The night of Feb. 6, the eve of Super Bowl LV, became another night of celebration for patient Cleveland Browns fans. Nights like these, though seldom in the past for Browns supporters, were quite the regularity during the most irregular 2020 season.
As most of the NFL world prepared for the historic matchup between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes the following day, a sliver of dedicated fans tuned into the NFL Honors show to reflect on this year’s unprecedented season and commend coaches and players for their effort.
Collecting about half the votes for the award, first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski won the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award. The honor marks only the second time in franchise history that a Browns coach has won the award — the first since 1976 when Forrest Gregg received the honor.
“I’m incredibly humbled, especially given some of the coaching we’ve witnessed this season around the NFL,” Stefanski said in a video at the awards show. “My name may be on this award, but I think this speaks to the amazing support I get day in and day out from my coaching staff with the Cleveland Browns. I’m very glad I don’t have to do this by myself.
Stefanski initially made a name for himself wearing the Red and Blue as a two-time All-Ivy recipient and a Defensive Rookie of the Year winner. After accumulating a 32-3 record in a Quaker uniform, Stefanski decided to return to Penn as a member of the coaching staff after graduating in 2004.
Following that year coaching the Quakers under coach Al Bagnoli, Stefanski leaped to a NFL coaching position with the Minnesota Vikings and never looked back. Stefanski’s dedication and prowess elevated him to the role of offensive coordinator in 2019, and then to head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2020.
In his first season as a head coach, Stefanski stepped into dire circumstances due to the pandemic. With teams relegated to offseason Zoom calls, Stefanski never saw the majority of his players perform in-person until the regular season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
Overcoming these challenges, Stefanski led his Browns to an 11-win season, the first Browns team with that win total since 1994. Down the stretch in the team’s final games, Stefanski’s group rewrote even more history. In a must-win game against the rival Steelers, the Browns eked out a 24-22 victory to secure the team’s first playoff berth in 18 years.
By next week, the No. 6 seeded Browns traveled to face the No. 3 seed Steelers on their home turf. The visiting and underdog Browns would need to snap a 17-game away streak at the venue to move on in the playoffs. To make matters worse, the team bus forgot Stefanski and a few others.
Stefanski’s first playoff game in his head coaching career was spent in a basement watching his team play virtually, as the coach tested positive for the COVID-19 earlier in the week and was unable to make the trip to Pittsburgh.
Nonetheless, the Browns soundly defeated the Steelers by a score 48-37 with a record-setting first quarter in scoring. Though they allowed a slight comeback later in the game, the Browns ultimately made key plays to secure their first postseason victory in 25 years.
In the divisional round, the Browns matched up against the now two-time reigning AFC champions Kansas City Chiefs. A concussion suffered by Mahomes created some daylight for the Browns, but Stefanski’s team was unable to capitalize late and fell short in a 22-17 contest.
Needless to say, Stefanski completely defied expectations this season. The first-year coach was able to transform the disappointing and disastrous reputation of the Cleveland Browns into a reputable organization with an even brighter future ahead of them.
Stefanski created an offense that highlighted quarterback Baker Mayfield’s strengths. Under Stefanski’s tutelage, Mayfield compiled his best season in the NFL, and the offense's rushing attack ranked third in rushing yards per game (148.4). The balanced attack flourished throughout the season, despite devastating setbacks like wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s season ending injury or star running back Nick Chubb’s missed games.
This season qualified for the Browns’ second-most points scored in franchise history (408). The offense was certainly able to move the ball with a variety of schemes and personnel, but more importantly, 73.6% of red zone drives resulted in touchdowns, the third-best mark in the NFL.
Though Stefanski deserves to be lauded for his team’s accomplishments this season, the real emphasis for the Browns is on the future. With a core of budding talent motivated by a postseason loss and fine second-year coaching at the helm, don’t be surprised if the Browns make noise once again in coming seasons.