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Opinion: Kevin Stefanski Will be Back in 2023, but with Short Leash

Photo: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images

I 100% believe Kevin Stefanski will be the Cleveland Browns head coach through at least the 2023 season, and the only reason he wouldn't complete the season is if the wheels came completely off early next year, and I don't see that happening. At this point, I don't think Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is ready to take a step back and conduct another coaching search.

However, there are questions regarding Stefanski, as the team has somewhat regressed in his three years as head coach. As much as the fanbase loves to blame defensive coordinator Joe Woods and the defense for the lack of winning since 2020, the head coach is responsible for the overall team performance.

The Browns have seen mixed results with Stefanski at the helm. He came out of the gate on fire in his first season, leading the Browns to an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth since 2002 before he had to sit out the Wild Card win over the Steelers due to contracting COVID-19. He returned in the Divisional Round, only to see the Browns come up short to the Kansas City Chiefs. Even though the Browns lost, the future seemed bright.

The next season, the Browns were trendy picks to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Everything seemed like it was in place, and the Browns were finally (my favorite Jimmy Haslam phrase) "directionally correct", but this is when things seemed to change. After suffering a shoulder injury attempting to make a tackle after an interception during a win over the Houston Texans in Week 2, Baker Mayfield started collecting injuries. It seemed obvious to most by Week 6 he wasn't the guy who played well the previous season, but Stefanski kept playing him, a move that had many fans and media members scratching their heads. As the 2021 season progressed, the offense looked elementary and featured too many multiple tight end sets, as well as questionable play calls and game plans. There was some quiet grumbling amongst fans and the locker room, but many blamed the eventually outgoing Mayfield for the 8-9 record and disappointing season.

Going into this year, while waiting for the arrival of new QB Deshaun Watson, Stefanski was tasked with integrating a bridge QB in Jacoby Brissett. The offense looked solid at points, but in year three of Stefanski's tenure, the previous seasons' game management and questionable play calls began again, culminating with the 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints in a frigid First Energy Stadium on Christmas Eve, which guaranteed the Browns will finish the 2022 campaign with another losing season.

The Browns now have to ask themselves if Stefanski is the right coach for the organization. While some seem to think the arrival of Watson is going to supercharge the Browns offense, it remains to be seen how long it will take QB1 to regain his pre-suspension form, as he hasn't played to that level yet, and the final two games of the season won't mean much. We don't know if the offense will change next year, but more importantly, will Stefanski get out of his own way? Even if Watson does come in and play well next season, is that going to stop Stefanski from making boneheaded decisions? If the game against the Saints is any indication, the answer to that question is clear.

As mentioned above, I believe Stefanski will be here throughout the 2023 season, but here are a few reasons that if they don't change, it may be time to part ways with him as the Browns head coach.

1. The 4th Down Conversion Attempts and Play Calling

According to Statmuse, through 15 ganes, the Browns are tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the most 4th down conversion attempts with 38 and are second in the NFL with 21 conversions, giving them a 55.3% conversion rate, good for eighth in the NFL. To put it in context, the playoff year of 2020, the Browns only went eight for 24 (33%) on 4th down. In 2021, they were 12 for 29 (41%). While the Browns have gotten better on 4th down each season, the record and play on the field has gotten worse.

A popular refrain earlier this season among fans was, "The offense is fine, look at the numbers we are putting up with a backup QB." However, what the majority of the fanbase failed to realize is one poor Stefanski play call or 4th down attempt would assist the Browns in losing the game.

The poor play calling and decision making directly affected the attempted conversions, and the play calling as a whole has been mediocre. Incomplete passes on early downs have put the offense in 2nd and 3rd and long situations. Deep passes on 4th and short, runs by people not named Nick Chubb on 3rd and 4th and short, and plain bad decision making when it comes to situational football almost always kills any momentum the Browns have in the game.

This has been an issue every year of the Stefanski regime, but it has been magnified over the last two years, due to the losing. While I understand "the chart" tells them when to go for it on 4th down, there is something to be said for having a feel for the game, and it seem like time after time, the decision to go for it on 4th down is a mixed bag, and the playcalling leaves a lot to be desired.

2. The Use of Nick Chubb

The Browns possess one of, if not the best running back in all of football in Nick Chubb, but it seems like Stefanski doesn't know how to use him. The pattern is he runs Chubb in the first quarter before switching over to Hunt, but many times it isn't enough, as there have been several games where Chubb has less than 10 carries at the half. Overall there have been eight games where Chubb has 17 carries or less for the game, and the Browns are 1-7 in those games. The times Stefanski chooses to run him is strange too, including not using him on 3rd and 4th and short and choosing to throw on early downs. While I don't believe in the "20 carry theory," there is something to be said for when Stefanski calls Chubb's number 20-plus times, he delivers, and he doesn't seem to be making the right calls at the right time.

3. The locker room Issues and Lack of Adjustments and Accountability

It is the head coaches job to have the entire team in line and to have leaders in the locker room to help him do so.

Going back to last year with the OBJ/Baker rift, after Mayfield was sent away in a trade to the Carolina Panthers, reports said the "cancers" were gone, but this year there still seem to be issues, with players being heard yelling something to the effect of there is no leadership after a loss. That is concerning, as this falls directly on Stefanski, amd indicates there is no leadership of the Browns. Internal drama seems to run rampart in the Browns locker room, and the head coach hasn't appeared to squash team issues. We have also seen players on both sides of the ball voice their concern and frustration after games since last year about the lack of adjustments, and it's hard to point out a true leader in the locker room.

At his press conference on Monday, Stefanski explained Myles Garrett sitting out the first series in the loss to New Orleans was "a team thing," related to reporting his sickness. I don't think that's all to the story. I believe there is a loss of respect there, or there are no locker room leaders, which again, falls on the head coach.

We've also seen for two years the same vanilla offense with little to no changes from quarter to quarter or game to game. We saw the previous QB talk about it, we've seen Myles Garrett talk about it. There just doesn't seem to be any adjustments, and no imagination when It comes to playcalling. Browns fans waited 11 weeks to see Watson play QB, Having Brissett come in for 4th and shorts when Watson could do the same is mindboggling to me. Having Josh Dobbs in a wildcat scenario while he was Brissett's backup would've made sense because Dobbs runs better than Brissett. Instead we never saw it, but we've seen Brissett spell Watson a few times already.

Anthony Schwartz has had some issues catching the ball, but why not run him on a reverse? He fumbled the last one they tried, but he was electric on that play before the fumble, and he scored on a similar play earlier in the season, but we haven't seen the play or any offensive imagination before that or since. I get Schwartz has not impressed this year, but Schwartz seems to be the only player on the team who is sat down and blackballed after a mistake while other players are making silly plays weekly and they get run right back onto the field.

There are more issues, but these are just a few notable things that fans can see by watching the games and reading reports by those close to the team. Again, I think Stefanski deserves to be the coach of the Browns next year to see what he can do with a full offseason and start of a season with Watson, but if he doesn't change up some things, it doesn't matter what I or any other fan thinks. He's the head coach, and it falls on him.

If the Browns have a slow start to next year, and he doesn't fix some of the problems around this team, he won't be around to say, "it's on me."


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