For four quarters, this was the eye-popping Odell Beckham Jr. the Browns thought they traded for in March 2019.
For three quarters, this was the on-target throwing Baker Mayfield the Browns had been waiting to see since the second half of his rookie season.
For most of the day, this was the perfect marriage of a creative ball-control offense and an opportunistic defense that for decades seemed like a pipe dream in Cleveland.
There was no better time for the Browns to find themselves than Sunday in a 49-38 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium.
It would have been more of a statement if the Browns hadn’t allowed the Cowboys to cut into their 41-14 fourth-quarter lead. The Browns were in control for all but an alarming 8:45 in the final quarter when the Cowboys scored 24 points. The Browns needed a 50-yard touchdown run by Beckham and a Denzel Ward interception with 1:36 remaining to hang on.
But coming in over .500 for the first time since Week 14 of the 2014 season, the Browns were playing for respect, for legitimacy, for the share of the spotlight they believe they deserve. They left 3-1, a start not seen since 2001.
And after years of searching for their quarterback of the future, the Browns front office may have learned what was just as important — finding their coach of the future.
FOX Sports play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt and analyst Daryl Johnston obviously weren’t that familiar with the Browns, with two references to “Kevin Stefanik” in the first half. (There was also one “Joel Bitoni” mention and a couple of Cowboys receiver “Amari Coomer.”)
But after the performance that coach Kevin Stefanski coaxed out of the underdog Browns and the gutsy play calls Stefanski made, chances are Burkhardt and Johnston won’t misspeak his name again.
The Browns passed over Stefanski and hired Freddie Kitchens in 2019, which is looking like a bigger blunder by the day as owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam took the advice of then-general manager John Dorsey. Kitchens and Dorsey were fired after last season, Kitchens becoming the Browns’ second one-and-done coach in the expansion era.
In January, Stefanski became the Browns’ sixth full-time head coach since the Haslams took over in 2012. Although fans have seen promising seasons collapse before, it appears that Stefanski may halt the endless parade of Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinksi, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson and Kitchens.
Continuity, is that you?
When Stefanski announced he would call the plays after 14 years as an assistant in Minnesota, observers questioned whether he was taking on too much. But Penn grad Stefanski was smart enough to put together a strong coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, defensive coordinator Joe Woods and respected offensive line coach Bill Callahan. In the dark days since 1999, the assistant coaches have been as overmatched as the men chosen to lead them.
“The process has been collaborative,” Stefanski said afterward via Zoom. “I rely very heavily on the assistant coaches who do an outstanding job, specifically on the offensive side because that’s who I’m interacting with on game day quite a bit. They’re great with suggestions, they really help me. From my perspective, I get a lot of help in this thing.”
What made this victory so impressive was that the Browns lost running back Nick Chubb to a knee injury with 59 seconds left in the first quarter. Kareem Hunt, the other half of the talented tandem, was playing with a groin injury.
But with 95 yards from D’Ernest Johnson, who worked on a fishing boat trolling for mahi mahi off the coast of Key West, Florida in 2018, 73 yards on the ground from Beckham and 71 from Hunt, the Browns rushed for 307 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. It was the first time in Browns history they’d had three players run for 70-plus yards. Is that significant enough that running backs coach Stump Mitchell might shave his beard in celebration?
But under Callahan’s direction, the Browns’ offensive line proved it can run block for whoever’s carrying the ball, as Hunt stated afterward.
“He gets together with the other coaches and puts a plan together that is sound, that has our best players touching the rock in varying ways,” Stefanski said of Callahan. “He’s great on game day for me. I really, really lean on him heavily and I appreciate everything he brings. A good man, he’s right next to my office so I can pop in there any time. He’s a former head coach, so there’s a lot of things I can bounce off of him. He’s doing an outstanding job.”
The Browns continued to thrive off takeaways. They turned defensive end Myles Garrett’s third strip sack in three games and Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble forced by safety Andrew Sendejo and recovered by defensive tackle Vincent Taylor into 14 points.
The Cowboys’ fourth-quarter flurry can’t obscure how the Browns surprised the Cowboys with a 37-yard Jarvis Landry touchdown pass to Beckham on the first series. Beckham caught a 4-yard score from Mayfield early in the second quarter, marking Beckham’s first two-touchdown day as a Brown. His clinching TD run was the first rushing score of his career and gave him three touchdowns for the first time since Nov. 1, 2015 at New Orleans when he was with the New York Giants.
There seems no question that Stefanski and his staff know how to feature what their players do best, even if it requires a little razzle-dazzle.
For too long the Browns had underachieved. They’d been their own worst enemies, committing costly penalties and the most inopportune times. They’d been outcoached and outperformed with regularity. In past years, their fourth-quarter defensive collapse would have cost them the game.
But the Browns seem different now. Their swagger has substance. Their stars are rising to the occasion. Their play calls don’t seem born on a wing and a prayer.
“Kevin Stefanik” deserves much of the credit for that.