The 2020 NFL season was the most successful Browns’ season in almost three decades. Coming off a 6-10 season in 2019, new head coach Kevin Stefanski led a very successful turnaround, earning him Coach of the Year honors.
Not only was it the most wins in a single season for the Browns since 1994, it was one of the best single-season improvements for a new head coach since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002.
Stefanski’s first season was only the eighth time since 2002 that a new head coach won a playoff game after improving a team five or more wins. How did Stefanski lead the Browns to the playoffs? By leaning into his strengths: offense.
Prior to Cleveland, Stefanski spent his entire NFL coaching career on the offensive side of the ball for the Minnesota Vikings, working up to the Vikings offensive coordinator in 2019. In his single season as coordinator, the Vikings scored their most points on offense in a decade. His offensive experience brought him to Cleveland, where the team was excited by pairing an experienced offensive mind with their young offensive players.
One catalyst for the Browns’ improvement was quarterback Baker Mayfield. In his first season with Stefanski, Mayfield posted a far more efficient season compared to 2019. He threw for more touchdowns while cutting his interceptions by more than half. In fact, Mayfield’s biggest asset may have simply been his availability. In 2020, Mayfield was the first Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar to start all 16 games in consecutive seasons.
Not only did the offense improve, but the team as a whole improved dramatically in close games. In 2019, the Browns went 2-4 in games decided by one possession. Under Stefanski, the team went 7-3 in these games, including the playoffs. Closing out tight games games was crucial down the stretch to clinch their playoff berth.
Stefanski led one of the most dramatic single-season improvements in recent NFL history, but how sustainable is improvement? Since 2002, there have been 123 head coaches hired. Only seven of them matched or exceeded Stefanski’s improvement while winning in the playoffs. Six of the seven eventually led the team to at least one conference championship game. The lone exception? Frank Reich, who only has three seasons at the helm in Indianapolis.
The future is bright for the Browns. Young skill players like Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Jarvis Landry should continue to improve and be linchpins of the offense for years to come. In the trenches, the Browns return All-Pros on both sides of the ball. Three offensive lineman (Jack Conklin, Joel Bitonio, and Wyatt Teller) and defensive end Myles Garrett have eight All-Pro selections between them and will help win the line of scrimmage in the future.
After a successful 2020, the Browns look primed to compete in the AFC North for years to come. Judging by history, they should set their sights beyond the divisional round.
By Stephen Juza, Pro-Football-History.com @official_PFH