There was a time a few years ago when a certain Cleveland coach couldn’t do much of anything right to appease a rabid fan base. The Cavaliers staggered through a 15-20 stretch from December to March during what became LeBron James’ final season here as restless fans insisted coach Tyronn Lue was the problem and needed to be ousted immediately if not sooner.
In my previous life as an NBA beat writer, I spent thousands of words in columns and on radio and television appearances insisting Lue not only wasn’t the problem, he was the one holding it all together.
The Cavs eventually tucked in their shirts and put their shoes on the correct feet long enough to make a fourth consecutive run to the NBA Finals.
Five years later, here we are again. Different sport, same rabid fan base.
I’m not predicting a Super Bowl run for the Browns, but given all that has gone wrong this year, this might be coach Kevin Stefanski’s finest season as head coach. He lost his starting right tackle in the opener, franchise pillar Nick Chubb in Week 2 and franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson in Week 3.
And the Browns are 4-3.
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Watson has looked broken and ineffective for much of his time in Cleveland. After his disastrous first quarter at Indianapolis, it’s anyone’s guess at this point when he’ll return to the field, or which version we’ll see when he’s healthy.
Yet Stefanski and one of the top defenses in the NFL have dragged the Browns to a 4-3 record and the thick of the AFC playoff race despite horrific quarterback play for most of the season.
The Browns are 31st in offensive total pass EPA. That means they’re one of three teams, along with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears, that essentially lose points every time the quarterback drops back to pass.
Browns quarterbacks are dead last in the NFL in completion percentage and 29th in yards per attempt. They lead the league in turnovers, including seven in the fourth quarter.
— Fred Greetham (@FredGreetham9) October 30, 2023
Sunday was perhaps Stefanski’s finest football hour for the first 58 minutes. After coaxing the best out of Baker Mayfield and Brissett in previous seasons, he had a vile of snake oil and a few magic beans left for P.J. Walker. Following victories over the 49ers and Colts, a practice squad quarterback was two minutes away from his third consecutive win in a Browns jersey. It was a magical combination of illusion and sleight of hand Sunday in Seattle. He nearly had the lady sawed in half when he hit an artery. Or as my colleague Zac Jackson said on our postgame podcast, Stefanski was painting his Mona Lisa until a kid spilled his pudding on it.
The pudding, in this case, was Seahawks safety Jamal Adams’ helmet on third-and-3.
Stefanski is 30-27 in his fourth season here. He has used eight quarterbacks to get through 57 games, a telling if not a bit misleading figure since Nick Mullens and Dorian Thompson-Robinson each started only once.
Nevertheless, twice now Stefanski thought he had a franchise quarterback and twice he has been fooled. He arrived here expecting a long partnership with Mayfield, a quarterback drafted first overall. When that unraveled, the franchise spent $230 million and three first-round picks to acquire Watson. There is still time for Watson to fix this, but to this point, the trade has been a disaster. Stefanski has never enjoyed much stability at the most important position.
Mayfield was terrific over the second half of the 2020 season. Everything else has been severed brake lines and broken seat belts.
Yet he continues to have this team ready to play and he consistently puts the Browns in position to win late nearly every week. The players may not love every play call either, but they fight hard and play for him.
Browns had their chance vs. Seahawks but ultimately fell short in gut-punching loss
Did you hate watching Walker’s pass bounce off Adams’ helmet and into the arms of Seattle’s Julian Love on third-and-3? Here are the numbers you’ll love.
Since Stefanski arrived in Cleveland in 2020, NFL teams convert 58 percent of the time when they run on third-and-3. They convert 49 percent of the time when they throw. (The Browns, incidentally, convert 57 percent of the time when they throw on third-and-3 even after that interception.)
Stefanski has made plenty of calls that have made me cringe over the years — bringing Jacoby Brissett off the bench to throw deep on fourth-and-1 at Cincinnati last year immediately comes to mind. Every coach has them.
He’s an aggressive play caller, for better or worse. He calls the game to win the game, not avoid losing it. The Browns threw on third-and-3 just a few plays before the pass that was intercepted, but nobody said a word because the Seahawks were flagged and the Browns were awarded a first down.
Stefanski put the game in the defense’s hands against the 49ers and quarterback Brock Purdy sprinted the offense into field goal range. The Browns escaped only after the kick sailed wide.
Needing a stop Sunday following the turnover, the defense instead allowed Seattle to average nearly 9 yards a play to score the game-winning touchdown with little resistance.
I was ambivalent over the third-and-3 call. I see both sides. What I don’t understand is the incessant insistence the coach be fired after every loss.
Here are the records of the coaches who were fired last year: 11-27 (Carolina’s Matt Rhule), 4-11 (Denver’s Nathaniel Hackett), 28-37-1 (Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury), 3-13-1 (Houston’s Love Smith), 40-33-1 (Indianapolis’ Frank Reich).
Stefanski is 30-27. The only coach fired with a winning record last year was Reich. If you want to join the company of resident NFL lunatic Jim Irsay, who fired Reich and replaced him with a television analyst whose only head-coaching experience was in high school, that’s a party I’m not attending.
Two lousy minutes turned Stefanski’s masterpiece into mud. Throw away the canvas. Keep the painter and his brushes.
(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)