BEREA, Ohio — Kevin Stefanski has studied so much past film of Deshaun Watson that he can name the Cleveland quarterback’s high school mascot.
“The elephants,” Stefanski says. “Maybe the Red Elephants?” [Bingo.]
Eighteen months ago, Stefanski first met Watson, along with Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and general manager Andrew Berry, in the Houston law offices of Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin. At that time, Watson — who was facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions — was looking for a new team after demanding a trade from the Houston Texans and sitting out all of the 2021 season. The Browns were looking for a quarterback and secured a meeting to sell Watson on choosing them.
While the Haslams spoke to Watson’s lawyers in an office, Stefanski talked football with Watson in the conference room. The two hit it off immediately watching film clips together. Watson ultimately chose the Browns. Cleveland sent the Texans three first-round picks to complete the trade and signed Watson to a five-year deal worth a record $230 million fully guaranteed. The blockbuster move, in many ways, tied Watson’s fate to Stefanski; and, in every way, tethered Stefanski’s to Watson.
To become one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks again after an underwhelming debut last year, Watson, who last season served an 11-game suspension stemming from the sexual assault allegations, will need Stefanski to successfully transform the Browns’ offense around him. To remain Cleveland’s head coach past this season, Stefanski will need Watson to perform at a level that propels the Browns into the playoffs after back-to-back losing seasons.
“With Kevin’s creativity and Deshaun’s talent and work ethic, [there are] things we’ll be able to do offensively that maybe we haven’t been able to do before,” Berry said of the coach and quarterback. “Candidly, I’m pretty excited to see.”
The stakes of this season couldn’t be higher for the Browns, who face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+) aiming for their first 2-0 start since 1993. Cleveland hasn’t won a regular-season game in Pittsburgh in 19 years.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to be able to go out there and show the world what we got,” Watson said, “and what we can be.”
What the Browns have been since returning to the NFL in 1999 is a perennial loser. Cleveland has finished with a negative point differential in 15 straight seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, that ties the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1982-96) for the longest streak of its kind in NFL history.
Such futility prompted the Browns to pursue a franchise-level quarterback despite the allegations made against Watson. The Browns are all-in on winning now. The Haslams are spending a little over $280 million on the roster this year, more than any other team in the league. The Browns haven’t made a first- or second-round draft pick the past two years, either from the Watson trade or from beefing up the roster around him; Houston owns Cleveland’s first-round pick next year, too.
“Are we excited about this year? Yes,” Jimmy Haslam said. “To say it’s now or never, I think it’d be grossly unfair. But we’re excited about the year.”
If not now, then when?
The Browns boast several star players in their prime, including All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb. They traded for Pro Bowl pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and slot receiver Elijah Moore — the No. 34 pick in 2021. And they’re paying their quarterback $46 million this season.
After a disappointing 7-10 finish in 2022, Stefanski fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. He replaced them with Jim Schwartz — a Super Bowl winner with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 — and Bubba Ventrone, respectively. Now, the onus falls squarely on Stefanski to produce a playoff appearance, at a minimum.
Entering his fourth season, Stefanski is Cleveland’s longest-tenured coach since the Haslams bought the team in 2012. Meanwhile, the Browns’ offense has gotten worse over the past three seasons with Stefanski calling the plays. The Browns ranked seventh in offensive efficiency in 2020, when they made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. Cleveland, however, fell to 18th in 2021 while then quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled playing through a shoulder injury.
The Browns then slipped to 19th last year. Cleveland ranked in the top 10 over 11 games with backup Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. But the Browns plummeted offensively over the six games Watson started after returning from suspension, a stretch they finished 3-3.
“With any player, you’re constantly learning about each other on a personal level, and then on a football level, for sure,” Stefanski said. “You’re trying to find out what fits, what you like, those types of things. But the more time you’re around anybody, you get to know them better.”
Jimmy Haslam has given Stefanski his full-throated public support, noting “there was never a thought” to firing Stefanski after last season. Still, many inside the organization assume the Haslams will move on from the 2020 NFL Coach of the Year if the Browns miss the postseason for a third consecutive season.
“Highly confident,” Haslam said, when asked about Stefanski. “Being a head coach in the NFL is hard because generally you have a specialty, and Kevin’s specialty is offense, quarterbacks, calling plays. … But you also have to be a leader of men, and I think he’s really good at both.”
Stefanski devoted this offseason to finding out what fits Watson. That included studying film from Watson’s time with the Texans and at Clemson. Building off that first meeting together in Houston, sources familiar with their relationship say, the two continually traded ideas over text message throughout the offseason, including sending clips of plays that piqued their interest.
“You have to have a constant dialogue with the quarterback and things that he’s comfortable with,” Stefanski said. “And then ultimately, what matches the quarterback’s eye, what matches your talent and your personnel that you have. I really think that’s ongoing.”
Watson noted that their rapport and “relationship has continued to grow” over the past 18 months.
In August, Stefanski praised Watson after the players voted him one of five captains.
Stefanski has empowered Watson on the field, too.
When Stefanski first arrived in Cleveland, he carried over a tight-end-heavy scheme he had run as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. In 2020, with Mayfield at quarterback, the Browns used multiple-TE sets 52% of the time, more than any other offense in the league, according to Next Gen Stats data. Reinforcing the evolution of Stefanski’s offense to a more wide-open scheme since the Watson trade, the Browns used multi-TE sets 24% of the time in the 24-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10, despite rainy conditions.
Stefanski is also hoping to use Watson’s arm strength and mobility outside the pocket to generate more explosive plays. Over the past three years, the Browns ranked 21st in yards per passing attempt (7.1). But Watson led the league (8.9) in that category in his last full season in 2020. This offseason, the Browns landed Moore and signed veteran speedster Marquise Goodwin to give Watson more deep threats.
One of Stefanski’s most trusted sounding boards, Drew Petzing, left in the offseason to become the offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals. Petzing came with Stefanski from the Vikings in 2019 and was promoted to coach Cleveland’s quarterbacks last year.
Petzing’s departure has forced Stefanski to lean even more on offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who has also taken Petzing’s place in the quarterback room. Over coffee with Stefanski the Saturday morning before facing the Bengals, Van Pelt suggested adding a specific quarterback draw to the game plan. With 22 seconds left in the first half, Watson checked to that draw before running through an open lane to the end zone.
“Kevin, he gave me the keys to be able to check to the right play,” Watson said, “and I saw the perfect look and they did what we want them to do and we got in the end zone.”
In his six games last year, Watson finished with a QBR of 40.4; only Russell Wilson, Mac Jones, Davis Mills, Carson Wentz and Mayfield fared worse among starting quarterbacks. Brissett posted a QBR of 62.1 in his 11 games starting for Cleveland.
But the Browns believe that, with more time under Stefanski, Watson is primed for a big bounce-back year.
“He’s definitely more comfortable with the offense,” Browns Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio said. “We have a lot more checks in. We have a lot more different run-pass options [RPOs] that we can pull out. Last year, we were more just base stuff.”
After a full offseason in Cleveland, Watson believes he’s now better than ever, including in Houston, where in 2020 he led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards.
“I’ve evolved to a new level,” Watson said before the season. “I’m ready to be able to show that. … I know I can.”
Eighteen months ago in that Houston conference room, Stefanski’s biggest selling point to Watson, according to sources, was that adding a quarterback of his caliber to an already loaded roster could make Cleveland a contender for years to come.
This season will tell whether that will be so. And whether a gamble on their partnership is the one that finally turns the Browns into a winner.
“We’ll continue to grow,” Watson said. “If you talk to the great ones that played with their coach … for a very long time, I think each and every year there’s something that you can evolve and take your offense to another level.
“So, it’s been great. It’s been fun. It’s been very exciting. I think he’s excited. … And I am, too.”