CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Three words that have haunted Browns fans for decades.
This past season they haunted Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski.
“Ultimately, we just didn't take advantage of some opportunities,” Stefanski said Friday morning in studio with Ken Carman and Anthony Lima on 92.3 The Fan. “That was the frustrating part for me, I’m sure for everybody is some games and plays that were there that you didn't make. And when you look back and you look at that jumbled group of teams that went from seven to 10 wins, the separation among those teams is so small. And that's the tough part for me. Looking back at where you had opportunities to maybe close out a game with a win.”
Listen to the complete interview in the podcast above.
Four of the Browns first five losses this season were by three or fewer points, including a backbreaking 31-30 Week 2 loss to the Jets that saw the Browns blow a 30-17 lead with 1:50 to play.
It made the Mt. Rushmore of Browns losses since 1999 and contributed to a 2-5 start to the season that the team couldn’t fully recover from.
In front of the cameras and microphones Stefanski is stoic – win or lose. He doesn't react like fans do after games but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care.
“The soundtrack to my childhood was 610 WIP Sports Radio in Philadelphia,” Stefanski said. “So I get it completely. I’ve been a fan. I know what it feels like to be in the stadium in those games. I know what it feels like to be watching it on TV. So our fans, I love their passion and I get to see them around town. They want a winner badly, and I think so do we. So I get the frustrations when you don't win. That’s football. I get that completely.”
Unlike fans, Stefanski isn’t afforded the luxury of emotional reactions.
“You're making decisions literally every 30 seconds sometimes,” Stefanski said. “What are we going to do on defense? What are we going to do on special teams? It’s a every minute making decision. That’s really the main reason why I try to keep my senses about me.
“Now I’ve been around a lot of coaches, and I know that's not how everybody does it…I just think in order to make sound decisions, you have to be right of mind.”
Stefanski’s calm demeanor might drive fans nuts, but he explained to Carman and Lima that it’s essential for him during games, or at practice, or while grading tape or game planning or handling internal problems.
“The Philly comes out in me every once in a while. It does,” Stefanski said. “You don’t see it on game day most, well, you might see it if I’m talking to officials, but mostly because I want our team to play with composure and I think when you lose your mind, you lose your ability to think. You lose your ability to make smart decisions, both as a player and a coach. So certainly in the moment in games, I try to keep my composure, but yeah, there's times around work and around the facility that things can set you off.”
This past season there were plenty of moments that could have set Stefanski off from losses to disciplining players for breaking team rules. Team captain and Pro Bowler Myles Garrett was sat for the opening series against New Orleans. Jadeveon Clowney was left home for the season finale.
“I’m very, very transparent with our guys,” Stefanski said. “I tell them we’re going to hold them accountable, I’m clear. We don't have a court system where you can go in and appeal and waste time talking about, all right, well here's my version of the story. You just try to be fair guys, and I think the guys respect that.
“You’re going to have different issues that come up. When you’re not winning, it becomes magnified. When you’re winning, it’s deodorant…You’re going to deal with stuff. You put 53 guys in there, you’re going to have some stuff going on. So that's going to be, I'm sure next year, there's things that you can’t predict. It's just how you navigate that as a team is what matters the most.”
Leadership within the locker room under Stefanski became a hot button this season.
Stefanski employs a leadership council comprised of team captains and players from offense, defense and special teams to address problems behind closed doors but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to work this season.
“I think everybody kind of closes their eyes and pictures that one fiery leader that not every team has it,” Stefanski said. “That's very rare. Some guys lead by example. You have Nick Chubb. I mean, Nick’s a leader by example. He’ll speak up when he needs to, but I just encourage guys to be the best versions of themselves and being the best leaders of themselves. And as much as leadership is important, followership is important.
“You need guys to get in line and when there's a leader on your football team stepping up and making a point, you need guys to follow, and I think we certainly have a lot of guys in that locker room that understand that.”
Deshaun Watson hung over the team from the moment the Browns sent six picks to the Texans and gave him $230 million fully guaranteed. Over two dozen lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by Watson while a member of the Texans and the disciplinary process that resulted in an 11-game suspension hovered like a black cloud.
“I've been very, very respectful of everybody's opinion and I completely understand people have different thoughts,” Stefanski said. “I can just tell you being around Deshaun, for as much as I've been around him, he's a good person, good teammate, works really hard at his craft.”
With Jacoby Brissett filling in, the Browns won just four of those 11 games, but Brissett played well and was not to blame. The veteran completed 64% of his passes and threw for 2,608 yards with 12 touchdowns, six interceptions and a rating of 88.9.
After sitting 700 days between starts, Watson returned in Week 13 and went 3-3 in his six starts where he completed 58.2% of his passes for 1,102 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions and a rating of 79.1.
“There's guys that come in, do [to] an injury, certain things, you do change quarterbacks midstream at times,” Stefanski said. “To miss the amount of time, yeah there were things that Deshaun was working through. I get to see him every day in practice. I get to see him play. I'm very, very optimistic about Deshaun and how he's going to perform. And again, I can say that because I've seen it with my own eyes.”
Following a disappointing 7-10 season, Stefanski fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods. The defense struggled to stop the run and suffered from communication breakdowns that led to big plays.
“It’s not easy because you have relationships with people, families, those type of things, so that that's not easy,” Stefanski said. “You just try to make the best decisions for the organization. You're really do, but I don't want to take anything away from the personal aspect of that.”
This week Stefanski introduced Jim Schwartz to replace Woods, the result of a collaborative process within the organization. The search lasted eight days.
“I was really pleased with how we identified those candidates and were able to get Jim and I think it doesn't have to happen in a week, but I think there was an advantage to getting this done,” Stefanski said. “As you see around the league, [you] don’t want to be competing with everybody else for these jobs.”
With Schwartz on board, now the offseason work with executive vice president of football operations and general manager Andrew Berry to retool the roster begins.
“I know we see it very clearly. I know our building sees it very clearly, what we need and things that we need, or we want to address in this offseason,” Stefanski said. “So Andrew and his crew, they'll put together a plan to address the things that we feel like we need and then we'll see how it shakes out with free agency with the draft.
“There's so many unknowns – who's available, who you can get those type of things. But I know we what we need. We're very clear with that.”
Stefanski also explained that conversation didn’t just begin on January 10.
“It’s just a very, very honest conversation, but it's not like you wait till the season ends to talk about this,” Stefanski said. “These are conversations that are happening throughout the season and there's things that you can do in season to try to fix. And then there's things that you really just [have] to wait until after the season.”