“I hope that we take all of these experiences and these learnings,” Stefanski said this week, “and make us better for it. And I really say that going back all the way to the spring. Things have not been normal for us or any team out there or really, frankly, any person out there.”
No team overcame more to win a game in this coronavirus-affected NFL season than the Browns did against the Steelers. Stefanski watched the game from his basement while in isolation for 10 days after his positive test. Other coaches and key players also were absent. The Browns did not practice until Friday that week. They had a walk-through Saturday and then traveled to Pittsburgh.
“Especially in small doses, there’s a lot of ways to prepare to play an NFL football game and still be successful,” Browns center JC Tretter said. “There’s always that fine line coaches and staffs have to walk, figuring out the best balance between rest [for players] … and preparation. Our hand was kind of forced into a mini-bye week of sorts, an unscheduled mini-bye week. We were still able to meet, still able to do everything we needed to mentally to prepare for that game.”
Stefanski returned to the Browns’ team facility Thursday and was on the practice field with his team. Backup quarterback Case Keenum wasted no time welcoming him back with a prank.
“Case Keenum told me he hid something in my office, and he asked if I smelled it yet,” Stefanski said during a video conference call with reporters Thursday. “But I don’t, because I lost my sense of smell.”
Stefanski was a relatively little-known offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings when the Browns chose him just over a year ago to succeed Freddie Kitchens. The move seemed underwhelming at the time. Stefanski became the Browns’ ninth coach since 2008, following Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson, interim coach Gregg Williams and Kitchens. Chudzinski and Kitchens lasted one season. Mangini, Shurmur and Pettine lasted two. Jackson made it through 2½ seasons in which the Browns went 3-36-1, including an 0-16 record in 2017.
Stefanski inherited a team that had failed to fulfill higher expectations last season and hadn’t made the playoffs in 18 years. Then, as a first-time NFL head coach, he lost in-person offseason workouts and the entire preseason to the league’s new coronavirus reality. Coaching largely by Zoom commenced.
But the Browns have adjusted far better than most. Stefanski quickly won respect within the league, and Browns players are quick to offer praise.
“People don’t follow fake leaders,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “When you have a group of men that are doing this and everybody’s counting on you, you can sniff somebody that’s fake out extremely quickly. That’s not the case here.”
Stefanski participated in the Browns’ preparations remotely ahead of the game in Pittsburgh but was not permitted, under NFL rules, to be involved with the in-game coaching. He handed those duties to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and then settled into his basement, with plenty of nervous energy, to watch on TV. He turned off his phone during the game.
“I have a newfound respect for all of our fans and how they watch those games,” he said. “I like it better when I have some control.”
His feed of the game was behind that of the TV his family was watching upstairs, he said, so he knew a big play was coming in the opening moments when he “heard my kids going crazy.” That was when the Browns scored a touchdown 14 seconds in on an errant Steelers snap. That put the Browns en route to a 28-0 first-quarter advantage. Some anxious second-half moments dissipated, and Stefanski’s team secured a 48-37 triumph.
He turned his phone back on and received an immediate FaceTime call from wide receiver Jarvis Landry, and he was connected by video call to the Browns’ celebration in the postgame locker room.
“The way we play and the brand of football we play, we’ve shown [that] throughout this season regardless of the coach that’s out there, regardless of the player that’s out there,” Stefanski said. “That won’t change.”
Stefanski said he won’t miss his basement after feeling that “those walls were closing in on me.” The Browns have activated key players such as guard Joel Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson from their covid-19 reserve list, and offensive line coach Bill Callahan also returned from being absent because of the protocols.
Even the daunting task of facing quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champs does not seem insurmountable to the Browns at this point.
“We believe in ourselves,” Mayfield said, “and that’s why we’re here.”