Like head coach, like team. Stefanski and the Browns battled hardships to make the playoffs.
Following a 24-22 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a “win and you’re in” playoff scenario, the Cleveland Browns clinched their first playoff berth in 18 years. In his first season with the organization, head coach Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to a 11-5 record and promptly ended his team’s claim to the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
This season also marked both the Browns' first winning season and first 10-win season since 2007 under head coach Romeo Crennel.
When the Cleveland Browns last made the playoffs in 2002, Stefanski was still building his legacy at Penn. Despite suffering several injuries during his Quaker career, Stefanski is remembered as an all-time great safety for the program.
Throughout his career, he accumulated two All-Ivy honorable mentions and a Defensive Rookie of the Year award to complement his 32-3 record wearing the Red and Blue.
Stefanski would return to be a part of the Penn coaching staff for one season after graduating in 2004 but quickly became a devoted member of the Minnesota Vikings. Beginning his career with the Vikings in 2006, Stefanski steadily ascended the ranks, eventually becoming the team’s offensive coordinator in 2019.
Concurrently, the Browns’ talented offensive lineup had high expectations to begin the 2019 season, but the team would ultimately finish with a disappointing 6-10 record under head coach Freddie Kitchens.
After his long stint with the Vikings, Stefanski was hired by the Browns to manage their high-powered offense in 2020. The Browns’ talent featured many stars such as running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Stefanski was keen on managing the flow of the game through a dominant and controlling run game. The Browns finished the season with the third-ranked rushing attack as Chubb and Hunt combined for over 1,700 rushing yards.
Stefanski was able to unlock the offense’s potential, despite facing tough challenges like Beckham Jr. 's season ending injury and multiple weeks without starter Nick Chubb.
Aside from some devastating injuries, the team continues to overcome obstacles related to COVID-19. Most recently, the Browns were without four starting wide receivers, resulting in a crucial loss to the New York Jets. Coming into a must-win Week 17, the Browns' practice facilities were closed numerous times.
"[We] batted adversity through the week," Stefanski said. "And through the game."
However, the Browns did catch a break in their final regular season match against a division rival. The Steelers rested several key players including starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as Pittsburgh already clinched the AFC North and a playoff berth the previous weekend.
Cleveland secured a sturdy 24-9 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph executed two late drives resulting in touchdowns to close the gap to just two points. With about a minute and a half remaining, the game was decided by a failed two-point conversion by the Steelers.
"I'm really just happy for our fans," Stefanski said. "They deserve this. And we're happy to deliver this to them."
Interestingly, the No. 6 seed Browns and No. 3 seed Steelers are set to face off yet again in the first round of playoffs. In their second matchup within a week, the division rivals will travel from Cleveland to Heinz Field.
In order to keep their season alive, the Browns hope to relinquish themselves of another remarkably bad record. The Browns will seek to snap their 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field, which is the third longest away losing streak in NFL history.
The Steelers are also responsible for both of the Browns’ last two playoff losses in the 2002 and 1994 playoffs.
Regardless of the outcome next week, Stefanski’s first season with the Browns illustrated his ability to be resilient, adapt to adversity, and lead a team through troubling and uncertain times. For a first-year head coach, Stefanski has handled the difficult circumstances with grace — not to mention his team’s impressive results.
Stefanski and the Browns organization alike certainly hope that this year’s playoff berth is the first of many to come in what may develop into a long-lasting relationship. But the Browns, for now, are onto Heinz Field to turn the tables on recent history once again.
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