For the second time in as many offseasons, the Cleveland Browns have hired an offensive coordinator without experience as a head coach to lead the talented-laden roster in to battle each Sunday.
Marked changes this time: Demeanor and accountability. The 2020 hiring, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, replaces Freddie Kitchen. Arguably the most important difference is found in how they present themselves as leaders. Kitchens talked a big game during the introductory press conference and seemed like he was from the mold of being the right blend between a player’s coach and team leader. By midseason, neither proved to be true.
Stefanski brings an even-keeled demeanor that commands respect. His actions have backed up this unspoken authority by finding ways to keep the mouthy Stefon Diggs content, feeding several targets, and making sure head coach Mike Zimmer’s preference for leaning on the ground game was successfully implemented.
How did Stefanski get to this point in such a short period of time, one may ask? Well, it wasn’t as brief as it may have seemed. He was lurking in the background of the Minnesota sidelines for years before being an inseason replacement for fired OC John DeFilippo in the 2018 season. The Vikings were calling pass plays at rate of nearly 2-to-1 over rushing the ball, and Zimmer wasn’t having it. After a late-season swing that made the Vikings see Stefanski could handle the task, the interim label was removed heading into the 2019 offseason. He would go on to establish one of the NFL’s most dominant rushing attacks with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, even seeing Mike Boone post studly numbers as an injury replacement in one contest.
Prior to his ascension, Stefanski coached pretty much everything for the Vikings. He began in 2006 as a 24-year-old assistant to head coach Brad Childress and served in this role through the 2008 season. Then he became the assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009, helping Brett Favre author one of his finest seasons as a pro. Stefanski would hold this title through 2013 after Childress was fired and replaced by Leslie Frazier in 2010. Zimmer came in prior to the 2014 season and moved Stefanski to tight ends coach for two years. In 2016, at 34, Stefanski would coach the running backs for one season and then become the full-blown quarterbacks coach in 2017.
During his full season calling plays, Stefanski’s Vikings ranked (1st being best):
- Overall: 16th in offensive yards and 8th in points scored per game
- Rushing: 4th in attempts, 6th in yards, 6th in TDs
- Passing: 30th in attempts, 23rd in yards, 14th in TDs, 5th in fewest interceptions
Stefanski, 37, offers a much different style of calling games. One could say that’s because he knows what he’s doing, but Kitchens flashed potential in the 2018 season as an interim playcaller, one may contest. The latter would get too enamored with the pass at times in 2019 and turn to the running game when it was too late. He would make head-scratching decisions, especially around the end zone, and even once admitted some of the situations were new to him. While that is true, who says that as a head coach?!? The responsibilities of calling plays and being the head coach proved to be too much for him.
Anyway, the point isn’t to pile on Kitchens. It’s to show Stefanski is poised to do something Kitchens likely never would have been able to accomplish: Turn around the culture of a losing tradition. That starts by implementing the right mentality — one of accountability, respect, and discipline — but it also comes with the mandate of winning. Without those W’s, the culture can quickly dissolve.
So how does Stefanski go about delivering wins? It will take a few things first that are out of his control. The primary factor is the offensive line must be bolstered. Far too often quarterback Baker Mayfield was running for his life or taken to the turf. Play designs can help, but substandard personnel can take a team only so far…
Another area is cutting down on mistakes, which is a group effort. This comes from having heady players, respected leaders, a consistent voice from the coaching staff, and a system that doesn’t beg for unforced errors. All of the fancy misdirections and so forth in other offenses comes at a price, which tends to be a greater frequency of mistakes.
Simplistically speaking, Stefanski’s system is rooted in the West Coast offense. He had a helping hand of epic proportions from the man who would replace him in Minnesota, Gary Kubiak. The offensive master served as an assistant to the offensive coaches in 2019 and assistant head coach. In short, his responsibility was to make Stefanski’s job easier … teach, but don’t get in the way. Few men on planet Earth know as much about a zone-blocking scheme as Kubiak, and Stefanski will bring this system with him to Cleveland. Speaking of tutelage, Bill Callahan is the new offensive line coach and is widely regarded among the best in the game at installing a zone system.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt is expected to be the offensive coordinator in name only. He will help with the game plans and preparation.
It requires athletic linemen who tend to be smaller and quicker than the norm. They move in a choreographed flow to create holes in the front seven for which the running back is responsible to attack, wherever said gaps may occur. Oftentimes, runners are forced to make split-second cutbacks and go against the grain of the defensive pursuit. It tends to produce chunk plays and has created some of the most successful fantasy football backfields of all time.
It also keeps Mayfield from tossing so many meatballs to the opposite team. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick set the rookie touchdown pass record with a fierce surge under Kitchens as his interim OC that year, but it all fell apart in 2019’s iteration. The TDs came way down, the INTs went way up, and Mayfield looked like he was trying to do too much too often. Expect that to be the primary focus of Stefanski. Keeping Mayfield playing within the system and relying on play-action passing to catch defenses off-guard. Low passing volume figures to be a staple of this offense. That’s not to say Mayfield cannot take advantage and play at a high level in fantasy, but he’ll need to be extremely efficient.
Obviously, such a shift in philosophy greatly caters to another strong year by running back Nick Chubb. It remains uncertain as to what the Browns will do with restricted free agent Kareem Hunt. He was recently involved in a traffic stop, and Cleveland has a new general manager heading into free agency. The former Kansas City Chief could receive an offer from another franchise that just isn’t worth matching on Cleveland’s end.
In free agency, Cleveland’s offense faces left tackle Greg Robinson, backup quarterback Drew Stanton and WR Rashard Higgins all set to become unrestricted in March. Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, will all but guaranteed be playing for his fifth team in 2020.
While Odell Beckham Jr. and tight end David Njoku aren’t free agents, both players are coming off of extremely disappointing seasons. Njoku was made inactive late in the year as a healthy scratch, and one reason cited was his struggle catching the ball. He never has been a natural receiver and has relied heavily on his athleticism. OBJ, however, catches everything under the sun but will be asked to spend an inordinate amount of time building chemistry with Mayfield this summer.
Jarvis Landry’s release would save more than $10 million against the salary cap. He produced like a weak WR1 last year, and Cleveland has plenty of cap space, so it’s unlikely he’s axed. Restructuring his deal is in play, though.
Fantasy football takeaway
We’ve established Mayfield will be asked to do less, and Chubb possibly tasked with more of a workload, mostly depending on what happens with Hunt. Mayfield should have a few huge games and disappear in others based on game plans and situation requirements — much like Kirk Cousins last year in Minnesota. Even though Mayfield is fully expected to rebound, don’t think he’s going to explode. This just isn’t the system for it.
Chubb remains an RB1 candidate in all formats, mostly because of his explosive nature. His body of work speaks for itself, and there is little chance he escapes the first five fantasy draft picks while playing in this system. Hunt would be a PPR No. 3 who can post quality RB2 numbers many weeks based on receiving work.
Beckham and Jarvis Landry should alternate fantasy roles this year and produce similarly to what the expectations were entering 2019. While the volume won’t be the same as he was used to in New York, Beckham’s game is built around getting down the field. He’s a low-tier No. 1, if for no reason than his otherworldly athletic traits. Landry was supposed to be his sidekick in 2019 and ended up leading the offense in catches, receiving yards and aerial scores. Flip that script in favor of OBJ in 2020, especially if the O-line improves.
Njoku may not even be the best tight end on this roster for fantasy purposes. The market has a few viable options, but he’s pretty well a lock to return with the entirety of his 2020 cap charge being guaranteed money. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he’s a fringe No. 1 tight end at a position that is rocky after the top names. In reality, Njoku is no more than a backup with perennial upside yet to materialize.