Heading into Sunday, all of the NFL head coaching vacancies but one were filled. The opening that did remain was in a familiar place: Cleveland, Ohio. But that job has now been filled. It is now widely reported that the Cleveland Browns will be hiring Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach after his Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday. Stefanski had interviewed with the Browns on Thursday.
Pro Football Network Insider Benjamin Allbright reported back in December that Stefanski had been a favorite of Browns’ Chiefs Strategic Officer Paul DePodesta during the Browns coaching search last season. Stefanki’s hiring this offseason may be an indication of DePodesta’s increased power within the organization.
Sources also tell PFN that Stefanski will target Mike McDaniel and/or Mike LaFleur to join his offensive staff in Cleveland, as well as one or both of the Kubiaks.
Stefanski has quietly been a rising star in league circles. So what does he bring to the table?
[Editor’s note: This was originally published by PFN on January 10.]
Kevin Stefanski’s NFL coaching profile
Some coaches have a laundry list of destinations on their resume. Kevin Stefanski doesn’t have that. He’s been in the NFL since 2006, and all that time, he’s been with one team: The Minnesota Vikings.
Stefanski got his start from head coach Brad Childress. For his first role with the Vikings, he served as the assistant to the head coach (Not assistant head coach, Dwight). Stefanski held that role until 2009 when he was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach.
Stefanski remained the Vikings assistant quarterbacks coach through the tenures of Childress and Leslie Frazier, up until 2014 when first-year head coach Mike Zimmer moved him to tight ends coach. From 2014 to 2018, Stefanski assumed various positions on the Vikings offense, including running backs coach and quarterbacks coach, where his ascent to the head coaching conversation truly accelerated.
In 2017, Stefanski’s first year as quarterbacks coach, he helped journeyman quarterback Case Keenum exceed expectations after replacing the injured Sam Bradford. Under Stefanski’s tutelage, Keenum threw 22 touchdowns and helped the Vikings earn their first playoff win since 2009.
Stefanski was regarded as a rising figure after his work with Keenum, but before the 2018 season, the Vikings hired upstart coach John DeFilippo, who’d recently won the Super Bowl with the Eagles, to be their play-caller. Stefanski, meanwhile, remained the quarterback coach under DeFilippo’s oversight, and he was tasked with helping acclimate newly-acquired quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Stefanski wouldn’t have to wait much longer to get his shot, however. After a Week 14 loss to the Seahawks which dropped the Vikings’ record to 6-6-1, John DeFilippo was fired for the lack of performance from his unit, and Stefanski, the longest-tenured offensive assistant, was instituted as the interim offensive coordinator.
Stefanski’s offense scored 41 points the next week against the Dolphins, and averaged 26 points per week over the final three weeks of the season. It wasn’t an extended audition, but it was enough for the team to remove the interim tag and move into the 2019 season with Stefanski as the official offensive coordinator.
Eighteen weeks later, it’s safe to say he didn’t disappoint.
In his lone full season as the Vikings offensive coordinator, Stefanski played a massive role in tailoring an offensive game plan that maximized the players on the roster. Kirk Cousins was one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks under Stefanski’s oversight, per advanced stats like CPOE and EPA, and the Vikings offense as a whole was top ten in yards per play, highlighting an overarching efficiency.
Almost more enticing than the raw results was the process of it all. Stefanski effectively implemented changes after the team’s disappointing Week 3 loss to the Bears, utilizing play-action more often in order to make Cousins more comfortable and keep the defense on edge. The play calling hasn’t been without its hiccups, as the team has a habit of running at non-optimal times. But Stefanski deserves credit for using his influence to turn around a quarterback, and an offense.
Kevin Stefanski’s fit with the Browns
As noted, Stefanski is not an unfamiliar name in Cleveland. Stefanski was one of the candidates for the Browns head coaching job last year before Cleveland ultimately decided on Freddie Kitchens due to his connection with Baker Mayfield. Kevin Stefanski’s resume is even stronger now, and his NFL coaching profile could be what the Browns’ talented offense needs to take shape.
The most appealing trait that Stefanski possesses is his ability to work with quarterbacks and maximize their capabilities. He did this on a more positional level with Keenum in 2017, and he’s helped Cousins develop into a passer who can be counted on more consistently with his efficiency and poise.
Stefanski gives quarterbacks comfort, and he doesn’t impose a stringent scheme upon them; he conforms to the strengths of his signal-caller so that they can do what they do best. This is the kind of calibration that Baker Mayfield needs after a sophomore slump that saw him regress significantly in terms of efficiency. He needs a mentor, and Stefanski has proven himself in that regard.
Stefanski is also appealing, in the sense that he’s willing to consider input from other coaches. A big issue with Kitchens is that he would refuse to hand over the offensive play calling reigns to Todd Monken, despite Monken’s expertise and Kitchens’ underperformance. Stefanski, meanwhile, has maintained a healthy collaborative relationship with Vikings’ offensive advisor Gary Kubiak in 2019. Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl as the Broncos head coach in 2015, spoke about Stefanski’s open-mindedness in November:
“What I try to do is I help Kevin with situational football and what’s going on. I listen to him call the game, I may make a suggestion, ‘hey Kevin, come back with this,’ and ‘you’re getting played this way so think about this,’ so it’s just a great conversation back and forth… We’re constantly conversing on what’s happening… [Kevin’s] done a great job of pulling the trigger. He’s really an excellent play-caller and I think he’s getting better each and every week because his feel for our players and what our team does best continues to grow.”
Authority can cause some coaches to become too prideful, and essentially tune out other opinions on staff. Stefanski doesn’t seem to have this issue; he has a lot of experience with various offensive roles, and yet, he’s willing to consider and accept suggestions and supplementary knowledge from other coaches. It sounds simple, but it’s not a quality all coaches possess, and it’s something Cleveland has struggled with frequently, both in the coaching staff and the front office. Intellectual monopolies can’t exist on a coaching staff, and if Jimmy Haslam wants to foster an environment with more freedom in that regard, Stefanski would be a solid choice.
Kevin Stefanski Potential Strengths and Weaknesses
- Success with Quarterbacks – Stefanski elevated the play of Keenum and Cousins. He can be the developmental guru that Baker Mayfield needs in Year 3.
- Open-Mindedness – Stefanski works well in collaborative cultures and isn’t run by ego or a desire to be the ultimate authority. He also conforms to players’ strengths and works to provide maximum comfort, something not all coaches can do.
- Multifaceted Background – Stefanski has a diverse background, with experience as a quarterbacks coach, running backs coach, and an offensive coordinator. He’s gone through the process of adding more to his plate over time, so the leap to head coach might not be as daunting for him.
- Personable – Stefanski does well in the presence of media, and is very well-spoken and detail-oriented.
- Young – Stefanski turns 38 years old in May, so he fits the young offensive mind profile, which means there’s further growth potential from where he’s currently at.
- Familiarity – Kubiak mentioned familiarity as a reason for Stefanski’s success; he’s been with the Vikings for over a decade. How will he respond to his initial lack of familiarity with Cleveland’s roster, and being in a different place for the first time in his career?
- Early-down Play Calling – Some early-down play calling sequences have been suspect from the Vikings this year, particularly forcing the run in unsavory situations. Does Stefanski believe in the fallacy of having to establish the running game, or is influence from other voices a factor in that decision making?
- First-time Head Coach – Were he to be hired by Cleveland, Stefanski would be a first-time head coach. It’s a commonality for many head coaches, but that lack of experience and readiness has been too much for some, including former Browns coach Freddie Kitchens. You can’t be scared by it; all coaches are different, and all new coaches need a chance. Re-treads are just as fallible, but is Stefanski ready for the next level?
Overall, the NFL head coaching profile of Kevin Stefanski is a strong one. There are some questions lingering about the long-time offensive assistant, but the good outweighs the bad, and Stefanski has many appealing traits to build off of. He might just be what the Cleveland Browns need to finally reset their franchise and cultivate a sense of direction.