BEREA — The day Kevin Stefanski was hired as coach of the Browns in 2020, he talked to Jim Brown on the phone. When the call was done, Stefanski dialed his dad, Ed.
“My dad grew up in Philadelphia but was a huge Jim Brown fan,” Stefanski said Wednesday after an organized team activities practice. “And that’s not uncommon for a lot of people growing up at that age, I don’t care where you were growing up, you became a Browns fan, you became a Jim Brown fan early on in your life. So for my dad, his two, he loved Wilt Chamberlain, loved Jim Brown.
“After I hung up the phone with Jim, I very quickly called my dad and he couldn’t believe it.”
Stefanski opened his interview by sending condolences to Monique and the Brown family after he died last week at 87 years old. Stefanski said the organization is deciding how it will memorialize Brown in the coming days, weeks and months.
“We lost somebody very, very important to our franchise, to our league, to our society,” Stefanski said. “The impact that he had was immeasurable. Just a mountain of a man in many ways and we lost a very, very, very big part of our family.”
Brown is a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest player in franchise history. He was a three-time MVP, nine-time Pro Bowler in nine seasons, holds the NFL record with 104.3 rushing yards a game and is the Browns’ leader with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 rushing touchdowns.
He had a long acting career, which contributed to his early retirement at 30 years old, was active in the community and an advocate for racial justice.
“Just unbelievable what he’s been through in his life and we’ve educated our players on that,” Stefanski said. “Last year we took them down to the Hall of Fame and we watched ‘A Football Life: Jim Brown.’ So it’s my job to continue to educate our guys on what he’s meant to our franchise, to our league. You stand on the shoulders of giants. And that’s Jim Brown.”
Newly acquired defensive end Za’Darius Smith shared his memories of Brown, whose impact is still felt by today’s players.
“Growing up I got a chance to watch him and I also saw the (draft) call where he did with Myles (Garrett), and that was special,” he said. “You’ve got to always respect the OGs in the game and he was one of the greats that I always looked up to. A lot of other guys, too. He’s not going anywhere.”
Receiver Elijah Moore was acquired in a trade with the Jets in March and is working to develop chemistry with quarterback Deshaun Watson. They’ve practiced together and were part of the traveling party to Puerto Rico last week.
“It was a smooth week of just connecting and gelling with the teammates, the camaraderie,” Moore said. “I got to learn a lot of them boys from a different perspective and I feel like it’s only going to help out here. So we all stayed until Friday and then we came back and got straight back to work.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) May 24, 2023
He’s working through the adjustments of playing with a new quarterback.
“Different arm, seeing what he sees and just the communication around the team,” Moore said. “Everyone communicates different.”
Free agent pickup Marquise Goodwin and third-round draft pick Cedric Tillman are also new to the team and Watson.
“That’s why we have this offseason program,” Stefanski said. “Marquise Goodwin and Deshaun really throwing together for the first time. As you add new players, and adding Elijah to the mix, you want as a quarterback all these reps.
“You take mental notes and you’re thinking about how a player came out of this route, how he came out of that route. Every single rep you’re constantly adding that to the checklist.”
The league owners passed a rule change this week for this season in which a fair catch can be called on a kickoff caught outside of the end zone with the drive then starting at the 25-yard line. Stefanski said it’s too early to guess how it will affect the game.
“I think we need to see how that all goes,” he said. “I’m all for player safety and anything that helps with player safety. We get asked what we think about the rules, but the rules are the rules, we’ll adhere to them whatever they are.”
Coaches reportedly were unanimously opposed to the change, but Commissioner Roger Goodell fought for it after an increase in concussions on kickoffs.
“The kicking game’s very important to us, we’re not going to take the foot out of football,” Stefanski said. “So we always got to make sure that that’s a staple of what we do is making sure we’re great in all of our coverage and return phases.”
Defensive end Garrett, running back Nick Chubb and left guard Joel Bitonio — all Pro Bowlers and perhaps the team’s best players — weren’t at the voluntary practice. Neither were tight end David Njoku and tackle Joe Haeg.
The Browns have OTAs this week and next before mandatory minicamp June 6-8.
Stefanski was asked if he was annoyed Garrett wasn’t there after all the defensive changes in the offseason.
“I’m not going to characterize it,” Stefanski said. “It’s a voluntary program and the guys that are here, we coach them up. That’s how we approach it.”
** Working on the side due to injuries were: linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki, receivers Amari Cooper, Jakeem Grant Sr., Anthony Schwartz and Isaiah Weston, rookie defensive end Isaiah McGuire and offensive lineman Dawson Deaton.
D’Qwell Jackson, who played linebacker for the Browns from 2006-13, was on the field for practice and is spending the week with the team.
“D’Qwell’s been great. I think the world of him, this building thinks the world of him,” Stefanski said. “So he’s visiting with us this week, just having him meet with different people and impart some of that knowledge that he’s had over that career. And that’s totally invaluable for our young players. What ultimately it means for his future, that also remains to be seen, but it’s a visit and let him get to know different areas of our building.”
** New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wore linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk’s No. 51 walkthrough jersey for the entirety of practice.
“That’s something that Coach has done over his career,” Stefanski said. “He’s telling the players about another player that’s doing it the right way, a guy that’s doing it how we want it done, that’s embodying what we do out on the practice field and in the meeting room.”
** The team announced six coaches who will participate in the Browns’ Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which runs for the remainder of the offseason program.