BEREA, Ohio — In the course of the 2017 season in Minnesota, Kevin Stefanski typically would kick his starter out of the quarterback assembly room.
However Case Keenum was not. And so, every time the dialogue would veer from dissecting protection to dissecting the Dothraki, Keenum was ordered to depart.
“I’d actually be out of the conferences for like 20 minutes,” stated Keenum, now Cleveland’s backup quarterback, “whereas they had been breaking down the most recent episode of Sport of Thrones.”
In virtually each manner, Stefanski defies the caricature of the old-school NFL head coach. He by no means performed within the league and attended an Ivy League college. He despises speaking about himself, but lights up when requested about his assistants. He virtually by no means loses his cool, underscored by a delicate tendency on the headset to defuse a sport’s tensest moments along with his dry sense of a humor.
“Typically you’re like, ‘Did he simply crack a joke?’ He can work one into any state of affairs,” stated tight ends coach Drew Petzing, who got here to Cleveland with Stefanski from Minnesota. “However Kevin can be extraordinarily good, very organized, keen to know and really calm, cool and picked up. He isn’t going to yell or scream or provide you with that completely epic speech from ‘Any Given Sunday.’ That is not perhaps what he is the very best at.
“Now does that imply he does not encourage guys and drive guys and push guys? No. However he understands how to try this, realizing his character and the way individuals view him. He’s very self-aware, which is a superb high quality to have.”
Due to these qualities, the Cleveland Browns consider they’ve lastly have discovered their long-term head coach, having cycled by way of 11 others earlier than him since returning to the league in 1999.
In his first yr in Cleveland, the 38-year-old Stefanski has steadily guided the Browns — by way of an in any other case unprecedented yr of chaos, which included him lacking Cleveland’s playoff victory in Pittsburgh final Sunday with COVID-19 — to their greatest season in a minimum of 26 years.
“Kevin is unflappable,” stated Browns basic supervisor Andrew Berry, additionally in his first season in Cleveland. “He is the identical individual every single day, even-keeled demeanor, implausible with individuals. And also you want that regular hand inside your group with the inevitable ups and downs and adversity that’s in any NFL season, not to mention this one.”
Sunday, the Browns will face top-seeded Kansas City (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS), the place Cleveland will tackle the defending Tremendous Bowl champs with an opportunity to advance to the AFC Championship Sport for the primary time since 1989.
In consequence, Stefanski figures to be on the brief listing for NFL Coach of the Yr — if not, at this level, the favourite to develop into the primary Cleveland coach since Forrest Gregg in 1976 to win it.
All of the whereas simply being himself.
“You’re spot on with that one,” agreed quarterback Baker Mayfield, having fun with a resurgent season underneath Stefanski. “Individuals don’t comply with faux leaders. When you’ve gotten a bunch of males doing this and all people is relying on you, you may sniff out any person who’s faux extraordinarily shortly. That’s not the case right here.”
Earlier than the coin toss of each highschool sport, Stefanski had the identical routine as captain for St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia.
“In our greatest Scottish accents, I might take a look at him, and say, ‘The place are you going?’ And he would say, ‘I will decide a combat,'” recalled Eddie Turner, considered one of Stefanski’s closest highschool mates and broad receiver teammate, referring to the 1995 Mel Gibson movie “Braveheart.” “After which I might say, ‘Effectively, we did not dress up for nothing.’”
As a Catholic League MVP security and quarterback, Stefanski channeled William Wallace on the sphere.
“He was an incredible hitter,” stated his coach then, Gil Brooks, who nonetheless texts with Stefanski after virtually each Browns sport. “And an incredible chief.”
When it got here to soccer and college, Stefanski was severe and diligent, finally stepping into Penn. However he was all the time busting chops as an indication of affection and pulling follow jokes. Driving an outsized station wagon, the faux wooden paneling included, he wouldn’t hesitate to bump his buddies’ automobiles with the bumper for making enjoyable of his automotive.
“He was not afraid to rise to any degree of prank,” Turner stated. “There have been instances in freshman Latin class he would get the fellows to sing Boyz II Males for Mr. Z (the instructor) when Mr. Z got here into the room, simply to lighten the temper.”
That continued into faculty, whereas tending bar at Smokey Joe’s — known as “The Pennstitution” — with roommates and Penn teammates Jake Perskie and Pat McManus. As soon as when Perskie and McManus had been out of city, Stefanski tousled their journey by leaving them a message he’d advised the proprietor of the bar that they had been protecting the vacant shifts that evening.
“We begin pondering, did we screw over the bar proprietor? What if Kevin wasn’t messing with us?” Perskie recalled. “We begin frantically making an attempt to name Kevin, seeing if he was screwing with us? And naturally, he was screwing with us and ignoring our panicked cellphone calls.
“He’s a ninja relating to sensible jokes, and he can’t be acquired, both, as a result of he doesn’t have an inside panic button. He’s ice-cold that manner.”
That carried over to soccer, as Stefanski earned a beginning job at Penn as a freshman.
“The primary sport, he was already calling the protection,” McManus stated, “whereas the remainder of us had been nonetheless making an attempt to recollect the code to get into the locker room.”
As Penn coach Ray Priore, then its defensive coordinator, put it, “Kevin was one other coach on the sphere. He was virtually telepathic, like he might learn my thoughts.”
Three years later, after the Quakers captured a second straight Ivy League title with a win over Cornell, Stefanski, who had labored his manner again from one other knee damage that yr, marched his teammates straight to Smokey Joe’s, the place they celebrated the trophy with the proprietor, nonetheless carrying their pads.
“Kevin was all the time the identical man,” McManus stated. “Tore his ACL twice, however you wouldn’t even know he was harm as a result of he by no means introduced it up. He’s all the time been so unflappable, by no means complained or whined, and when issues would go incorrect, he would simply take management of it.”
Every part appeared to be going immeasurably incorrect for the Browns final week heading into the playoffs.
Professional Bowl guard Joel Bitonio examined optimistic for COVID-19, making him unavailable for the journey to Pittsburgh together with cornerback Denzel Ward, who was already on the reserve/COVID-19 listing. Then Stefanski examined optimistic, as nicely. On high of that, the Browns coaching facility was closed for 3 days to permit for contact tracing. In the end, Cleveland was in a position to follow solely as soon as earlier than touring to Pittsburgh.
But true to the identification of their head coach, the Browns by no means panicked. The evening earlier than the sport, Stefanski bolstered that supreme in a workforce assembly over video from his basement in Cleveland, the place he would watch the sport.
“He stated that he had confidence on this workforce. That he is seen us win 11 video games along with his personal eyes, and that he is aware of what this workforce is product of,” Keenum stated. “After which he stated, ‘I will sit on my sofa and watch it within the basement on my 60-inch TV. I will have a fairly good view there. I’m going to see the protection tipping balls and us being there and catching them and getting turnovers.’ And man, if it did not occur early and infrequently. Fairly superior, it’s like he spoke it into existence.”
Together with the Browns intercepting Ben Roethlisberger 4 instances, Stefanski has been talking this season into existence from the second he acquired the job. Originally, he advised his workforce “Embrace the Suck,” which included the annoyance of day by day coronavirus testing. He, along with his assistants, saved them engaged in the course of the digital offseason whereas putting in schemes.
And, alongside the way in which, he made certain they stayed unfastened and had enjoyable, typically on the expense of Keenum, whom Stefanski refers to as “Chase,” for causes Keenum doesn’t perceive.
Like Keenum did in 2017 enjoying for Stefanski for the primary time, Mayfield has thrived, as nicely. Courting again to a dinner that they had collectively in Austin, Texas in February, Stefanski has developed belief with Mayfield, which has manifested itself on the sphere. And now, even in important moments, Stefanski is aware of how you can preserve Mayfield relaxed, generally quipping to him, “be at liberty to throw a landing go right here,” after sending in a play.
“I believe that goes again to him speaking about having an open line of communication,” Mayfield stated. “So, there are not any questions and there are not any uncertainties about what we’re going to be about and the inspiration that he laid.”
Due to that basis, the Browns didn’t simply climate the storm in Pittsburgh.
They thrived in it.
“He’s created a system and a tradition and an identification,” Keenum stated. “And the truth that he is been in a position to do it in such a brief time period in such a loopy time as that is fairly exceptional.
“If that’s not coach of the yr stuff, I don’t know what’s.”