Are we witnessing the early years of one of the greatest coaching careers in NFL history?
Obviously it’s way too early to make that determination yet.
For now, let’s just say that Kevin Stefanski is quickly climbing the leaderboard when it comes to Cleveland Browns coaches.
He should be the favorite to win the NFL Coach of the Year Award this year after leading an injury-riddled roster that (are you serious?) included five different starting quarterbacks, to an 11-6 record and a second trip to the playoffs in four years as coach.
In 2020, as a rookie head coach, Stefanski won the Coach of the Year Award, and his work this season has been more outstanding still. If he wins the award this year, it would be his second Coach of the Year Award in his four years on the job.
The Coach of the Year Award dates to 1957. Only three coaches in history have won the award more than twice: Don Shula (four times), and Bill Belichick and Chuck Knox (three each).
So Stefanski, if he wins the award this year, will be in good company. Not a bad start for a coach whose NFL coaching career got off to a late start after Browns officials, in 2019, initially passed him over as a Browns head coach candidate in favor of Freddie Kitchens.
Fortunately for the Browns, after Kitchens’ one-and-done tenure, when team officials asked Stefanski the following year if he’d like to interview for the job again, he said yes.
The rest is becoming Cleveland Browns history.
Let’s start with this: If the Browns beat Houston on Saturday, only two coaches in Browns history would have more career playoff wins than Stefanski. Those two coaches are the Browns’ first two coaches: Paul Brown (nine playoff wins) and Blanton Collier (three playoff wins).
A Browns win in Houston on Saturday would give Stefanski two playoff wins.
Granted, the Browns’ head coaching tree is not exactly a forest of legends, particularly in this century. But it is one of the older, and most storied franchises in league history, and it does include the great Brown, who basically invented the modern game.
Of the 21 head coaches in Browns history (1946-2023), not counting interims, only five have career winning records. Stefanski is one of the five. In his four years as coach of the Browns, his record stands at 37-30 (.552).
Another interesting way to look at Stefanski’s budding legacy as coach: If the Browns win Saturday, Stefanski would have more playoff wins (two) in four years as Browns coach than Bill Belichick (one) had when he was Cleveland’s coach for five years (1991-95).
Of course, any discussion purporting to praise the lineage of what seems to be an emerging coaching savant can’t do so without acknowledging the quality of the competition to which he’s being compared.
In that regard, the impressive start of Stefanski’s coaching career should perhaps be tempered by the dismal records, generally speaking, of the other Browns head coaches to whom he’s being compared.
Clearly, the Browns roster of former head coaches is hardly a who’s who of great NFL coaches. On the other hand, that shouldn’t be a mark against Stefanski’s record. He can only coach the players he’s given.
In the 78 years the Browns have been in the NFL, they have had 22 coaches, and only five of them have career winning records as Cleveland’s coach. Prior to Stefanski, the last Browns coach with a winning record was Marty Schottenheimer, who had a record of 71-44 (.620) in his five years as coach from 1984-88.
The only other Browns coaches with career winning records in Cleveland are Brown 158-48 (.767), Blanton Collier 76-34 (.691), Nick Skorich 30-24 (.554) and Stefanski 37-30 (.552). That comes out to four career winning records in Cleveland in 76 years.
In Stefanski’s case, however, his success has been made even more impressive by the era in which he’s coached. It’s never been more difficult to be an NFL head coach than it is today. With all the distractions, with all the responsibilities coaches have, with all with media obligations, with all the egos in all the NFL locker rooms, there are countless potential distractions and brush fires that NFL coaches must deal with while trying to put together a game plan for this week’s opponent.
Stefanski has the right temperament for all of it. He’s also shown that, in addition to everything else, he’s mastered the most important job for all NFL coaches, which is being the leader of the team, and getting your players to play hard for you, and believe in you. Not to mention answering to your general manager and owner.
The best coaches were born to coach. The worst coaches aren’t coaches for very long.
Stefanski looks like he’s going to have a long shelf life.