BEREA, Ohio – Saturday night, Kevin Stefanski became the first Cleveland Browns head coach since Forrest Gregg in 1976 to win NFL Coach of the Year.
Stefanski accomplished the feat despite unprecedented obstacles for a first-time head coach, which began with a virtual offseason and included a shortened training camp. Despite those, Stefanski guided the Browns to their first playoff appearance since 2002, snapping the NFL’s longest postseason drought. Cleveland then won its first playoff game since 1994, while ending a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh.
How did Stefanski do it? Here’s a look back at his magical debut season:
Jan. 14, 2020: Cleveland introduces Stefanski as its 18th head coach.
At his introductory press conference, Stefanski sent a message to his players that the Browns would have a "culture of accountability" under his watch, on the heels of a 6-10 record marred further by several embarrassing off-the-field incidents. Stefanski noted that he wanted his players to be themselves, but added, while "personality is welcome, production is required."
February 2020: Stefanski visits quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Before the coronavirus pandemic turned the NFL offseason remote, Stefanski flew to Mayfield’s hometown in Austin, Texas, to meet the quarterback and his family. That night, they went to dinner together. Mayfield would later call the visit “tremendously valuable.” And it would become the foundation of a blossoming partnership, as Mayfield went on to finish in the league top 10 in QBR, despite playing for a fourth head coach in his first three seasons.
Sept. 11, 2020: Stefanski announces he’s calling the offensive plays.
Initially, Stefanski indicated he would audition offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt as playcaller during the preseason. But when preseason games were canceled due to the pandemic, Stefanski opted to call plays instead. With him doubling as playcaller, the Browns finished the regular-season sixth in offensive efficiency, while establishing an identity that leaned on Nick Chubb and a power running game to set up Mayfield and the play-action pass downfield. Van Pelt, however, would get his chance eventually later.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski wins Coach of the Yearpic.twitter.com/2OeuUaE— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) Feb. 6, 2021
Oct. 4, 2020: Browns knock off Dallas in shootout.
The Browns traveled to Texas as underdogs, with plenty of outsiders doubting whether they might be for real. But on the opening drive, Stefanski dialed up a wide receiver reverse pass, and Jarvis Landry connected with Odell Beckham Jr. for a touchdown, setting a tone for the afternoon. OBJ would score two more touchdowns, and the Browns prevailed for their first 3-1 start since 2001.
December 2020: Cleveland stuns Titans, takes Ravens to wire.
Heading to Tennessee in Week 13, the Browns were 8-3, yet most of their wins had come against sub-.500 opponents. The Titans had gone to the AFC championship game the season before and were beginning to surge again. The Browns, however, took it right to them, jumping to a 38-7 halftime lead in Nashville behind four Mayfield TD passes. For an encore the following week, the Browns battled Baltimore in a Monday Night Football classic before coming up just short. Stefanski refused to claim any moral victory for the Baltimore defeat. But his team had still sent a message that they would be a threat in the postseason.
January 2021: Browns overcome more COVID-19 issues to make playoff run
The week after Cleveland clinched its first playoff berth in 18 years, things quickly turned into a nightmare, as several key players, a host of assistant coaches and Stefanski himself tested positive for COVID-19. But instead of complaining, whining or throwing in the towel on an already successful season, the Browns never flinched. And having taken on the identity of their unflappable head coach, who had been telling them to “embrace the suck,” the Browns didn’t panic.
Instead, with Mike Priefer serving as interim head coach, Van Pelt calling the offensive plays and Stefanski watching from home in his basement, Cleveland jumped to a huge lead over the Steelers, then rolled to a 48-37 victory. In the locker room, the team Facetimed Stefanski so he could celebrate with them. Cleveland’s season finally ended the following week in the divisional round after a narrow 22-17 defeat in Kansas City. It didn’t take long for Stefanski to spin his team’s attention to a promising future. “That feeling of disappointment,” he told them afterward, “that will be our fuel going forward.”