CLEVELAND — Jimmy Haslam’s tenure as owner of the Cleveland Browns is nearing 10 years of time, a span that has seen the dismissal of five full-time head coaches and hiring of five replacements.
Kevin Stefanski was the latest hire, introduced Tuesday by the organization as the leader the franchise desired in its latest search. That process included Haslam and his search committee reviewing references, background and career path as well as a face-to-face interview.
Stefanski’s face was a familiar one, as he was the only repeat candidate from last year’s coaching search that ultimately produced the hiring of Freddie Kitchens. That might have played into Stefanski’s favor, as did an additional year spent with the Vikings.
“We got to know him really well and when we sat down with him again on Thursday night, we spent four or five hours together,” Haslam said of Stefanski. “Couple that with his references … just we were really comfortable with him. We had some outstanding people we had the opportunity to spend time with, but it felt right with Kevin. We’re very excited.”
Stefanski’s 2019 season was an opportunity for growth as a play-caller, and as a coach in general. Haslam was encouraged by this in their search, and by the sparkling review provided by veteran coach Gary Kubiak, who worked in tandem with Stefanski in reshaping the Vikings offense into one capable of winning 10 games.
Such results should bode well for a talented Browns offense that never found its way out of second gear in 2019. But there was more to this hire than just finding an offensive guru; after all, the Browns interviewed multiple candidates with defensive backgrounds, too. This was about establishing organizational continuity.
The Browns are an organization that has been rife with internal discontent, if not outright power struggles. Last year’s coaching search alone reportedly pitted former GM John Dorsey against chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta in who they wanted: Kitchens or Stefanski.
We know who won out and we know how that turned out. Haslam and DePodesta are aiming to ensure that won’t happen again.
“I will say going forward, we need that shared vision,” DePodesta said Tuesday. “We absolutely need it. I think it’s critical for our not only short-term but even our long-term success. I’m excited about getting a new GM in here to work with him, to work with Kevin and really all of our football personnel to create that vision of what’s going to make the Cleveland Browns a winner and then go make it happen.”
It begins with an established identity. DePodesta spoke Tuesday of the Patriot Way, and in past decades, the Dodger Way as examples of what the Browns need in their organization as a baseline that guides every decision made. While determining and establishing such an identity, the Browns also need leadership beyond DePodesta and the Haslams to maintain and further such an identity. Haslam might be out on the practice field during training camp, but he’s not in the film room, inside the huddle or on the headset. That’s where Stefanski comes in.
“It really is about leadership, I think, more than anything else,” DePodesta said when asked why Stefanski was the choice. “Now, leadership has a lot of different components. What kind of communicator is somebody? How collaborative is he? How natural or authentic is he? I think all of those things are important but they all really point toward leadership and that’s ultimately what we were looking for first and foremost in this process.”
Leadership can be interpreted in a number of ways. The type of leader the Browns wanted was one who earned the respect of his players and fellow coaches, but wasn’t a tyrant. They want one who will make confident decisions, but not one who is unwilling to listen to those surrounding him.
They feel they’ve found that in Stefanski.
“I think you all got a feel for the person today,” Haslam said of the new head coach. “He’s really bright … has almost no ego and I think his answer on calling plays is all you need to know, right? His answer was ‘whatever’s best for the Cleveland Browns. If I happen to be the best playcaller, I’ll do it, and if there’s somebody better, then I’ll let them do it.’ I think that typifies his mindset in terms of working together and I think you’ll see that in personnel.”
The latest front office switch-up has removed the football guys in favor of the analytics era in what appears to be an about-face on the surface. After all, departed GM Sashi Brown was supposedly the face of the numbers-driven thinkers in Berea, and he’s been gone for over two years.
As such, there were plenty of analytics questions asked Tuesday. DePodesta finally made an effort to set the record straight on the definition of the term, which Stefanski even called a “buzzword.”
“I think people have a really warped view of maybe what analytics is,” DePodesta said. “I think I maybe have a very different conception from what everybody else has. When I think of analytics, I just think of frameworks to make decisions under uncertainty. Everything we do in these jobs is built around uncertainty. What players we’re going to take in the draft, what we’re going to call on third-and-8, it’s all about uncertainty, right? So what frameworks can you create that at least maybe stack the odds in your favor, give you a better chance of being successful?
“It’s not necessarily about numbers and spreadsheets. For us, in terms of what the analytics said about Kevin Stefanski, my answer would be this is what our references said. This is the personality testing that we did. This is what the interview process was. Those aren’t numbers or spreadsheets or anything like that, but it is the framework that we used to try to come up with the best candidate and ultimately Kevin checked all the boxes.”
The most important boxes to fill will come on the schedule in September 2020 and beyond. We’ll find out soon enough if Stefanski can check those, too — with W’s.