Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus on Thursday, June 15, listed Stefanski’s seat as the hottest in the NFL heading into the 2023 campaign.
“It’s not necessarily his fault, but the Browns have heaped a whole lot of pressure on themselves with their moves over the last couple of seasons, and Stefanski will likely be the first sacrificial lamb if none of it works out,” Monson wrote.
The key to both the Browns’ success and Stefanski’s job security will be the play of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has four seasons remaining on a five-year, $230 million contract that management fully guaranteed last offseason.
“Deshaun Watson played his first games for the team last season and was disastrous, earning a 55.3 overall PFF grade, marginally worse than Desmond Ridder’s and Sam Ehlinger’s scores,” Monson continued. “Watson may have thrown seven touchdowns to five interceptions but recorded just three big-time throws to nine turnover-worthy plays. Cleveland did major work this offseason to improve the defense and continues to add weaponry on offense, but if Watson doesn’t bounce back in a significant way and the Browns [don’t] challenge for the division, it’s tough to see Stefanski making it to the 2024 season.”
Browns Have Regressed Since Making Playoffs During Kevin Stefanski’s First Year as Head Coach
Stefanski opened his career in Cleveland with a bang but has regressed every year since.
The Browns finished the 2020 campaign with an 11-5 record, earning a berth in the postseason and the franchise’s first playoff win since 1994. That the victory was a 48-point showing on the road over the AFC North Division rival Pittsburgh Steelers was merely icing on the cake. Cleveland was competitive in the divisional round of the playoffs the following week, falling to the eventual AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs by just five points.
Since then, however, the Browns have produced 8-9 and 7-10 seasons, respectively. The franchise took a monster swing and a monster risk adding Watson last year while the QB was still mired in civil and legal issues stemming from dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct.
The public relations hit the Browns suffered after making the deal was even greater than the hit on the field, where Jacoby Brissett filled in for Watson through the first 11 games. Watson returned for the final six contests, completing just over 58% of his passes for 1,102 yards and seven touchdowns compared to five interceptions, per Pro Football Reference.
Browns’ Spending Spree on Top-Level Talent Adds to Pressure on Kevin Stefanski This Season
The heat the franchise took for inking Watson and subsequently failing to adequately replace him after the NFL suspended the quarterback fell on the shoulders of both Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, as well as team ownership.
However, after a spending spree that has included the acquisitions of wide receiver Amari Cooper last offseason as well as edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and wide receiver Elijah Moore this offseason, there will be nowhere for Stefanski to hide if the team underachieves.
Moore struggles through locker room issues with the New York Jets over his first two years in the NFL, while Smith is on the wrong side of 30 and slowed down significantly during the second half of a Pro-Bowl campaign with the Minnesota Vikings last season. That said, it’s hard to argue that Berry hasn’t built one of the more talented rosters in a stacked AFC.
Watson returning to the Pro-Bowl form that defined his career from 2018-20 is still the most crucial element to the Browns’ success this season and beyond. But Cleveland hired Stefanski due to his offensive acumen after a one-year stint as the Vikings offensive coordinator in 2019 that followed two years as that franchise’s quarterbacks coach.
If Stefanski can’t coax Watson’s best version out of the QB this season, then perhaps it is time the Browns start searching for someone who can.