Around three months ago, Kevin Stefanski sat in his well-lit office in Eagan, Minnesota, and got peppered with questions about his core tenets as an offensive coordinator. The Minnesota Vikings were rolling at the time — winners of eight of 10 at the time — and I wanted to know the secret to getting the most out of Kirk Cousins, who was in the midst of a career year.
About three weeks after that conversation, Cousins, the man many said couldn’t win the big one, finally got the statement win he badly needed, a stunning 26-20 road victory at New Orleans.
So yeah, I’d like to think I was a bit ahead of that train.
I admit, I also sought out Stefanski because I knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be a head coach in this league. I’d met him for the first time during training camp in August and was immediately impressed with his friendly demeanor, disarming way with the media and sharp mind. That’s an ideal trio of skills to have in today’s NFL, which has never been more offense-driven.
So I figured that when — not if — he becomes the head man somewhere, it would be great to already know what he wants to accomplish offensively. And to that end, the following anecdote stood out from December:
“Every Monday, I watch the top five plays from every offense because you’re looking for inspiration, and you want to see how somebody [executed] a certain scheme and then you say, ‘All right, that looked pretty cool — maybe we could try it this week.’
“So the fun part of this business is, you’re constantly evolving and adapting and finding out more about your players.”
Then came the kicker:
“The nice part is that we have depth at wide receiver, tight end and running back, so we can be multiple and versatile,” Stefanski said.
Stefanski was referring to the Vikings’ two Pro Bowl receivers (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs), a Pro Bowl tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and a promising young one (Irv Smith Jr.), one premium running back (Dalvin Cook) and a promising young one (Alexander Mattison). The Vikings rode that group to an average of 25.4 points per game, eighth most in the league.
Projecting things forward, Stefanski, who was hired as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in January, might as well have been talking about his new team.
Browns’ free agent blueprint looks familiar for Stefanski
While Cleveland fans have a well-deserved tendency to expect the worst, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the level of competency the Browns have displayed thus far in free agency.
In an effort to give Stefanski what he needs to make Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked offense sing in 2020, new general manager Andrew Berry promptly set about making the Browns’ offense more Minnesota-like. The Vikings used two tight ends as much as anyone in the league last season. So Berry went and signed 25-year-old tight end Austin Hooper, giving the Browns the opportunity to pair him with David Njoku. That improves Cleveland’s athleticism at the position, giving defenses issues.
But that’s not all! The Browns’ receiving tandem of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. is every bit as good as the Vikings’ duo of Diggs and Thielen a year ago, and they also have the explosive running backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) to match Cook and Mattison. The Browns even signed Jack Conklin, one of the game’s premier run-blockers, to big money to shore up the right tackle spot, leaving the left tackle position as the only remaining offensive hole.
And the Browns should be able to address that weakness soon. They pick 10th in the draft, and there are four quality first-round offensive tackles — Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton — in a draft with multiple first-round quarterbacks. One of the tackles will fall to them.
This leaves the Browns with an offense that should be on par with the Vikings’ — and likely with a higher ceiling, depending on how you feel about quarterback Baker Mayfield. He struggled a year ago, throwing 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, but something Stefanski said in December about the way he tailored the Vikings’ offense to Cousins’ strengths makes me think he’ll get the best out of him.
“We want to play to our strengths, and any time you’re thinking about that, you’re always thinking about the quarterback,” Stefanski said. “We saw an offense that Kirk could excel in with the keeper game and the play-action, because he’s so accurate on the move. And then, with the threats we had to get down the field … we just thought there was potential there.”
Expect a better Baker Mayfield
Stefanski, of course, was right. Cousins flourished in the play-action scheme in 2019, posting a stellar stat line — 69.1 completion percentage, 3,603 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions — as the Vikings went 10-6.
Chances are Stefanski will keep the same scheme in Cleveland. Mayfield is a good athlete, and while he struggled last season, a charged-up running game should allow him to thrive in play-action, where he was much better (completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions) than he was without (56.4 completion percentage, 11 TDs, 15 INTs).
“I played defensive back in college, so I know the feeling of when you’re seeing an offense and the quarterback takes the ball, pulls it out, the running back leaves the pocket and then it’s a pass,” Stefanski told Yahoo Sports. “I know that feeling as a defender like, ‘All right, here’s my run fit, I’m getting ready to fit the run and then, ‘Oh boy this is a pass.’ ”
So that’s what Browns fans should expect in 2020: Lots of play-action, and perhaps, lots of points. Contending in the AFC North will never be easy as Pittsburgh and Baltimore still loom, but a competent offense will go a long way toward helping the Browns right the ship.
NFL offenses, for better or worse, often reflect their head coaches, as Stefanski explained.
“We talk about identity — we put it on our call sheet, so it’s never far away from who we are — and we as an offense, we’re physical, aggressive, smart, resilient, all-in,” Stefanski said. “For us, it’s never deviating very far from who you are and what you believe in, and again, that goes back to [Minnesota] coach [Mike] Zimmer. Coach Zim is a hard-nosed dude, and I hope our offense reflects his mentality more than anything.”
Now, we’ll get to see what Stefanski’s offense looks like on his own. My hunch is, it will look pretty similar, and that won’t be a bad thing.
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