CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jimmy Haslam has been chasing “alignment” in the Browns’ flow chart since he took over in 2012, and is determined to nail it in his fifth search for a head coach and general manager.
There are many ways to achieve it in the current search, which features seven remaining candidates for the only job opening left in the NFL.
The Browns can find it with Josh McDaniels and a GM of his choosing, likely someone he’s worked with in his 16 seasons with the Patriots. McDaniels is very close to at least two members of the Patriots’ personnel department, Dave Ziegler and Nick Caserio, who both played football with him at John Carroll University. McDaniels also has a close working relationship with former Browns, Chiefs and Falcons personnel executive Scott Pioli.
Browns have their pick of McDaniels, Stefanski and their other five candidates
He also has other non-Patriots associates in the NFL that he’d be interested in working with, and is open to those the Browns have in mind.
But would he be comfortable working within the existing framework of Paul DePodesta as Chief Strategy Officer and an analytics team that will play a larger role in coaching matters?
McDaniels is certainly smart enough to embrace and synthesize the data that will provided, and has been a big proponent of it in his career. But the Browns and McDaniels must be certain that they’re compatible, and McDaniels must be willing to take a job where the owner’s right-hand man and confidante is already in place. It was a setup that didn’t work with former Browns GM John Dorsey and his hand-picked coach Freddie Kitchens.
Some believe it could work and McDaniels certainly has a lot of support in the building.
But there’s at least one candidate among the remaining seven where alignment would happen organically: Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, one of two finalists for the job last year before Dorsey settled on Kitchens.
Sources told cleveland.com that everyone on the search committee was “blown away” by Stefanski last year, including Dorsey. But some believe that Dorsey was intent on hiring Kitchens, and refused to be swayed.
Get to know Kevin Stefanski
A former defensive back at Penn, Stefanski had the Ivy League pedigree to keep up with Harvard-educated DePodesta and Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry, who was hired by the Eagles six weeks later as Vice President of Football Operations.
Haslam didn’t want Berry to leave, but it made no sense for him to stay with Dorsey, assistant general manager Eliot Wolf and Vice President of Player Personnel Alonzo Highsmith on board. As it was, the Browns had three VPs of Player Personnel in 2018, including Ken Kovash, who also left after that season.
If the Browns like what they hear from Stefanski again during his Thursday interview, the Browns could try to pry Berry away from the Eagles and implement a trio of DePodesta, head coach Stefanski and Berry as GM. Stefanski and Berry got to know each other during the search last year, and sources say they’d be interested in working together.
Berry — or whoever the Browns’ next GM is — will have final say over roster moves, and the coach will have a large voice in the hiring of the GM, so they’ll be compatible. In this “alignment,” the three would theoretically be in lockstep. They would each report directly to Haslam, but they’d be of one mind — not a common occurrence in previous regimes.
Stefanski, 37, who was scheduled to meet with the Panthers on Thursday before they hired Baylor coach Matt Rhule on Tuesday, checked off a lot of boxes for most on the search team last year, especially DePodesta.
The son of Ed Stefanski, senior advisor of basketball operations for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and also a former front office exec for the Nets, 76ers, Raptors and Grizzlies, Stefanski grew up in sports and possesses a CEO mindset. He’s described by those who know him as extremely organized, detailed and well-versed in roster building.
He survived several regimes with the Vikings and has coached multiple offensive positions: running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks. When offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left Minnesota to take the Giants’ top job in 2018, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer blocked Stefanski from going with him as coordinator.
But much to Zimmer’s chagrin, Vikings GM Rick Spielman hired former Browns offensive coordinator and Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to install the offense, and it was doomed from the start. DeFilippo, now the Jaguars’ OC, was fired with three games left in the season and replaced by Stefanski, who had never called plays. He had a tremendous debut against the Dolphins’ 30th-ranked defense, rolling up 418 yards of offense, including 220 yards rushing in a 41-17 blowout.
In his second game, a 27-9 victory over the Lions, the Vikings began with four straight three-and-outs, but racked up 340 yards. In a season-ending 24-10 loss to the Bears, Minnesota began with four straight three-and-outs again, and Kirk Cousins passed for only 132 yards. Still, Stefanski showed Zimmer enough to earn the full-time coordinator job for 2019.
This season, Stefanski helped guide the Vikings to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth, where they upset the Saints 26-20 in overtime. Stefanski’s offense finished sixth in rushing, which would bode well for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and eighth in points per game. He coached Cousins to a QB rating of 107.4 for fourth in the league, and a completion percentage of 69.1 that was fourth as well.
Stefanski has worked under four former Browns coaches in Minnesota in Brad Childress, DeFilippo, Shurmur and Norv Turner. But mostly, he fits the current franchise’s description of a smart, collaborative leader who will embrace a data-driven approach.
DePodesta not only has a chance to land his man this year, but Haslam can achieve his dream of harmony in the building. It’s certainly not the only route to alignment, but it’s definitely one of them.
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