for things to get out of hand at a practice early this month. The teamwide brawl included quarterback Daniel Jones winding up at the bottom of the pile.
Stefanski insists publicly he’s only worried about the Browns, who haven’t had as much as a skirmish in three weeks of camp, a rarity for any team. But hearing about that fight in New Jersey couldn’t have gone over well. He’s got a Super Bowl contender and is doing everything he can to get it to Week 1 as healthy as possible.
He had already talked to a few team leaders and was planning to address the entire team about the proper way to conduct themselves until the Giants leave Sunday afternoon after the preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We get some really good work in, and we take care of each other. It is because we respect each other,” Stefanski said. “It is no different when the Giants come in here. They are our guests, and we want to make sure that we work, we work hard and we compete against each other, but we are always going to be taking care of each other and making sure that it is a safe, controlled environment.”
Another example is unnecessary, but the joint practices will provide it. Stefanski is the anti-Freddie Kitchens.
The last time the Browns practiced against another team was in 2019 when Kitchens was a first-time head coach in what turned out to be his lone season in charge. The Browns traveled to Westfield, Ind., to work against the Colts and Kitchens let things get out of hand in a shout-out to machismo.
Those of us watching from a few yards away won’t forget a series of scuffles over the two days, capped by Cleveland linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong throwing a flurry of haymakers at Colts counterpart Zaire Franklin in a punt drill. Not only did the sidelines empty as the brawl grew in size and intensity, the players on the other field ran over to join the melee.
“I told you guys yesterday, we are not into backing down from anything,” Kitchens said at the time.
Obviously football is a brutal game played by tough men. A never-back-down mentality is crucial for survival and success.
But Kitchens overcorrected after he didn’t like the tempo and physicality of the first practice. The lack of discipline and long-term thinking became themes throughout the failed season.
Kitchens will be back in town as a senior offensive assistant for the Giants. His presence will raise the animosity level for some Browns players after his disastrous season in charge that included unmet expectations and rotten relationships.
Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. was also in Westfield two years ago, but as a member of the Colts. He got an interesting look on his face when asked about the Browns’ attempt at bravado under Kitchens.
“It’s football. There are going to be words thrown around and all that stuff,” he said. “We didn’t get pushed around.”
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The organization’s philosophy is to be careful in preparation for a 17-game regular season and hopeful playoff run. The majority of starters didn’t play in the opener and might not at all in the preseason, and a string of soft-tissue injuries is being handled with care.
That makes sense. The most important thing with a roster of this caliber is to be healthy when the real games arrive.
“I know people might be frustrated that we’re not out there practicing one day, but the main goal is getting ready for Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs,” safety Grant Delpit said Wednesday before leaving practice after aggravating a hamstring injury.
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Inviting the Giants seems counterintuitive, but Stefanski believes in joint practices. He feels they can be more beneficial than preseason games because while the intensity and physicality increase, the coaches control the level of contact — there won’t be tackling — and the situations to be practiced.
The Browns and Giants will go for about two hours each day. They will have individual drills against each other and team periods that include two-minute drills both days and red zone work Friday.
Stefanski has known Giants coach Joe Judge since their high school days in Philadelphia and played football with Judge’s brother. Their history and connection made the Giants a natural partner.
“It’s a huge deal,” Stefanski said. “I know what Joe’s about and what he believes in.”
Stefanski doesn’t believe the practices have to turn into WrestleMania. He trusts the players to execute his message.
“We’re trying to help each other get better, so everything else is not needed, so we’ll keep it professional,” Walker said. “We’ll keep it as football.
“Go hard, play fast, play physical, but we’ve got to respect that this is the practice field and certain things just don’t fly.”