June 23, 2024

Browns set foundation with extensions for head coach, GM

Rumored to be on tap for this offseason, the Browns’ extension agreements with Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry are now official. The team announced its fifth-year HC-GM combo is signed long term.

This represents rare territory for the Browns, who shuffled through numerous coaches and GMs during the Haslams’ first several years as owners. After two playoff berths in four seasons, Stefanski and Berry did enough to show ownership they should be at the wheel for the foreseeable future.

Rumblings of the Browns readying extensions for their power brokers emerged in March and a recent offering from cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot pointed to the deals being close. The Browns have posted their best four-year win percentage under Berry and Stefanski since the 1986-89 run. Although this regime has not matched the Marty Schottenheimer-Bernie Kosar teams in terms of consistency or postseason accomplishments, it has elevated one of the NFL’s perennial doormats to a contender position.

“Despite facing multiple player injuries and using five different starting quarterbacks, Andrew and his staff built a roster that adapted well, while Kevin and his staff led the team to its second playoff appearance in four years, earning Coach of the Year honors for the second time in that period,” Jimmy and Dee Haslam said, referencing the 2023 season, in a statement. “They are two of the brightest people we know, and selfless people who only care about what is best for the Cleveland Browns.”

Since the Haslams acquired the Browns in October 2012, they have employed six full-time head coaches (Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson, Freddie Kitchens, Stefanski) and six front office bosses (Tom Heckert, Michael Lombardi, Ray Farmer, Sashi Brown, John Dorsey, Berry). Prior to the Stefanski-Berry 2020 debut season, the team had gone 1-for-21 in playoff berths since rebooting in 1999. While the Browns have seen some stumbles (particularly at quarterback) during this duo’s tenure, their 2023 showing presented cause for optimism.

Stefanski, 42, joins Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera as HCs to win two Coach of the Year honors since 2000. The second one certainly solidified the play-caller’s case for an extension. The Browns gave Stefanski a five-year contract in 2020. Teams almost never make HCs lame ducks, the Dallas situation notwithstanding and Stefanski is the longest-tenured Browns HC since Belichick (1991-95). None of the Browns 2.0 coaches match Stefanski’s longevity or success and the ex-Vikings OC managing to steer last year’s team to the playoffs marked quite the accomplishment given the circumstances.

The Browns withstood season-ending injuries to Deshaun Watson, Nick Chubb and their top three tackles yet managed to win 10 games this past season. Stefanski coaxed a stunning resurgence from late-season free-agent signee Joe Flacco, who claimed Comeback Player of the Year honors despite only starting five games. Winning a playoff game proved too daunting a task for this ragtag cast, but Stefanski’s 2020 Coach of the Year offering produced a playoff upset (over the Steelers). That win came with Stefanski at home with COVID-19, though the Browns nearly toppled the No. 1-seeded Chiefs a week later.

Due to the 2022 Watson trade, Berry’s path has been a bit rockier. The Browns became the first team since the 1976 49ers to give up three first-round picks for a veteran quarterback and Jimmy Haslam pinned the idea for guaranteeing Watson’s entire five-year, $230M contract on his GM.

Watson has struggled, with his 2023 health issues coming as replaced starter Baker Mayfield – who succeeded under Stefanski in 2020 before struggling amid injuries in 2021 – found his footing again in Tampa. As the Browns have no choice but to make it work with Watson, the roster Berry has assembled has proven successful despite its QB.

As is the case in Kansas City, John Dorsey‘s draft choices still represent some of the top Browns pieces. Berry, however, reached extensions with Chubb, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Wyatt Teller. The GM also extended Joel Bitonio while acquiring Amari Cooper for only Day 3 draft choices. Berry acquisitions, along with the team’s Jim Schwartz hire, put pieces in place for a No. 1-ranked pass defense to help the battered offense last season. While Berry’s draft acumen remains to be seen due to the team not having a first-round pick for the past three years, the 36-year-old exec has made some pivotal contributions during his second Cleveland stint.

Berry, who hired Stefanski shortly after rejoining the team in 2020, initially served as a staffer under Dorsey and de facto GM Sashi Brown during the 2010s. The Browns are still waiting for their Watson bet to pay off, but the team will give its decision-makers more time to operate around that monster contract.