CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Browns’ coach search came down to Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a league source told cleveland.com, and Stefanski’s track record with the Vikings quarterbacks was the deciding factor.
Stefanski, 37, also had a leg up on the other seven candidates as the favorite of Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, who wanted to hire him last year. But DePodesta and then-Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry, a candidate to return here as GM from the Eagles, were overruled by then-GM John Dorsey and Browns ownership.
On Sunday morning, the Browns made Stefanski, 37, their 18th full-time head coach and 10th in the new era, largely because of the amazing job he did with Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum in Minnesota. The Browns are confident that Stefanski will have the same impact on Baker Mayfield, who tumbled to second-last in the NFL with a 78.8 rating and 59.4 completion percentage in 2019.
In Stefanski’s first year as Minnesota’s full-time coordinator this year, Cousins went 10-6 and climbed to No. 4 in the NFL with a career-best 107.4 rating and No. 4 with a 69.1 completion percentage. He threw 26 touchdowns against only six interceptions.
Last season, Stefanski’s first with Cousins as quarterbacks coach and the interim coordinator the last three games, the QB had career bests in completion percentage (70.1%) and TDs (30), and threw the fewest INTs (10) since becoming a full-time starter in 2015. He also set the Vikings single-season record with 425 completions, tied the mark with 606 attempts, and had the second-best completion percentage (70.1), second-most passing yards (4,298) and fourth-highest passer rating (99.7).
Under Stefanski’s tutelage, Cousins became the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards with at least 30 passing TDs, 10 or fewer INTs and complete at least 70.0% of his passes in a season.
In 2017, Stefanski’s first year as QB coach, he guided Keenum to a 11-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship game after Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury. Keenum came in with a 9-15 record in 24 career starts, a 58.4% completion mark, a 78.4 passer rating and a TD-INT ratio of 24-20.
Under Stefanski, he improved to a 67.6% completion mark, a 98.3 passer rating and a TD-INT ratio of 22-7. He also recorded eight games with a 100-plus rating to tie for second-most in team history in a season and tied a team record with 10 games on the season without an INT.
Those are the kinds of numbers the Browns are looking for from Mayfield, and a major reason Stefanski won the job over Saleh, 40. The Browns loved Saleh’s leadership, his fiery nature, and his aggressive defense, which dominated Stefanski’s offense in Saturday’s 27-10 49ers victory in the NFC Divisional round. The 49ers held Minnesota to 147 yards overall, 21 rushing, seven first downs and a time of possession of 21:33. They also sacked Cousins six times.
But the Browns opted for the proven play caller in Stefanski — albeit he did it for only one full season — as opposed to the uncertainty on offense with Saleh, who was set to try to lure either 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur or 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniel to Cleveland. The Browns would’ve had to forgive McDaniel for bolting in 2014 with Shanahan when he orchestrated his way out of town.
The Browns hadn’t reached a decision by the start of the Vikings-49ers game on Saturday, and the woeful offensive performance didn’t hurt Stefanski, whom they view as the CEO coach they’re seeking.
He’ll also be perfectly aligned with DePodesta and Berry, if the Browns can hire him away from the Eagles, where he’s VP of Football Operations. A source said Berry might also be a GM candidate in Carolina.
What about Josh McDaniels?
In the end, McDaniels wasn’t going to have as much say in hiring the GM as he thought he would. The Browns’ two known GM interview requests, Berry and Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds, have no ties to McDaniels, and Dodds was on the Colts’ staff in 2018 when McDaniels left them at the altar.
It was the second time the Browns passed on the Canton, Ohio, native in the past decade. In 2009, Randy Lerner hired Eric Mangini instead of him; and in 2014, McDaniels took his name out of the running for the Browns job to remain with the Patriots.
McDaniels interviewed for seven hours on Friday, but Stefanski and Saleh were ranked higher in the end.
Vikings’ George Paton and Berry two of the Browns’ top GMs candidates
The Browns are expected to put in a request soon to interview Vikings assistant GM George Paton, who’s been with Stefanski for most of his 14-year career in Minnesota. Paton completed his 13th season with the Vikings, working side-by-side with GM Rick Spielman to build playoff teams six times since 2008. Paton would have final say over roster decisions in Cleveland, Jimmy Haslam said in his season-ending press conference.
Before Minnesota, Paton spent six seasons as the Dolphins’ Director of Pro Personnel. He began his NFL career with the Bears, finishing as assistant director of pro personnel.
The Browns have already put in a request with the Eagles to interview Berry, who’s a favorite of Haslam and DePodesta. Berry worked closely with DePodesta in his three seasons here as VP of Player personnel here from 2016-18, and Haslam never wanted Berry to leave. He did so to gain more hands-on experience with Dorsey running the show in Cleveland and bringing assistant GM Eliot Wolf and VP of Player Personnel Alonzo Highsmith on board.
Highsmith is expected to leave, and it remains to be seen if Wolf will remain with the organization.
Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to stay
Priefer, who spent eight seasons as the Vikings special teams coordinator while Stefanski, will remain in Cleveland in that capacity after significantly improving the Browns’ special teams in his first season here, a source said.
Steve Wilks was set to be Stefanski’s hire last year
Wilks was set to be Stefanski’s defensive coordinator if he got the Browns job last year, a league source said. He deserves consideration again this year given all the injuries and adversity on his defense in 2019. Wilks was without his two starting cornerbacks for four games early on, and then lost Myles Garrett to a suspension for the final six games of the season. He was also without starting defensive end Olivier Vernon (knee) the second half of the season and fielded newly acquired linemen down the stretch.
Wilks’ defense finished seventh against the pass despite all the injuries, and 22nd overall.
Browns offensive coordinator Todd Monken, never given a chance to call plays by Freddie Kitchens, is not expected to remain with the Browns.
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