Every now and then, in any sport, at any level, you just get beat down. Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens was one of those days for Kevin Stefanski’s Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson got the first start of his career for the sidelined Deshaun Watson. Thompson-Robinson came out slinging, completing his first three passes and looking every bit as confident and poised as he did in the preseason.
But as Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Shortcomings of Kevin Stefanski on Display In Browns Loss
On his second drive, Thompson-Robinson shot one toward wide receiver Amari Cooper, which was tipped and intercepted. Baltimore returned it to Cleveland’s 10-yard line. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ran one in on the very next play, and Baltimore never looked back en route to its 28-3 beat down of the Browns and head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Thompson-Robinson, who looked so electric in the preseason, ended the day with an abysmal 25.3 quarterback rating, completing 19 of 36 passes for just 121 yards and three interceptions. Thompson-Robinson’s confidence was clearly shaken after his first interception. His passes were off target for most of the rest of the day, often almost comically so. Moreover, he had trouble finding any receivers on the outside. Cooper, who was dominant last week, caught just one of six targets. Wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, one of four. Rookie Cedric Tillman: one of three. Elijah Moore? Two of four.
The Cleveland Browns traded quarterback Josh Dobbs to Arizona after the preseason, largely because of how good Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked. So how does that translate to a quarterback who is so ill-prepared for his first NFL start? A quarterback who is wildly off-target to anyone besides his tight end? A mobile and athletic quarterback who looked frankly terrified to run out of the backfield for most of the game?
It’s a big thing that Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski asked Dorian Thompson-Robinson to do. The rookie fifth-round pick was asked to lead an already-shaky offense in a rivalry game against the league’s No. 2 defense in his first-ever start. But remembering Mike Tyson, the playcalling never adjusted, and Thompson-Robinson looked increasingly lost as the game progressed.
Kevin Stefanski’s Offensive Leadership is Fundamentally Flawed
Kevin Stefanski’s playcalling issues are well-known among Cleveland fans. As early as the late first quarter, the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) lit up with calls for Stefanki’s firing. This came after yet another attempt at using the speedy Moore on a Jet sweep.
Stefanski has called Moore’s number out of the backfield seven times on the season, almost always on this same play. The results are… not good. Coming into the game, Moore had six carries for 23 yards. Now, it’s seven carries for… three yards. Baltimore saw the play coming from the other side of Lake Erie and swarmed in the backfield. Moore tried to make something out of nothing and came up with less, getting tackled for a 20-yard loss.
This frustrating pattern is emblematic of Kevin Stefanki’s playcalling throughout his Cleveland career: When it doesn’t work, try it again. The Cleveland Browns under Stefanski make poor second-half adjustments, seldom able to come back from behind or blowing close games late in the fourth quarter.
Moreover, Stefanski will often call gadget plays – like the Jet Sweep – early in the game before the offense can find its rhythm. After Thompson-Robinson’s early interception, Kevin Stefanski kept his foot on the pedal with the passes, rather than trying to establish a consistent run and play-action game. In addition, the Browns have had pass-blocking issues. They lost right tackle Jack Conklin in the first game, center Ethan Pocic in the first half Sunday, and blindside blocker Jed Wills is off to a horrendous start.
Yet, the answer throughout the game was unchanged: deep drops for Thompson-Robinson. No threat of a run game. Empty sets to emphasize this point.
What’s Wrong With Kevin Stefanski?
Sunday’s game aside, the resurgence of the Cleveland Browns defense has been one of the biggest storylines of the year in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has shown how scheme and preparation can make a huge difference, using mostly the same players from 2022.
Yet, curiously, Kevin Stefanski’s system remains a work in progress. He has four years with the team, in contrast to Schwartz’s four games.
Stefanski is well-liked by his players. He’s a good motivator. Playcalling aside, he learns his lessons well. Notably, he adjusted his organization with training camp this season after a poor showing in 2022.
Yet, he remains a head coach who calls his own offensive plays. He’s slow to adjust his style there. Last week’s win over the Tennessee Titans was the best showing from franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson. This is notable because it was also the first time Watson was allowed to play much more consistently from the shotgun and pistol. Watson had lobbied for this for a year, but Stefanski was slow to implement it.
Is this stubbornness? Or emblematic of a head coach, who is also knee-deep in play-calling? As the NFL has become increasingly complex, it’s the rare head coach who succeeds in calling his own plays. Usually, this situation ends with that head coach returning to being a coordinator.
The Need for the Offensive Equivalent of Jim Schwartz
Jim Schwartz has shown how quickly a new tone and system can be implemented. In a win-now season, the Cleveland Browns need a similar approach to their offensive preparation and playcalling. The playbook is fine; Stefanski’s plays are often innovative and well-designed. It’s how and when they’re called that needs work.
In short: Kevin Stefanski needs to be the team’s head coach. He lets Schwartz call his defense. He lets special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone call his special teams. Stefanski needs to let someone do the same on offense. In-house, the Cleveland Browns have a couple of options and can employ multiple viewpoints and points of view.
Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt
First is offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt has been with the team throughout Kevin Stefanski’s tenure. He also famously acted as head coach and offensive shot caller for the Cleveland Browns’ big playoff win in Pittsburgh in 2020.
Kevin Stefanski played as a defensive back in college, and never played in the NFL. In contrast, Van Pelt is a former NFL quarterback, playing nine seasons for the Buffalo Bills. Van Pelt has become known as a quarterback tutor and was well-liked by Aaron Rodgers while in Green Bay.
Like Stefanski, Van Pelt is a multi-hyphenate for the Cleveland Browns: He is also the primary quarterbacks coach. This is an odd situation where the top two men on the offense are pulled in multiple directions.
Senior Offensive Assistant Bill Musgrave
According to Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot, Bill Musgrave’s role on the team is to “take things off of Van Pelt’s plate” after Van Pelt took on the quarterbacks coach role in 2023.
Musgrave himself is a former NFL quarterback and well-liked quarterbacks coach. He’s held the position for the Raiders, Jaguars, Commanders, Falcons, Eagles, and Broncos over the last 25 years. he’s also been an offensive coordinator in multiple stops in the NFL and NCAA.
This is an odd coaching structure. A head coach who calls his own plays. An offensive coordinator who is also a position coach. A senior assistant who is basically a catch-all.
Wanted: A Clear Command of Coaching for Kevin Stefanski’s Browns
Kevin Stefanski is the team’s head coach. He should have input and knowledge of all three levels of the game. In addition, he’s also the man who puts out the fires. He manages the players. Motivates them. Knows who needs what and how to get it.
Alex Van Pelt is the team’s offensive coordinator. He should be making the offensive play calls, as Jim Schwartz makes the defensive play calls. Van Pelt should be involved with all positions on the offensive side, not just quarterbacks. The team has clearly had rushing struggles since the loss of RB Nick Chubb. The pass blocking remains an issue.
Bill Musgrave should be working day-in and day-out with Deshaun Watson and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. As a former coordinator himself, Musgrave should be Watson’s voice in the offensive meetings, ensuring that Van Pelt’s play design is to Watson’s liking.
A muddled chain of command leads to muddled results. It’s fair to say that the Cleveland Browns results on offense have been muddled in 2023 thus far. In a win-now season, that can’t continue to be the case when the team returns from its bye week.
Kevin Stefanski’s Cleveland Browns next take the field Sunday, October 15 against the San Francisco 49ers at FirstEnergy Stadium.
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