Kevin Stefanski declined to discuss the job security of defensive coordinator Joe Woods. (Cleveland Browns)
Second thoughts: Browns are sowing a culture of no accountability
You must have an active subscription to read this story.
Click Here to subscribe Now!
Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Second thoughts on Browns’ 31-23 loss to Buffalo Bills …
1. The drumbeat for change sounds louder with every Browns loss, with most fingers pointing at defensive coordinator Joe Woods. After dropping to 3-7, an unidentified Browns defensive player reportedly told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, “When s*** ain’t working, change it. We don’t [expletive] change anything.” Defensive end Myles Garrett said the Browns have to put more emphasis on turnovers at practice. Safety Grant Delpit said defensive players aren’t sure about their assignments. In the last two games, the Dolphins scored on seven of eight possessions before kneeling in victory formation, and the Bills scored on seven possessions in a row until doing the same. The defense has let everyone down and is the unit most responsible for 3-7. The defense has two $100 million-plus players in Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward. Eight of the 11 starters were embarking on their second full season in Woods’ system. Some were in their third. As the external heat on Woods turned up a notch, Kevin Stefanski deflected questions about his hand-picked defensive coordinator whom he has known since they joined the Minnesota Vikings in the same season in 2006. “My focus is on us getting better,” Stefanski said in another doom-and-gloom Zoom conference on Monday. “My focus is on us getting a win versus Tampa and playing good offense, playing good defense and playing good special teams. That is where my focus is.”
2. Pressed on his reluctance to make staff changes – special teams coach Mike Priefer is another on the hot seat – Stefanski said, “My focus really is on this week and what we can do this week to find a win. I understand frustration. I get it. I own it. I own all of it. We have to share it as players, coaches and staff.” After guiding the Browns to a playoff appearance and wild-card win in his first season and earning coach-of-the-year honors, Stefanski became the first Browns coach in the expansion era to not make a single deletion on his coaching staff. That continuity extended to this, his third season. Stefanski’s loyalty to his staff is admirable. It will be tested when the organization’s post-season review takes place after the season finale in, egads, Pittsburgh – the graveyard of Browns coaches.
3. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Stefanski won’t make changes on his staff. He hasn’t benched a single starting player for performance despite the team’s record steadily sinking from 11-5 to 8-9 and now 3-7. The current regime of Paul DePodesta-Andrew Berry-Stefanski early on established a mantra of “smart, tough, accountable” to dictate personnel decisions. They never identified what they meant by “accountable,” but clearly it doesn’t mean that players will be held accountable for their performance. The fact that Berry has released only one player (safety Richard LeCounte) of the 24 he has drafted says a lot about the culture of entitlement the Browns have created. Drafted players, much like starting players, haven’t been held accountable for their performance. The unintended message: No need to go the extra mile to do your job. You’re protected by your draft status.
4. It is doubtful that owner Jimmy Haslam will follow the lead of his “perfectly aligned” football staff and give out free passes after this dreadful season. Stefanski is the first coach in Haslam’s 10 years of ownership to keep his job beyond 40 games. Rob Chudzinski was fired after 16 games. Mike Pettine was fired after 32 games. Hue Jackson was fired after 40 games. Freddie Kitchens was fired after 16 games. Stefanski, who is 23-22 counting postseason games, was dealt a bad hand when Haslam’s controversial acquisition – quarterback Deshaun Watson – was suspended for 11 games rather than the six the organization expected. Watson now will be active for the final six games, beginning Dec. 4 in Houston. I believe those six games will determine Stefanski’s future as Browns coach. Stefanski has to show a higher level of offensive football with Watson at the helm. I asked Stefanski what kind of support or encouragement has he received from ownership during this disappointing stretch of six losses in seven games. “We meet every week with ownership,” Stefanski replied. “They are here every day, so great conversations throughout the day. We are all frustrated – I get that part of it. But again, the focus is on this week and what we can do this week to go 1-0.” That response told me that Stefanski is feeling the heat of a very frustrated and very impatient owner.
5. One of the overlooked aspects of this disappointing season is that it has not been undermined by a plethora of injuries. Return specialist Jakeem Grant, center Nick Harris, and linebacker Anthony Walker were significant losses. Linebacker Jacob Phillips was a big loss, too. But the fact is the Browns have suffered fewer injury losses than many teams with better records. But that good fortune could be changing. The offensive line – the foundation of everything the Browns do on offense – is starting to get nicked up. No. 2 center Ethan Pocic, who has been a godsend after the Harris injury, will be lost for multiple weeks with a knee injury suffered on the second play of the Buffalo game. With No. 3 center Michael Dunn going on injured reserve on Saturday with a back injury, Hjalte Froholdt was forced into duty at center to replace Pocic. He was understandably shaky. Froholdt, a natural guard, now will take over as the starting center, Stefanski said Monday. Also, right guard Wyatt Teller has not been right since suffering a calf injury in Game 6 against New England, and right tackle Jack Conklin has been dinged by a foot injury. As the long NFL season drones on, it’s naïve to think other injuries won’t hit the Browns at different positions. Stefanski’s job will only get tougher.