CLEVELAND, Ohio — Kevin Stefanski’s first job as a head coach in the NFL has coincided with the one of the most tumultuous periods in our nation’s history, but the 38-year-old seems to be handling it with aplomb.
First, Covid-19 hit and forced him to begin his career as Browns coach on a virtual basis, installing schemes and helping to conduct free agency and the draft on Zoom meetings while players, staffers and family members worried about contracting the virus.
Now, he’s tasked with guiding his players through all the racial strife and rioting in the streets in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who’s been charged with second-degree murder.
In the same week that Stefanski donned a mask and returned to the Browns facility in Berea for the first time since March, most of his players were hurting deeply and speaking out against racism, police brutality and social injustice.
But those who know Stefanski well, including his mentor and former Vikings head coach Brad Childress, predicted when he first took the job that not much will rattle the young, rookie coach.
“Having been around him his whole life, there’s not a whole lot that flummoxes him,’’ Childress told cleveland.com. “He can roll with the punches and he’s smart enough to absorb and take in the good and spit out the bad and say ‘okay here we go, we’re going forward.' I think he’ll be matter-of-fact. He won’t be domineering but he’ll be demanding of what those guys do.’’
This week, Browns guard Joel Bitonio revealed that Stefanski addressed the players in a team meeting about the social injustice and gave them a list of things they could do to make a difference, including voting at the local and national levels. When his players reconvene for training camp, he will guide the team through the peaceful protests that Roger Goodell vowed Friday the NFL won’t try to silence.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt also pulled back the curtain a little on how Stefanski has tried to foster camaraderie, virtual-style. He told how the coach has issued a slam dunk challenge and a movie poster challenge.
The current adversity is far more than most first-time head coaches in the NFL have ever had to deal with, but so far, Stefanski has handled it well.
Here are some other takeaways from the week:
1. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Myles Garrett have effected change
Many Browns players have spoken out against racism and already taken action, including Beckham and Landry appearing in a video with other NFL stars demanding that the league listen to its players and admit it was wrong in silencing their peaceful protests. The powerful video, featuring stars such as Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley and Michael Thomas, prompted Goodell to respond to each one of the players’ demands and promise reform.
Garrett offered to ‘take care of anything’ for the family of slain Louisville chef David McAtee and slain retired police captain David Dorn, who was killed while attempting to stop a robbery in St. Louis.
Racial equality and an end to police brutality will be reigning themes throughout the NFL season, and many of the Browns players will be at the forefront. This time around, they'll have the full support of the NFL.
2. Jadeveon Clowney still available
The Browns offered Clowney about $12 million a year, according to Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports, and if that’s the case, it underscores why he hasn’t signed here yet. Clowney is reportedly seeking about $17 million, and the Browns aren’t prepared to pay that much.
The Titans and Seahawks have also remained in the mix, and Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan lobbied hard for Clowney on Saturday on Twitter. Lewan, the former Wolverine who played against Clowney in the 2013 Outback Bowl, tweeted, “Hey @clownejd (four eye emojis) we could be teammates now @Titans.’’
In Tennessee, Clowney would be reunited with his former Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who helped coach him to Pro Bowl seasons in 2016 and 2017.
The Titans, who walloped the Browns 43-13 in the 2019 opener and host them Dec. 6, have about $19.367 million in cap space while the Browns have a league-most $37.27 million. The Seahawks, whom Clowney played for in 2019, have about $13.957 million.
But it's not over for the Browns until he signs elsewhere.
3. Baker Mayfield continues to show good leadership
Van Pelt revealed that Mayfield is voluntarily jumping into Zoom meetings for the Browns’ other position groups such as wide receivers and running backs, which shows great initiative and leadership on his part this offseason. Mayfield mentioned in his own Zoom interview last week that he was enjoying learning from receivers coach Chad O’Shea.
The meeting-crashing means Mayfield understands this year what it takes to be great in the NFL and is putting in the extra time. He also hosted the throwing session in his hometown of Austin, Texas, and is working hard on his new West Coast footwork as instructed by Van Pelt. On top of it all, he’s doing it while “moving in silence,’’ which is exactly how the coaches want it.
4. Beckham too
Van Pelt raved about Beckham’s enthusiasm and full participation in the Virtual Offseason program, which is a dramatic departure from last year, when he skipped most of the program. Van Pelt noted that Beckham is ‘all in’ and that he’s ‘bought in.’ Van Pelt also described him as smart, hard working and a pleasure to coach. At this time last year, Beckham was wrestling with the trade and struggling to adjust to his new life. If he’s happier this year, it should translate to a better season.
5. Playcalling is still up in the air
In normal times, Stefanski would already have a preliminary feel for Van Pelt’s playcalling ability in the offseason program. But it appears he’ll have to wait until the preseason games for the evaluation to begin. With the Virtual Period of the offseason program being extended until mid-June and the program itself ending June 26th, the players probably won’t practice until training camp in late July or whenever it begins. The plan was always for Van Pelt to call the preseason games to see how it goes, and that hasn’t changed. The good thing is that Stefanski will willingly give it up if Van Pelt is the best man for the job.
New Browns face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Browns-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection for adults and youth, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NFL proceeds donated to CDC Foundation.
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