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Browns to hire Vikings OC Stefanski as head coach

By MARY KAY CABOT • Jan 12, 2020 at 2:09 PM

CLEVELAND — Paul DePodesta had to wait a year, but he got his man in Kevin Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator.

The Browns on Sunday hired Stefanski, 37, as their 18th full-time head coach and their 10th in the new era. He’s the fifth one hired by the Browns since the Haslams took over in 2012.

But they’re hoping this one sticks. DePodesta, the Browns’ Chief Strategy Officer who ran the search this year, favored Stefanski last year, but was overruled by former GM John Dorsey, who opted for Freddie Kitchens at the last minute.

The search came down to two finalists in Stefanski and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a league source told cleveland.com.

But with the DePodesta driving the bus, he didn’t let Stefanski get away this time. Even though Stefanski’s offense flopped in his head-to-head matchup with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, another Browns’ finalist, in the 27-10 NFC divisional round loss on Saturday, it didn’t deter the Browns.

Stefanski’s offense was held to seven first downs, 147 total yards and 21 rushing yards, but the Browns love what he brings to the table in terms of leadership, intelligence and a great offensive scheme from the Andy Reid tree.

Hired on the 15th day of the search, Stefanski was chosen from a pool of eight candidates that included Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Canton, Oh. native and fan favorite here. McDaniels was flown into Cleveland on Friday on Haslam’s private jet along with his wife, Laura, but left without a contract after seven hours.

A source told cleveland.com that the Browns were not open to McDaniels having a large say in the hiring of his GM, and didn’t put in a request to interview Patriots’ personnel exec Dave Zeigler.

The Browns also interviewed former Packers coach Mike McCarthy, Ravens OC Greg Roman, Bills OC Brian Daboll, Saleh, Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

The Browns will now try to bring former Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry back into the fold to achieve that elusive organizational alignment Jimmy Haslam is seeking.

The Browns have requested permission from the Eagles to interview Berry, their current VP of Football Operations, as Browns GM. Berry would pair well with Stefanski, whom he got to know during the Browns’ head coach search last year.

Berry and DePodesta favored Stefanski, but Dorsey opted for Kitchens, and it cost both of them their jobs after the 6-10 season. The analytics-heavy trio would give the Browns an All-Ivy League lineup, with two Harvard grads in DePodesta and Berry, and a Penn alum in Stefanski.

Berry, 32, is a GM candidate for at least one other NFL job, but loved his time in Cleveland under DePodesta, and is a long-time favorite of Haslam. The Browns have also requested permission to interview Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds, who would also pair well with Stefanski.

Stefanski “blew away’’ everyone on the search committee last season and only bolstered his resume this year running the offense full-time with the help of Super Bowl winning coach Gary Kubiak, who was hired as Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor to mentor Stefanski.

If Stefanski can pry Kubiak away from the Vikings as OC or senior offensive assistant, he’ll have one of the most accomplished offensive coaches in the NFL on his staff.

In his 14th season as a Vikings assistant — their longest-tenured coach — and first as their full-time offensive coordinator, Stefanski helped guide Minnesota to a 10-6 record and an upset of the Saints in the Wildcard round.

The Vikings finished 16th overall on offense this season, but sixth in rushing and eighth in points scored. Kirk Cousins finished fourth in the NFL with a 107.4 rating and fourth with a 69.1 completion percentage.

Stefanski, who was on Hue Jackson’s radar as Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2018 before he hired Todd Haley, also earned high praise from Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl with the Broncos and imparted all of his West Coast wisdom on the first-year coordinator this year.

Stefanski, 37, is a favorite of the analytics teams in part because of he’s smart enough to handle the Browns’ increased emphasis on data-driven coaching and personnel. A graduate of Penn, where he played defensive back, Stefanski is an Ivy-Leaguer like Harvard-educated DePodesta and some of the other Browns’ decision-makers. He’s also the son of longtime NBA executive Ed Stefanski, now with the Pistons.

Having grown up in professional sports, team-building is in his DNA. He possesses a CEO mindset, and has survived many Vikings regimes and some challenging coaching staffs. As an Eagles intern while in college, Stefanski caught the attention of then Eagles QB coach Brad Childress, the former Browns offensive coordinator.

“He impressed me with the way he carried himself during training camp,’’ Childress, now a senior offensive assistant for the Bears, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman in August. “I made that mental note that if I was to get a job, [and] he was graduating and that I would tap him to come and be my personal assistant because he was a captain at Penn.

“He’s a sharp guy, obviously. His dad and he have been involved in athletics his whole life. I thought you couldn’t find a better guy who is not going to be starry-eyed around athletes.”

Childress, who might also be an OC candidate for the Browns now, did just that in 2006 when he was hired as head coach of the Vikings, and by 2009, he trusted a 27-year-old Stefanski enough to promote him to assistant quarterbacks coach, where he worked with Hall of Famer Brett Favre.

The Vikings went 12-4 that year and lost in the NFC championship game to the Saints. But they ranked No. 2 with 29.4 points per game and finished No. 5 overall on offense.

Stefanski coached tight ends and running backs before moving up to quarterbacks in 2017-18, acquiring a global knowledge of the offense that’s attractive to the Browns. In 2017, the Vikings went 13-3, won the NFC North and lost in the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles.

The Vikings blocked him from going to the Giants as Pat Shurmur’s coordinator, and then he was passed over as Vikings coordinator in 2018 in favor of John DeFilippo, who was actually hired by GM Rick Spielman. But Stefanski never complained and instead coached Kirk Cousins to season-bests in completion percentage (70.1) and passing TDs (30). He also threw his fewest INTs (10) since becoming a full-time starter in 2015.

When DeFilippo was fired with three games left in the 2018 season, Stefanski was promoted to interim OC, and then to full-time OC this year when the Browns opted for Kitchens. The fact that Stefanski, along with Kubiak and Kubiak’s son Klint, the quarterbacks coach, guided Cousins to the best season of his career this season helped Stefanski’s cause.

“He’s been around sports all the time. He’s very smart. He’s an Ivy League guy, very hard worker,” Zimmer told reporters last month. “Then as his time has grown, I’ve given him different responsibilities, whether it would be the running backs or tight ends or quarterbacks, now offensive coordinator. I think he sees the game kind of how I see it. Then he’s done a nice job of mixing the calls in.”

Stefanski will be tasked with getting Baker Mayfield back on track after he tumbled to second-last in the NFL with a 78.8 rating and a 59.4 completion percentage. Stefanski is Mayfield’s fourth head coach heading into this third season. But Stefanski takes over an uber-talented roster featuring Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Defensively, he has Myles Garrett coming off suspension, Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and other young and promising players.

The Browns underachieved in 2019, and Stefanski must set about maximizing the talent on this roster.

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