Kevin Stefanski is Going to Win Coach of the Year, but He Deserves Plenty of Criticism For His Decisions Yesterday
Kevin Stefanski is going to win AP Coach of the Year during NFL Honors on February 6th; it's a lock. Personally, I think there's a strong arguments for both Ron Rivera and Brian Flores, but when you lead the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff berth in 18 years and best record in over 25 years (1994) it's your award to lose.
The Browns were actually outscored by 11 points over the course of the regular season, but were still able to win 11 games; "advanced" numbers would say they're closer to a 7 or 8 win team.
You could point to two 30+ point losses that skewed their point differential, but conjecture would say winning 11 games when you're outscored over the course of the regular season probably means coaches were getting the most out of their players (aka coaching well). As a rookie head coach, Stefanski helped improve the Browns' offense from 22nd in the NFL in 2019 to 14th in 2020; scoring 4.6 more PPG despite losing Odell Beckham Jr after week 7. Advanced numbers said the Browns offense was even better than purely 14th in points scored; according to Football Outsiders, the Browns had the eighth-best offense in the league per DVOA, with the 10th-best passing offense and the ninth-best rushing attack. (h/t forbes)
I'm not saying that Stefanski isn't a good coach or that he's undeserving of a meaningless award given to teams that outperform expectations instead of rewarding brilliant coaching/innovations to the game (the last coach to win Coach of the Year and the Super Bowl in the same season was Bill Belichick in 2003).
What I am saying is the Browns did win a playoff game last weekend without Stefanski due to COVID protocols and that you can't coach scared against the Kansas City Chiefs. As the old football proverb says "You can't coach to not lose" when you're facing a team who's clearly more talented/explosive than you; in a hostile-ish environment. You cannot afford to drop the ball from a coaching standpoint. You need to take some chances and do everything in your power to win. I don't think Stefanski did that yesterday.
The first questionable decision Stefanski made was deferring on the opening kickoff. Normally I'm a big fan of deferring until the second half, but against the high flying Kansas City Chiefs, when you're sporting the 21st best defense in terms of points allowed and have arguably the best backfield in the NFL, this is where you take a page out of the 2018 Patriots playbook from the AFCCG; take the ball and try dictate the game to be played on your terms.
Instead, the Chiefs promptly drove their way into the endzone for a 6-0 lead, thanks Harrison Butker missing yet another extra point (his 7th of the season).
Of all the decisions Stefanski made that I think ultimately lead to the Browns losing the game, I'm willing to overlook this one the most; there was still an entire game to be played. I think it was a mistake, but I can also see the POV of trying to get the ball to start the second half. Of course it's easy to critic with hindsight, but regardless what happened, giving Patrick Mahomes the ball first is not playing to your strengths.
What I think really cost the Browns, or in a better sense was just a horrible coaching decision, was opting to kick the extra point down 16 points in the 3rd quarter.
After being on the wrong side of two questionable rules on the same play late the 1st half...
...the Browns actually caught a huge break that kept them in the game early in the 3rd quarter.
On their opening drive, Baker threw an interception, setting the Chiefs up with fantastic field position on the Cleveland 19 yard line, but K.C. quickly went three and out and Butker missed yet another kick; keeping the lead at 16 (still a two score game).
With less than a minute off the clock, the Browns then went on a 8 play, 77 yard touchdown drive that cut the Chiefs lead to 10. It was 19-9 with 9:29 left in the third quarter. Instead of attempting a two point conversion that would've made it a one score game if they converted, the Browns opted to kick the extra point; keeping it a two score game and not really putting them in a better spot. With a subpar kicker it made even less sense. There's not much of difference between being 9 or 10 points, but a monumental difference between 8 and 9. I could not believe the decision.
The Browns scored this touchdown on only their 5th drive of the game, but it was already over five minutes into the 3rd quarter. There was only 24:29 left to play in the game and they were still down two scores.
At this point, the Chiefs either scored a touchdown or attempted a field goal every time they had the ball. The Browns couldn't stop them. The Chiefs never punted. You had to find a way to steal possessions and this was your chance. You cannot afford to put yourself in a situation where you need to stop the Chiefs from scoring an extra time.
Kansas City kicked a field goal on their next drive, which extended their lead to 12 (22-10) and forced the Browns to eliminate field goals from their game plan. Had Patrick Mahomes not gotten hurt on this drive and the Chiefs scored a touchdown, they likely would've gone for two to potentially make it a three score game since the Browns lack of situational awareness set them up to do so. Even though the Browns ultimately lost by 5, this decision was simply the wrong one to make. I don't care if data backs it up or not, against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs you have to try to make it a one score game when given the opportunity. If I was on the team I would've been furious.
Despite the decision to kick the PAT, the Browns were very much alive after Chad Henne gifted them one of the worst interceptions I've ever seen.
The Browns had the ball on the K.C. 25 yard line, down 5 points, with exactly 8 minutes to play. On that drive the Browns were able to gain one first down, burn a timeout after already losing one on an awful challenge on a clear catch (after missing a challenge opportunity on a Byron Pringle "catch" that was a clear drop on the Chiefs' 2nd touchdown drive) AND waste nearly four minutes of valuable time before punting the ball back to the Chiefs with only one timeout left in their pocket.
I can almost understand the logic in punting because it's 4th and 9 and your opponent is playing their back-up QB, but that shouldn't be what matters. You need to understand the situation in the game; extend the game as long as you can. You have to let your offense try to pick that up and keep the drive alive.
With only one timeout and the 2:00 warning left to stop the clock, the Browns could realistically only afford to give up one first down. They really needed to force a three and out (something they only did only all game when the Chiefs got the ball in the redzone). Sure they had the Chiefs in a 3rd and long situation, but the Browns poor defense couldn't even contain Chad "I played at Michigan during the first Bush Administration" Henne.
Even if the Browns went for it on 4th and 9 and failed they still were very much alive. They could've given up a field goal and still only been down 8 points. Even if you give up the touchdown, you at least have a heartbeart down 12 with threeish minutes left as opposed to never getting the ball back, which is exactly what happened after the Browns punted.
I know it's a long conversion, but scared money don't make no money. Your best chance was Baker making a play instead of hoping your defense that was missing Myles Garrett for most of the 2nd half was going you the ball back again. Even with Chad Henne, the Chiefs still have unreal weapons.
Yes, I'm a little bitter because I was on the Browns ML like I said I'd be and then doubled down +1100 when Butker missed a 33 yard field goal, but I really feel bad for the people of Cleveland.
This was a winnable game. Kansas City let them hang around, but the Browns decisions making did them no favors. Stefanski may be Coach of the Year, but his decision making played just a big a role in the Browns loss as their poor tackling and lack of covering Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and those are the losses that hurt much more than the blowouts. Better luck next year Browns, I'm sure you'll be right back in this spot again!