Kevin Stefanski has earned another contract with Browns in thick of the playoff race

CLEVELAND — After all the days of film study, all the hours spent poring over the installation, all the frenetic play calls over a three-hour stress test to get them in position …

He doesn’t actually watch the kicks. Not live, anyway.

In this season of absurd, the Cleveland Browns are getting fairly excellent at the theater and drama component of NFL life. Three of their games now — all wins — have come down to last-second kicks.

Kevin Stefanski hasn’t watched one of them.

When rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson drove the Browns into field goal range against the Steelers at the end Sunday, when Kareem Hunt ran it on second down, when Thompson-Robinson clocked it and the Steelers burned their final timeout with five seconds left, there was nothing left for Stefanski to do.

He turned his back to the field and walked 30 yards in the other direction, blew on his hands and rubbed them together on a crisp fall afternoon. He asked John Frain, the team’s security director, for a drink. By the time Frain returned with a Gatorade cup, Stefanski had snagged a water bottle instead. So Frain took a sip and kept the cup for himself. As play resumed and the Browns lined up for the kick, Stefanski again turned his back to the play. Given the angle from the sidelines, sometimes it’s difficult to tell if kicks are good or not. He likes watching the television angle from behind the uprights, so he turns to the scoreboard opposite of the play.

As Dustin Hopkins’ 34-yarder sailed through for a 13-10 Browns victory, Stefanski put one finger in the air. That was the extent of his celebration. It’s part of his appeal.

Another divisional opponent toppled, this time a bitter rival. Another win. Another step closer to the postseason.

No one from the Browns ownership group gave an explicitly public playoffs-or-bust mandate, but the pressure to win in 2023 was evident. Everybody knew it. In the fourth season of this regime, jobs were at stake. Stefanski’s name was near the top of any “first coach to be fired” list this preseason.

Not only has Stefanski avoided that fate, but he’s also done enough to earn an extension. Right now. Today. Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry should both get extensions after the jobs they have done this season — and when was the last time anyone could say that about coaches and executives in Cleveland?

He might lose out on coach of the year to Detroit’s Dan Campbell or Miami’s Mike McDaniel, but Stefanski is absolutely in the conversation again after winning the award in 2020. Given all of their injuries, the Browns might be the league’s unlikeliest 7-3 team racing toward the playoffs. Their odds of reaching the postseason should climb to over 80 percent this week when all of those projections are released. All of this despite a Pro Football Focus study revealing the Browns have 28 percent of their salary cap on IR — easily the highest mark in the league.

The franchise quarterback, franchise running back and starting right tackle are all out for the year. The left tackle is on IR. The third tackle, Dawand Jones, is fighting a knee injury and the fourth tackle, James Hudson, has been mauled by Steelers defensive end T.J. Watt in consecutive seasons. So Stefanski did a do-si-do between his tackles for the first time in his coaching career. Jones and Hudson rotated long enough to keep Watt and the Steelers’ ferocious pass rush under control.

The longer you do something, the better you should get at it. In his fourth season as an NFL head coach, Stefanski is getting pretty good at this.

I’ve talked to players who feel like he coaches more with his gut than when he first arrived and doesn’t just rely on the analytics anymore. He feels the momentum within the game and reacts accordingly. He’s learned to weaponize his terrific defense this season. He has underrated game-changers at punter and kicker. All of them have been crucial in this season of the extraordinary.

“I don’t really get into the contract stuff, but he’s a coach that gets his guys to play hard,” right guard Wyatt Teller said. “(Berry) and him have put together a really good team. A tough team. We’ve had so many things, adversity hit us, but at the end of the day, we’re fighting. I don’t know how you blame a guy like that.”


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Usually, I roll my eyes at quoting guys about coaches and teammates. What do you expect them to say on the record? The guy stinks? But a number of players in casual conversations around the locker room seem to reiterate what Teller said.

This team just finds a way to compete regardless of who is at quarterback. So many games this year, Browns teams of the past would’ve lost. But this version figures out ways to win. The Browns have won in the last two minutes of regulation four of the past six weeks.

Sometimes it’s the defense, sometimes it’s luck, sometimes it’s a rookie quarterback driving them into field goal range to wipe away a miserable second half.

All of it is a credit to Stefanski and Berry.

Before Stefanski’s arrival, I’ve had players tell me the building could sway depending on the week. Wins made Monday feel like a Super Bowl was inevitable, and losses felt like everyone was getting fired. It’s difficult to find stability and clear thinking under such emotional conditions. Stefanski has flattened all of that out.

He has guided this franchise through the coronavirus restrictions of 2020, the turbulence of acquiring Deshaun Watson and the uncertainty of knowing when he’d be available to play last year. He has fought back from crushing last-second losses to win the next game. He has engineered late, game-winning drives with three quarterbacks.

The Jets began the season in a similar position to the Browns in both talent and expectations. They lost Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 and are 4-6. The Bengals lost Joe Burrow, and their season has already been declared over.

The Browns are winning football games with Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Phillip Walker Jr. at quarterback.



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In a race to 10 wins and the playoffs, the Browns have seven games left to find three more wins. There is still time for this to go sideways, but the days of assuming the Browns will lose are over.

Thompson-Robinson threw for only 165 yards Sunday, and the Browns yet again lost the turnover battle.

They won anyway.

They gained just 96 yards of offense in the second half.

They won anyway.

Their running backs averaged less than 3 yards a carry.

They won anyway.

They’re relying on some combination of Thompson-Robinson, Walker and (gasp!) maybe even Joe Flacco to get this thing home. In the fourth year of a five-year contract, Stefanski has done enough under incredibly difficult circumstances to warrant more time here. His calm demeanor has gotten the absolute best out of this roster.



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I’ve long thought that Stefanski is a bit of a psychopath in the best way possible. He’s obviously highly intelligent and he loves the challenge of winning with misfit parts. He is the NFL’s MacGyver. Give him a practice-squad quarterback or a fifth-round rookie, a full practice week and two fractions of a right tackle, and he’ll find a way.

Keep him. Pay him. Let him cook.

Just don’t make him watch the winning kicks.

(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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