Browns rally for Kevin Stefanski, virtually celebrate big win with him after week of adversity
As the Browns sprinted to the locker room to celebrate what many players and coaches will consider the biggest win of their career, the team ensured one of their biggest leaders could be there with them, too.
Kevin Stefanski could not be with the Browns on Sunday night in Pittsburgh to serve as head coach for the Browns in their first playoff game in nearly two decades. A positive COVID-19 test earlier in the week prevented him from making the trip, and he instead was forced to watch the game from his basement. He couldn't coach during the game, and he couldn't contact any of his players or coaches.
But as soon as the clock expired to seal the Browns' 48-37 win over the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card Round for their first playoff victory since 1994, those limitations were lifted.
So the team called Stefanski, welcomed him to their postgame celebration and shared congratulations and praise after an unforgettable win. The Browns were going to celebrate as a team, and the party wouldn't have been complete without their head coach.
"It's Kevin's team," said special team coordinator Mike Priefer, who filled in for Stefanski as acting head coach. "The foundation has been set. There was a lot of celebrating and hooting and hollering and guys just very, very excited. It means a lot."
After a wild week in Berea, a video call with their head coach was the best possible way for the Browns to end it.
In the span of six days, the Browns learned they would play their playoff game without Stefanski, their calm and collected head coach who rallied the team all season to push through numerous, unprecedented obstacles due to COVID-19 restrictions. Video restrictions, canceled practices and injuries have never knocked his confidence in the Browns, but now he couldn't be there for his team's biggest game following its hardest week.
Then, the ripple effects of more positive COVID-19 tests rolled in. Left guard Joel Bitonio, the longest tenured Browns player who endured the 0-16 season in 2017 but has inspired countless teammates with his steady leadership, was out. So was cornerback Denzel Ward, who needed to miss his second consecutive game, and so too were cornerback Kevin Johnson and wideout KhaDarel Hodge — both integral pieces at each of their positions.
Offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters were out, too. So was defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. So was tight ends coach Drew Petzing.
And, to top it all off, the Browns practiced once all week. They couldn't step on the turf at their team headquarters until Friday.
"We have had a 'next man up' mentality all season long," Priefer said Thursday. "That applies to the head coach, to coordinators, to other coaches on the staff and to every player on our football team. We plan on giving our best effort on Sunday night."
The Browns lived up to that plan at a historic level.
Cleveland scored four touchdowns in the first quarter and stunned the Steelers with a 28-0 lead. The defense intercepted 17-year veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice to set up two of the touchdowns, which led the Browns to the highest scoring first quarter by any team in NFL playoff history.
They weren't done. Cleveland added another touchdown in the second quarter to build a 35-7 lead and tie the NFL record for the most touchdowns by a team in the first half of a playoff game since 1992.
"To defer to the second half and then to get seven points on the board without even having to step foot on the field is great," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "That kickstarts it, and everybody on the sideline was like, 'Let's just keep this lead. Let's keep it going. Let's just go out and do our job.' Being up 28-0 in the first quarter is obviously an incredible start. You just have to capitalize."
The Browns were pummeling their AFC North rivals, but the job wasn't finished. Pittsburgh rallied in the third quarter to cut its deficit to 35-23. The Browns offense had gone silent, and the defense was struggling to contain the passing parade from Roethlisberger.
Those moments were normally when Stefanski would go to work. His ability to dig into the playbook and find momentum-turning plays helped the Browns at numerous points in the season. The team loved him for it, and it's why he's a possible candidate for the NFL's Coach of the Year award.
But he wasn't there.
The Browns found a way to persevere anyway. Mayfield hit running back Nick Chubb with a short pass that turned into a 40-yard dash to the end zone. The lead was re-cushioned, and the win was officially sealed when linebacker Sione Takitaki intercepted Roethlisberger for the fourth time with 3 minutes left while the Browns led 45-29.
"They had some momentum going," Priefer said. "Like our defense has done all year long, they have created turnovers in crucial moments. That is exactly what that was."
Stefanski envisioned a winning performance even though he knew he wasn't going to be there. He put his trust in offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who took over play-calling duties for the offense in his absence, to keep the offense rolling. He had faith in Priefer, who served as an acting head coach once in 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings, to lead the team as its head coach.
But above all, he knew his players could still play their best game under unprecedented circumstances.
"This team is not my image; it's the Cleveland Browns," Stefanski said on Wednesday. "We have established an identity. We did it back in the spring. We told the guys how we were going to play. We made sure that we brought players in here that fit that mold, and I think the guys understand perfectly how we play and how we win. It doesn't change, regardless of who is on the sideline."
The Browns backed their coach up Sunday with one of the most memorable performances in franchise history.
So it only made sense for the Browns to give their coach a call in the locker room. Stefanski had messages for everyone on the team as loud music and cheers echoed around the locker room, but the most important message from Sunday came from the players themselves.
They'll rally around their coach, whether he's with them or not.
"We believe in the people in this room no matter what," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "This is a team. Whether we are in person or not, we have gone through everything. We stick together."