Second Thoughts: Kevin Stefanski Should, But Won’T, Give Play-Calling Duties To Alex Van Pelt

Kevin Stefanski won't cede play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and won't change quarterbacks to light a spark to his slumping offense. (Cleveland Browns)

Kevin Stefanski won't cede play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and won't change quarterbacks to light a spark to his slumping offense. (Cleveland Browns)

Second thoughts: Kevin Stefanski should, but won’t, give play-calling duties to Alex Van Pelt

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 Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.

Second thoughts on Browns’ 16-10 loss to Baltimore Ravens … 

1. What a week this could have been for the Browns. Winning in Baltimore would have set them up so favorably for a stretch run for the AFC North crown. The late bye week actually would have been a blessing and given them a distinct advantage over their rivals, all of whom have used their byes and now must limp to the finish line without a break. Alas, the dismal offensive performance leaves Browns coaches burning the bye week to find ways to create more points. Two possible changes were summarily dismissed by Kevin Stefanski on Monday. He will not replace slumping quarterback Baker Mayfield with Case Keenum to light a spark to the offense. “Baker is our starting quarterback,” Stefanski asserted. “He is healthy and getting healthier. We just need to be better as an offense. I think Baker needs to play better, I have to coach better, we have to block better and we have to run routes better. All of the above is true. We just have to be better both individually and collectively.” Further, Stefanski reasserted that he will not relinquish play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. “I am comfortable with the communications that goes on throughout the week and on game day,” he said. “The offensive staff is outstanding, especially [offensive line coach] Bill [Callahan] and Alex throughout the game, so I am comfortable with how we are doing it right now. We just have to be better. I have to be better. That is the truth. We just have to find ways to stay on the field and get sevens when we are down there in the red zone.”

2. I thought Stefanski made the right decision in calling plays the first year of his program. Then came the playoff game in Pittsburgh when Van Pelt famously subbed for Stefanski quarantining in his rec room with COVID-19, and I thought, “Hmmmm … that was something.” And now this second season with Stefanski calling plays has been an abject failure offensively, in addition to the game-day operation suffering from rampant pre-snap penalties and periodic sideline confusion. The 12 men on the field snafus in Baltimore were emblematic of a sideline in utter disarray. The same things happened to Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens – previous Browns coaches who thought they could juggle play-calling with game-day CEO oversight. Those coaches were demonized for losing control and also for perpetrating ridiculous gimmick play-calls. And now Stefanski is doing the same. The Wildcat play with Jarvis Landry in Baltimore that resulted in a key turnover might have been grounds for demoting the play-caller if the play-caller were not Stefanski himself. Stefanski’s panicky loss of commitment to the running game in close games is troublesome and his inability -- in conjunction with Baker Mayfield -- to manufacture a professional two-minute offense with a game on the line is disturbing. All of these issues scream out to have Van Pelt take over play-calling and leave Stefanski supervising all facets of the operation as CEO. Stefanski constantly professes respect and confidence in Van Pelt, so what’s the problem in having him take over? Could the final offensive product be any worse under Van Pelt than it is right now under Stefanski? What do the Browns have to lose in making that move in their bye week? If Stefanski doesn’t produce more offense in the final five weeks, he’s going to have to cede play-calling anyways in his third season. Do it now to see if Van Pelt is up to the task.

3. Stefanski’s early career path with the Browns is resembling that of Matt Nagy’s with the Chicago Bears. Stefanski went 11-5 in his first year with the Browns, made the playoffs, and won NFL coach-of-the-year. Nagy went 12-4 in his first year with the Bears, made the playoffs, and won NFL coach-of-the-year. Stefanski is 6-6 in his second year. Nagy was 8-8 in his second year, 8-8 in his third year with a wild-card appearance, and is 4-7 and under fire in his fourth season. Nagy apprenticed five years in Philadelphia under coach Andy Reid and then another five years under him in Kansas City, eventually earning Reid’s trust to call plays as offensive coordinator. Interestingly, in his time as Bears coach, Nagy began his tenure in 2020 as his own play-caller, but ceded those duties midway through his first year to coordinator Bill Lazor. Nagy took back play-calling in this fourth season as Bears coach, but demoted himself and promoted Lazor once again this season after that debacle in Cleveland when Justin Fields was sacked nine times and held to 1 net yard passing in a 26-6 loss to the Browns in Game 3.

4. The Browns, and Mayfield, have failed on offense in four games with chances to win in the fourth quarter this year. In those instances against the Chiefs, Chargers, Steelers and Ravens, the Browns have had seven possessions to win those four games. They ran 48 plays and gained 176 yards – a 3.67-yard average per play. With those games on the line, Mayfield was 16 for 33 for 141 yards and one interception for a passer rating of 47.6. The Browns lost all four games, of course. It’s tough for a quarterback to summon his offensive team to make plays after repeated failures with games on the line. So I asked guard Joel Bitonio about the level of confidence in Mayfield being able to lead the team in those situations. “We’re confident in him,” Bitonio said. “I know it’s a quarterback-driven league, but not everything’s on that guy. It’s tough when he’s running for his life on a play or other people aren’t open on a play. Obviously, he’s the face of the team, so there’s a lot of responsibllity that goes with that position. But we’re confident. We understand there’s 11 guys on the field and there’s coaches and people in that position. But we have not wavered on Baker Mayfield.” Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said this about the defense’s attitude about Mayfield: “Great competitor. Just as good a competitor as any quarterback in the league. He’s improving. As time goes on, you guys will see how good a quarterback he is.”

5. After the game, Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said this about the Baltimore defensive strategy: “The key was definitely to stop the run and kind of have our chances with Baker [Mayfield] and his weapons. We felt everything goes through their run game. Once they get their run game going, the play action comes. So, we felt if we could make them one dimensional, our best chance of winning would be that way.” New England defensive players said essentially the same thing following the Browns’ 45-7 loss to the Patriots – sell out to stop the Browns’ running game and force Mayfield to throw the ball. Once again, I called on Bitonio to answer which needs to happen for the Browns to foil this ongoing defensive strategy: Does the running game have to execute better against 8- and 9-man fronts or does Mayfield have to execute his passing game better to force defenses to respect it? “I think both,” Bitonio responded. “If we can keep running the ball that’d be great. At times, when we have to pass the ball, I think we had a bunch of 10-plus yards pass gains and I think there was more to be had out there. I think it’s just … that we have to execute a little better in both phases of the game. If teams are going to put eight or nine guys in the box, we’re going to have to pass the ball. We understand that. That’s going to come down to executing a little bit better in that phase as well.”

6. I thought Kareem Hunt’s return would be a godsend to Mayfield’s flagging passing game. Yet he was not thrown a single pass. Hunt officially was the targeted receiver on a screen play when Mayfield lost the ball like a bar of soap squirting out of his hands in the second quarter on a play originating from the Ravens’ 28-yard line. “Yeah, not good enough,” Stefanski said after the game of Hunt’s non-role in the passing ame. Hunt appeared on only 23 snaps (38 percent of the offense’s total), touching the ball on only seven handoffs for 20 yards. On Monday, Stefanski denied Hunt was on a pitch count in his first game back in five weeks after a calf injury, but said, “We were trying to be intentional about how we used him and when we used him.” Semantics.