After leading Cleveland to its first playoff win in 25 years, Kevin Stefanski’s first season as Browns head coach has culminated with him winning the 2020 AP NFL Coach of the Year award, as announced during NFL Honors on Saturday night.
In a year in which all NFL teams dealt with adversity due to COVID-19 — which brought with it a hamstrung offseason and zero preseason games — Stefanski overcame a dire situation for any rookie coach and managed to influence a much-needed sense of continuity for a Browns team that would be well-prepared for the adverse path ahead.
Stefanski’s Browns earned their first 11-win season since 1994, which marked the last time the Browns won a playoff game.
As the leading mind of Cleveland’s offense, Stefanski brought forth a system that played to its strengths and created an ideal situation for Baker Mayfield, who showed unmistakable growth in what was a crucial season for the third-year quarterback. By virtue of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and a first-class collection of offensive linemen, the Browns found their identity as a physical, ground-and-pound football team that could not only control a game on its own merit, but sought big play opportunities and could put up points when needed. The 2020 Browns ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards (148.4 yards per game), scored the second-most points in franchise history (408), and had the league’s third-best red zone offense with touchdowns on 73.6% of their trips.
The Browns did all this while weathering a storm of several key injuries, including star wideout Odell Beckham’s season-ending ACL tear, Chubb’s four-game absence and a multitude of hits to the offensive line and secondary which constantly forced the team to recalibrate and adjust. The Browns never wavered under Stefanski, producing two four-game win streaks and winning every game that came after each of their five defeats, including a must-win game in Week 17 to clinch a playoff berth.
Earning a No. 6 seed into the playoffs, the Browns went on the road to face their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and dealt with perhaps the most adverse situation for a team — the absence of Stefanski. The Browns coach was forced to stay at home for the Browns’ first playoff game in 18 years after testing positive for COVID-19, but a groomed Cleveland team went on to shock the No. 3-seeded Steelers with a 48-37 win on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Stefanski returned to the sidelines in the Divisional Round, where the Browns fell short against the soon-to-be AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Browns didn’t go out without a fight, however, and left the city of Cleveland with a positive outlook on its future, which may prompt the extinguishing of its tormented past.
Stefanski’s quick turnaround in Cleveland came after a tumultuous year where the Browns experienced their second coaching change in as many seasons. Stefanski, 38, is just the second Browns coach to ever win the Coach of the Year award since it was introduced in 1957, joining Forrest Gregg, who earned the title after the 1976 season.
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