CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – As the wins piled up and the Browns broke new ground this season, Kevin Stefanski resisted requests to reflect on their achievements.
There is no time to reflect when there is still so much to do.
Monday afternoon, with the sun set on the season, Stefanski budged, a little.
“I think we definitely achieved a lot,” Stefanski said. “We did some things we set out to do, but ultimately, we came up short and there is a very real sense of disappointment there among our players and coaches right now.
“We can definitely look back and see some things that we accomplished and be proud of that.”
The Browns bowed out of the playoffs Sunday in Kansas City, 22-17.
There’s no shame in losing to the defending Super Bowl champions, yet Stefanski realized it was an opportunity missed.
“The margin in this game is so razor thin, and especially in the playoffs, everything gets magnified,” Stefanski said. “To go on the road and beat the defending champs, you are going to have to make a bunch of plays. Ultimately, we just came up short. That is where I am looking at myself and saying, ‘What could I have done better?’ There is a very real disappointment in coming up short.”
In a year that seemed to be set up for failure, Stefanski and the Browns succeeded beyond expectations.
“He did a great job. The whole staff did a great job,” center JC Tretter said. “Again, it is a situation nobody has experienced before so there is no history in it or no experience in it, but they all did a great job of coaching us up in unique circumstances unseen before – virtual meetings, some weeks not getting practices in and a lot of last-second changes to the schedule. They did a really good job preparing us in those circumstances.”
Following what was a historically humiliating stretch of football, the Browns had been slowly checking off boxes.
Win a game. Check. Win a road game. Check. Win a game on a Sunday afternoon. Check. Win a game within the AFC North. Check. Win on the road within the division. Check. Dare we ask for two wins in a row? Check.
The bar was so low.
“We established a culture of work, and the players bought into that and they did that,” Stefanski said.
Stefanski took little time to bask in the glow of the most successful campaign for the franchise in 26 years Monday afternoon. Instead he lamented not being able to prepare to play this weekend.
“I think the expectations for us will always be to play to win that last game,” Stefanski said. “That is where the disappointment comes when you come up short and you do not get into that second-to-last weekend of that season. Our expectations every week are going to be to go 1-0 and really put the focus on those ball games and put the focus on the work that goes into those ball games.
“When you taste the success like we did this season, I think the guys understand that the work that they did was what allowed them to taste that success. I already am in hearing from them that they want to get back and I appreciate that, and in the same breath, just talking about how they want to get back to work.”
If you include the playoffs, Stefanski won more games in his first season as head coach amid a global pandemic (12) than the franchise did from 2014-2017 (11).
In 2020, what was once thought to be inconceivable became believable.
“Definitely a special year,” Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, said. “We will always remember this year with COVID, so many changes and everything that has happened. We won our first playoff game, made it to the division round and did not get it done, but there is still more for us out there and we are not going to stop. We are going to continue to work harder, just keep working and see where we end up next year.”
The 11 regular season victories were the most since 1994. They won a playoff game too. And in Pittsburgh of all places.
Baker Mayfield became the first Browns quarterback to start all 16 games in consecutive seasons since Brian Sipe, who did it four straight years.
More importantly, Mayfield got better as the season went along and his comfort with and understanding of Stefanski's offense grew.
So did the win total.
“I am proud of our guys for battling all season long,” Stefanski said. “I am proud of the guys for putting up with the coaches and us moving the schedule on them constantly. I am proud of how resilient they were in that regard and how resilient they were in different ball games. I am proud of how they fought [Sunday].
“I think we established our identity this season on offense, defense and special teams. We accomplished some of our goals – ultimately, not all of our goals – but I definitely can look back and tell you that I am proud of the effort of our players, our coaches and our staff.”
The 2020 season for the Browns was a smashing success.
For Stefanski, it still wasn't enough.