Kevin Stefanski is Set Up to Fail

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Kevin Stefanski

What is one tangible attribute that suggests Kevin Stefanski will be a successful NFL head coach? He’s Ivy League educated. Paul DePodesta wanted to hire him last year instead of Freddie Kitchens. He’ll supposedly agree with hiring Andrew Berry, a former Browns executive now Philadelphia’s Vice President of Football Operations, as G.M. DePodesta, Stefanski, and Berry, in theory, will synergize the business, football, and coaching branches in Cleveland. I’ll ask again. What points to Stefanski having the skills and experience needed to be a successful head coach in Cleveland?

Jimmy Haslam still sits atop the organizational chart. Synergy is an excellent goal and one that all good businesses strive for. But Jimmy Haslam remains. Who will pay for the next slow start, or disappointing season? DePodesta put this together; he’ll be next on the chopping block. How long will his leash be?

Patience in this situation is paramount. First time head coaches need a long leash. Kevin Stefanski is a 37-year-old who has run an NFL offense for 20 games. He’s never been in charge of running a training camp. He’s interviewed with the media sporadically, not forced to sit in front of a microphone multiple times per week. Stefanski hasn’t experienced game day on an NFL sideline in charge of calling plays, challenging bad calls, and managing the game clock. He will make mistakes. A lot of them.

Will the fan base, media, front office, and players have the patience to allow him to fail? With Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett on the roster, tolerance for losing is low. Twenty years of futility and the remnants of a disappointing 6-10 season are all Browns fans have. Will an 8-8 record be good enough to appease the starved fan base?

The patience required to tear down a dysfunctional organization and rebuild it in a manner conducive to consistent winning does not exist. The wounds are too raw; the thirst for wins too present. Kevin Stefanski has to win now, and he has to win big. Baker Mayfield has to become a Pro Bowl quarterback next year under his watch. Nick Chubb needs 275-300 carries, 1500 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both tallied 1000 yards receiving in down years. The sky is back to being the limit for one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

They set Kevin Stefanski up to fail. While the organization tries to align all entities, history says the synergy won’t last long. What happens when a disagreement occurs in the draft room? Differing opinions over a free agent? Will the new three-headed decision making body hold hands and do what is best for the Cleveland Browns, or will they do what is best for themselves? Who will Haslam side with once the discord begins? Will he calm the waters once things get choppy? Or will he promote more backstabbing and power hording? Haslam likes the ego stroking that comes with infighting and inter-office politicking. No evidence suggests he has the leadership skills or discipline to create an environment free of this toxicity.

Haslam has proven in the past to be gullible and easily swayed by the last person he’s talked to. DePodesta won this power struggle against John Dorsey, but he’s put himself in the guillotine. Haslam won’t blame himself, won’t step back and let this simmer, and won’t fire another head coach after one year (don’t bet on it!). Any rumblings of discord, or a three game losing streak, or a perceived lack of readiness now rests in DePodesta’s lap. Is this organization now structured to withstand the minor potholes that become road blocks?

What proof is there that Kevin Stefanski can coach an NFL team? There is none. This organization needed a resolute, stable leader who’d been through the fires surrounded by successful people in a winning organization. The franchise needed a shape shifter at its second most important position, someone who knows winning and how to dominate opponents. Another first-year head coach, a roll of the dice, is a recipe for more failure. The best argument for the hire seems to be, “Other lightly regarded candidates have won before, let’s wait and see.” This organization has not earned “wait and see” status.

The Minnesota Vikings have been more successful than the Browns, but they have won nothing of consequence. Mike Zimmer has been their head coach since 2014. They’ve made the playoffs three times and won 2 playoff games, one on a fluke play. The Vikings are always good. Does anyone see greatness from the organization or coaching staff? What schemes or structures are considered innovative? Stefanski had help running their offense, Zimmer didn’t trust him on his own. How much credit should Gary Kubiak get for Minnesota’s offense this year? What did the Vikings do better than anyone else in the league? Who has left and been great anywhere else?

The Browns franchise no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. They’ve proved unable to make even the most basic decisions to field a competent team. It is possible that if you throw enough darts, you’ll eventually hit a bullseye. Even if Kevin Stefanski has the abilities needed to be a successful head coach, however, it is unlikely the environment in Cleveland will allow him to blossom. Good organizations with strong ownership and defined leadership can afford to hire unproven coordinators with strong upside. Unfortunately for Browns’ fans, the one in Berea cannot.

 

There’s Only One Choice for the Next Browns Coach

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Josh McDaniels

The Haslams broke the Cleveland Browns’ organization. The hirings, firings, draft busts, and free agent flops have piled up over two decades. This isn’t a normal situation. Jimmy Haslam has created a toxic environment where backstabbing and shadowy power moves are the norm. Any coach stepping into this labyrinth must have experience, confidence, and a plan. Forget competence as a play caller or scheme designer, those talents should carry no weight during the search because they don’t matter. The new head coach has to build a foundation for everything else to sit. The only guy available with a shot at success is Josh McDaniels.

For the record, I’m stunned that McDaniels has interest with other opportunities available, but still give him only a 15-20% chance at winning in Cleveland. The owner’s tentacles slither throughout the organization and suffocate a once proud franchise. A never-ending power struggle lurks inside the offices in Berea.

To wit:

Haslam hired Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi as team president and general manager after he bought the team. Two experienced football minds, Haslam never defined their roles. The front office was a “top-heavy, confusing mess” according to NFL insiders, and Haslam wanted things streamlined. After Banner and Lombardi fired Rob Chudzinski after one year and hired Mike Pettine, they themselves were canned, and the owner handed Ray Farmer the general manager job.

Farmer drafted Johnny Manziel, a quarterback the head coach wanted no part of. The NFL also caught him texting play calls to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan during games. Shanahan, under contract, approached the front office with a 32 point PowerPoint presentation asking for release from his contract to become offensive coordinator in Atlanta. They granted it to him. Pettine and Farmer got canned after two seasons. Shanahan is head coach in San Francisco, a Super Bowl favorite.

Sashi Brown became executive vice president and de facto general manager, Paul DePodesta, a baseball executive, took a position as chief strategy officer, and the organization hired Hue Jackson (a hire raved about across the league) while the franchise strategically tanked to horde draft picks. Onboard in the beginning, Jackson grew weary of the losing and complained about the front office and the analytics driven plan of action. Haslam abandons the tank midstream, canning Brown without letting him execute the multi-year tear down necessary to rebuild the talent level in the organization. DePodesta remains, however.

John Dorsey got the G.M. job, and Jackson remained before being fired mid-season in 2018 after continued head butting with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Dorsey hires Freddie Kitchens, Kitchens bombs, and despite the massive upgrade in talent made to the roster by Dorsey, using the picks and equity obtained by Sashi Brown, loses his job. Though still early, the whispers of a loss in a power struggle with dePodesta seem to have sealed Dorsey’s fate.

John Dorsey was the champion of a total remake of the Cleveland Browns organization four months ago. He drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb in one draft. Picked Greedy Williams in the second round of the 2019 draft and Mack Wilson in the fifth round. These players will all be in their 2nd or 3rd year in the NFL next year and central to a franchise turnaround.

All drafted by John Dorsey, one of the preeminent talent evaluators in the league. Fired two years after being hired.

A complete and total malfunction of an organization. Coaches and front office executives hired on different timelines with mismatched objectives. None given the proper time to overcome the stench of this franchise. All the names above had success of varying degrees at different locations. While questioned, few of the hires were considered outright disasters when made. Pettine may have been the biggest reach, but if not for his failed tenure in Cleveland, his work with Green Bay’s defense would put him on head coaching lists around the league.

Each change brings a different power structure and alignment. New figures, all uncertain of their roles, all grasping for more power. No one working together. Everyone for themselves, blaming others for the franchise’s problems, searching for selfish solutions to team specific problems.

Greg Roman would be a fine hire for any other organization. He’s proved himself at different stops in the NFL and could very well be an outstanding head coach. Robert Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator, is young and smart. Kevin Stefanski, Eric Bieniemy, Mike LaFleur, and Brian Daboll are all fabulous coaches, all deserving of a shot at the head of the table.

But not here.

This job is too much for a first timer. The stress and pull of an NFL head coach is overwhelming for everyone. Time constraints during the week, along with the speed with which they must make decisions on game day, take a toll on all first-year coaches. The politics within the building in Berea, the frustrations from the fans and the media of two decades’ worth of losing, and the expectations to win with this roster will sabotage them. Jimmy Haslam gives them zero chance to succeed.

The franchise needs a strong leader on the sideline, one who has been a head coach before. Mike McCarthy? He’s won a Super Bowl and coached two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. In parts of 13 seasons in Green Bay, he made the playoffs nine times. But for all his success, McCarthy butted heads with Rodgers; everything from conservative play calling to the blandness of the receiver route tree. Rumors claim that Rodgers would insist receivers run his routes instead of McCarthy’s. The coach abhorred analytics. Does this sound like the mentality needed to reinvent the organization?

Josh McDaniels is the only hope. He’s strong-willed, perhaps too much so. His desire for total control led to his firing in Denver. He seemed out to prove something. Anything. He was right, and you all were wrong. His attitude and desire for control as a 33-year-old first time head coach without a resumé to back up his brashness lead to the quick hook.

McDaniels found his way back to New England after the fiasco in Denver, holding the title of offensive coordinator for the last eight years. The success of New England’s offense under his watch is indisputable. He coordinated the best offense in league history in 2007. They scored the second most points ever (589), have the highest point differential (+315), are tied for the most touchdown passes by a quarterback in a season (Tom Brady, 50), and have the record for most touchdown catches by a player in a season (Randy Moss, 23). He’s been a member of 6 Super Bowl winning teams.

Is this success because of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Absolutely. But McDaniels has been there. In the meetings. On the practice field. On the sideline. Making legacy changing play calls on 3rd down in Super Bowls. He’s studied the greatest coach in history his entire career. He’s called plays for the greatest quarterback in history. McDaniels isn’t the reason for the Patriots’ success. But no organization has won for a longer period on time, and he’s been a cog for almost the entire run.

Proximity to greatness is no guarantee of future glory. The organization has no choice, however. The leadership it will take to reinvent Cleveland football is not available. They have pursued every other avenue. All dead ends. McDaniels is imperfect, yet the only viable option.

Success in Cleveland will be virtually impossible. No one can overcome the destruction the Haslam’s have unleashed on a historic franchise with one of the greatest fan bases on earth. The city, the team, the fans; all deserve better. Jimmy and Dee Haslam are incompetent, however. Buffoons, clueless without a touch of self awareness. They shouldn’t be in charge of setting pins in a bowling alley. Yet here we are.

Josh McDaniels is not a perfect choice, and he will most likely fail. Ownership dooms the franchise for the foreseeable future, and it’s a sad reality. But if anyone on the market can rescue this city and franchise, it’s him. God help Browns fans.