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Kevin Stefanski made Kirk Cousins great. The Browns want him to do the same for Baker Mayfield

Stefanski coached Cousins to the best year of his career and a playoff berth. Can he do the same for Mayfield?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns hired Freddie Kitchens in hopes of pushing Baker Mayfield to his MVP potential. Instead, an overwhelmed Cleveland offense struggled with stale playcalling, sloppy execution, and bad decisions en route to a 12th straight losing season.

Now Kitchens is gone. The Browns are turning to a slightly more established rising star in hopes of turning their franchise around.

Cleveland hired Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as its newest head coach. Stefanski only has one year as a full-time offensive coordinator under his belt at any coaching level, but he did enough on the Minnesota sideline to convince team owner Jimmy Haslam he’s enough of a departure from the inexperienced Kitchens to lead his Browns to glory.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see how Haslam may be right.

Who is Kevin Stefanski?

The Browns’ big hire means 2020 will be the first season in 14 years that Stefanski isn’t a staple on the Vikings’ sideline. The young coach was a Minnesota standby after playing four seasons at the University of Pennsylvania and spending a fifth under Al Bagnoli’s coaching tree as assistant director of football operations.

That led him to Minneapolis in 2006, where he’d spend the next three seasons working under the extremely Dwight Schrute title of Assistant to the Head Coach (Brad Childress). While the Vikings’ wheel of postseason (and, occasionally, regular season) sadness would churn through coaches like Childress and Leslie Frazier before settling on Mike Zimmer, Stefanski remained a rising star within the organization. Over the decade-plus that followed, he continued his slow trajectory up the team’s organizational chart.

He first made waves as a potential NFL head coach in 2018 after taking over offensive coordinator duties from a fired John DeFilippo for the final three games of the season. The Vikings upped their scoring from 21.7 points per game to 26 in a 2-1 finish under their new playcaller. More importantly, Kirk Cousins saw his quarterback rating rise from 98.4 to 107.8 in a cautiously optimistic finish to an otherwise lost season.

That led to a promotion from interim offensive coordinator to a full-time role. It also led to some buzz that he’d be the league’s next Sean McVay-type head coaching hire. The Browns came sniffing around in 2019, even interviewing Stefanski that winter, but ultimately left him in the Twin Cities to prove he could turn that three-game OC audition into a full season of playcalling success.

Why was Stefanski such a hot name?

The 37-year-old’s resume might as well just have one massive bullet point:

  • made Cousins worth his fully guaranteed contract.

Stefanski was in charge of a Minnesota offense that harnessed Cousins’ big arm and steered the often underwhelming quarterback away from the checkdowns and red zone brain farts that had defined his first seven seasons in the league. While a disappointing 2-2 start briefly dented his brand, Stefanski showcased his ability to adjust on the fly by turning his veteran quarterback into one of the league’s most efficient passers.

The budding playcaller leaned hard into a stacked group of skill players, allowing Cousins’ connection with deep threat Stefon Diggs to flourish. Stefanski called on bruising tailback Dalvin Cook to help take the pressure from the passing game, then used the space he created in the middle of the field to create chaos-making plays. Cousins threw 162 fewer passes than he did the year before, but the quality of those passes rose significantly.

Kirk Cousins passing distance by year

Kirk Cousins' passing targets Behind LOS 0-9 yards downfield 10-19 yards downfield 20+ yards Overall yards/att
Kirk Cousins' passing targets Behind LOS 0-9 yards downfield 10-19 yards downfield 20+ yards Overall yards/att
2017 17.04% 49.63% 19.81% 11.11% 7.6
2018 13.53% 57.26% 17.00% 9.57% 7.1
2019 17.57% 48.65% 14.86% 13.06% 8.1

While his penchant for screen passes increased thanks to Cook’s presence as a pass catcher from the backfield (53 catches and 8.3 yards per target, the latter good enough for fourth-best among RBs), Stefanski’s offense asked Cousins to eschew the short and intermediate passes that defined his forgettable 2018 and instead take more chances downfield. It worked like a charm. With Diggs and, for 10 games of the regular season due to injury, Adam Thielen out-working opposing secondaries, the Vikings’ passing game soared.

Cousins set career highs in touchdown rate, passer rating, and adjusted years per pass. He set a career low in interception rate. By the end of the season, he’d rank among the league’s top seven QBs in each of those categories

That all helped Minnesota get back to the playoffs, where Cousins dusted off the Saints on the road with the two biggest passes of his career. It also served to propel Stefanski out of Minnesota — and into the Browns’ head coaching role.

What can Stefanski bring to the Browns?

Haslam is taking a risk by hiring another relatively fresh face with limited experience as a coordinator at any level. But while former interim OC Kitchens was a risky hire meant to maintain continuity from his team’s 5-3 finish, Stefanski brings a stronger background and some fresh, but familiar oil to the gears of the Cleveland machine.

The Vikings thrived behind a big-armed quarterback capable of great throws downfield (Cousins), a game-breaking deep threat (Diggs), a reliable receiver who can fill almost any role he’s asked (Thielen), and a bellwether tailback capable of eating up 20+ carries and salting away the clock in the second half (Cook). Now Stefanski will take over a Browns team with a big-armed quarterback capable of great throws downfield (Baker Mayfield), a game-breaking deep threat (Odell Beckham Jr.), a reliable receiver who can fill almost any role he’s asked (Jarvis Landry), and a bellwether tailback capable of eating up 20+ carries and salting away the clock in the second half (Nick Chubb).

A big part of Stefanski’s job in Cleveland will be keeping one of the league’s most talented WR tandems happy after a season in which they both publicly questioned Kitchens’ decision making on the sideline. His Viking history suggests this may not be a problem in 2020 — even if Landry seems displeased with the team on social media.

Diggs was reportedly unhappy with his role in the offense during Minnesota’s 2-2 start, then flourished, ultimately putting together the most productive season of his career. In the process, his yards per catch average rose from a pedestrian 10.0 to a game-breaking 17.9. Thielen’s 2019 wasn’t as productive thanks to a long list of nagging injuries, but he’s still the guy who went from undrafted Minnesota State product to All-Pro under Stefanski and had a glowing review for his offensive coordinator this January. If anyone can balance the Browns’ offense and turn them into a cohesive, terrifying unit, it’s the former Viking — even if he earns some player criticism along the way.

Stefanski also played a role in limiting Cousins’ drive-killing turnovers. The veteran QB’s interception rate dropped from 2.6 percent in Washington to 1.5 percent in Minnesota. Sure, some of that is attributable to his growth over time and the upgraded cast of receivers he’d dealt with in Minneapolis, but that decline is still welcome news for Mayfield, who finished second in the NFL with 21 interceptions this fall.

There’s another reason why Stefanski was a fit in Cleveland; the Browns’ overarching management team will have more control over him than it would if they’d hired a more experienced NFL veteran. Haslam and crew have already laid out terms of how they’d like the former Viking to run his team:

There are several other problems that need fixing. This is, the Browns after all.

The club is searching for a general manager to pair with its new head coach after parting ways with John Dorsey this winter. Stefanski will also have to hire a capable defensive coordinator who can elevate a defense that was loaded with young potential — see players like Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Denzel Ward, and more — but still ranked just 26th in Football Outsiders’ weighted efficiency metric. The team will have to patch up a deficient offensive line while getting Mayfield to cut out the aimless scrambles that helped push his sack rate from 4.9 percent as a rookie to 7 percent in his second year.

Those issues will all take time to sort out, but now that Stefanski’s on board Cleveland can begin its build for 2020 properly. The Browns bought into the NFL’s hottest trend of the late 2010s when they snagged a bright young offensive mind who can unlock the potential of their quarterback’s deep ball. The question now is whether he can work his Kirk Cousins magic on Baker Mayfield — and if the rest of the Browns’ roster can be good enough for that to make a difference.