'You want to work hard for him': What Browns are getting in Kevin Stefanski

play
Ryan: Stefanski is a fantastic hire for the Browns (1:58)

Matt Hasselbeck, Rex Ryan, Tedy Bruschi and Sean Payton react to the news that the Browns are planning to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach. (1:58)

Kevin Stefanski got the call from Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam on Sunday morning, just a few hours after the Minnesota Vikings had been eliminated from the playoffs at San Francisco.

Stefanski, Minnesota's offensive coordinator, raced home from the Vikings' practice facility to tell his wife, Michelle, and three kids that he was the next head coach of the Browns. Minnesota was all the Stefanski children had ever known. But he promised them the move would come with perks, including a trip to Disney World and a dog.

Two days later, they were all at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, along with Stefanski's three brothers, his mother and his father, Ed, senior adviser for the NBA's Detroit Pistons.

"To use basketball terms so that my dad can understand this, I want to be the point guard for this organization," Stefanski said Tuesday during his introductory news conference in Cleveland. "I want to bring the ball up, but then I want to share the basketball with someone else to get an easy bucket."

Easy buckets have been hard to come by in Cleveland.

The Browns haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. They haven't won their division since 1989. And they've cycled through 11 different head coaches since returning to the NFL in 1999.

This week, Stefanski has already gotten a dose of the recent turbulence in Cleveland.

On Thursday, New Orleans police issued an arrest warrant for star Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on a complaint of simple battery. Video surfaced showing Beckham slapping the buttocks of a Superdome security guard in the LSU locker room after Beckham's alma mater won the national championship over Clemson on Monday. Beckham was also captured on film passing out cash to several LSU players immediately after the game, which has created questions for LSU's compliance department. For the Browns, it was just one more distraction the organization has had to endure.

But Tuesday, Stefanski said he's "undeterred and undaunted" by Cleveland's problems from the past.

"I cannot wait to be a part of this change," said Stefanski, who was a finalist for the Browns' vacancy just a year ago, when the team promoted Freddie Kitchens instead, then fired him after only one season following a 6-10 finish. "I'm excited for this challenge and I am ready for it."

The morning after his news conference, Stefanski, 37, caught an Uber from his downtown hotel to the Browns' practice facility in Berea, about 20 miles away. Unaware who his passenger was, the driver immediately started asking about the Browns' head coach.

"You're looking at him," Stefanski replied.


Stefanski's journey is unusual in an NFL era when young offensive minds have quickly made the jump from coordinator to head coach.

He arrived in Minnesota in 2006 as a 24-year-old assistant to head coach Brad Childress. He stayed in the same place with the same team for all that time, a career spanning 14 seasons, three coaching staffs and seven job titles.

"[His path] is almost like becoming a doctor," former Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers said. "I feel like it's warranted. Sometimes you don't understand things that happen in the NFL, but this is one of those things that's right. He's ready."

Stefanski had exactly three games of experience calling plays in the NFL when the Vikings reassembled their offensive staff last January. After removing the interim tag from Stefanski's title as offensive coordinator, the Vikings hired Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach and adviser to the offense.

The Super Bowl-winning coach brought an entourage, including son Klint (who worked with Stefanski in Minnesota in 2013-14) as the quarterbacks coach, Rick Dennison as the offensive-line coach/run-game coordinator and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.

Stefanski never balked at the idea, despite outside speculation over who would be calling the shots. After waiting 13 seasons to become an offensive coordinator, Stefanski showed a self-awareness that left an impression on the Vikings' decision-makers.

"Kevin was the first one raising his hand, because he knows ... when you surround yourself with good coaches, and you surround yourself with experience like that, that's only going to make you a better coach," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "Kevin has no ego whatsoever. He just wants to continue to learn and grow. I think that type of attitude, where I'm not a young up-and-comer, that I have all the answers, where he's still looking to learn, he's still looking to grow."

Stefanski worked under Rogers as the Vikings' assistant quarterbacks coach from 2009 to 2011. In a position room that had a future Hall of Famer in Brett Favre and a relatively new talent in Tarvaris Jackson, a young Stefanski had to customize his teaching style for each individual.

"I think all the quarterbacks are different and you have to treat them differently," Stefanski told ESPN in September. "You've got to know what makes them tick, know the guys and how to reach them in the meeting room. There are certain guys that are visual learners, there are certain guys that pick it up immediately. I guess just being adaptable as a coach is important because no two players are the same."

That approach was one Rogers recognized instantly and believes Stefanski will carry with him to Cleveland.

"He's extremely bright," Rogers said. "He's extremely poised and he's exceptionally organized. You're never going to see him lose his poise. He just handles things exceptionally well, regardless of what it is. Whether it's all the personalities he's got to deal with on [the Browns], he'll do a great job with that. Tremendous job, yet he'll be disciplined at the same time."

During his introductory news conference Tuesday, Stefanski referenced a quote from former President Harry S. Truman: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

That's the way he approached his Vikings staff once he got a chance to lead an offense. The collective effort of melding Kubiak's zone scheme with the West Coast principles Stefanski learned from multiple mentors wasn't just in name only. It was the backbone for his unit.

"The credit has to go to Kevin," Kubiak said. "Think about what he took on, the way he was able to put the group together and lead a group with that many new faces.

"When you work with Kevin, you want to work hard for him, you want to help him be successful because he's such a good person. He's very honest, but he can be very thorough and very stern. He gets the most out of people. It's been proven with his players and how quickly he was able to do that with a lot of things going on offensively this year."


Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014 and retained Stefanski, giving him his first opportunity to lead a room as the tight ends coach.

"He knew he didn't play the position, so he didn't pretend to know what it was like to play tight end," said Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, a nine-year veteran. "But he's smart and he knew what he had to do to prepare us to go out and play. He left the playing part to us.

"I felt confident that I was going into each game as prepared as I could be, and as a young player at the time, I needed that. He's the one who kind of taught me how to prepare."

That preparation stood the test of time, from coaching tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks to the day he took over offensive coordinator duties 15 weeks into the 2018 season.

Stefanski put his ability to lead an entire offense on display. He knew when to press his players and when to lay off.

"He understands that you can't have your foot on the gas from July to February," Rudolph said. "There has to be some breakup to the work. And he does that with fun in the meeting room."

Fridays began with a reprieve from the grind during the final several weeks of the 2019 season. Stefanski's polished, prepared manner gave way to his lighthearted nature when he put on a clip from "Chappelle's Show" or "Saturday Night Live" to start the meeting.

play
0:53

Yates: Browns in most challenging position this offseason

Field Yates explains the challenges facing the Browns this offseason as they transition through more change.

"He's got such a great demeanor about him," Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "He doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low, and I think that's a great demeanor to have as a head coach. I think he controls the room extremely well. I think he brings a positive energy at all times."

Perhaps Stefanski's biggest challenge in one full season as offensive coordinator came after Thielen went down for almost two months with a hamstring injury in the first quarter of a Week 7 victory at Detroit. Stefanski was forced to adapt with his other personnel. Thielen's targets were divvied up among a tight end group that saw its usage spike, a running back group that generated the most yards off screens in the NFL and a receiving corps that paired rookie Bisi Johnson opposite Stefon Diggs.

"He doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low, and I think that's a great demeanor to have as a head coach." Vikings WR Adam Thielen on Stefanski

It was a turning point that proved Stefanski could adapt the offense amid adversity.

"I think that kind of got guys going that, 'Hey, we can do this,'" Kubiak said. "That day was a little bit of a confidence point that if we need to, we can go out and get it done."

Minnesota had its first 3,000-yard passer (Kirk Cousins, with 3,603), 1,000-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook, with 1,135) and 1,000-yard receiver (Diggs, with 1,130) in the same season since 2002. In Stefanski's seasons in charge of QBs (2017-18) and in 19 games as coordinator, Minnesota had the third-fewest interceptions thrown by a quarterback (six) in franchise history.


Stefanski spent the early mornings of his first week on the job alone studying film of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.

After breaking the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes in 2018, Mayfield struggled in his second season. Among qualifying quarterbacks, he finished next to last in both passer rating (78.8) and completion percentage (59.4%).

Mayfield will now be entering a pivotal third season -- after which he'll be extension-eligible -- for a team that has been desperately searching for a franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar retired 27 years ago.

Stefanski, however, remains a believer in Mayfield as a franchise-caliber quarterback, despite the disappointing 2019 season.

"I think he's a supremely talented player," he told ESPN on Tuesday. "I think you've seen his skill set over the last couple years and what he's capable of. Nobody is as accurate as he is. I think there's so many tools with Baker, his athleticism. I'm eager to get to work with him. I can already imagine some of the schemes we can run with him. ... It's just a matter of us putting the right pieces around him."

During the interview process, Stefanski sold the Browns on ways he could elevate Mayfield, notably by creating easier plays and easier passes for him. Stefanski did just that in Minnesota for Cousins, who thrived all season in play-action and passing plays outside the pocket. Cousins led the NFL with 13 play-action touchdowns and attempted the most passes from under center (221) this season.

"We actually talked to Cousins," Jimmy Haslam said. "The feedback there was really good and I think [Stefanski] will be a big help to Baker."

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Mayfield ranked 30th in the NFL in completing just 36% of his passes outside the pocket; Cousins, meanwhile, was fifth, completing 62%. Dating back to when Stefanski took over as Minnesota's offensive coordinator in Week 15 of the 2018 season, Cousins also connected on 16 touchdowns with only one interception off play-action passes, for a QBR of 83. Over that same span, Mayfield's QBR in play-action was just 67.

"There's already a few things that I know we can help him with," Stefanski said in a radio interview with ESPN Cleveland on Thursday, after hours of watching film on Mayfield.

Stefanski called Mayfield on Monday to briefly touch base with him, along with several other players. The Browns are hoping they've found the match between coach and quarterback that will finally give the franchise continuity, snap the NFL's longest playoff drought (17 seasons) and keep Stefanski in Cleveland for as long as he stayed in Minnesota.