Kevin Stefanski got his first head-coaching job with the Cleveland Browns just as the world was about to change. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered NFL facilities and forced teams into an unprecedented virtual offseason. Stefanski wasn't even able to move to the Cleveland area from Minnesota until recently. His offensive and defensive coordinators, Alex Van Pelt and Joe Woods, have yet to move from their previous stops in Cincinnati and San Francisco.
But even though Stefanski has had to resort to installing his offense and familiarizing himself with his players from afar, he's already been making an impression.
"Kevin is obviously an extremely sharp guy," said quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is on his fourth head coach going into his third NFL season. "He's able to relate to everybody. That's one of the best parts about him and being around him so far."
Mayfield didn't know all that much about Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator, when the Browns hired him following a search process that included eight interviews. Mayfield actually had a prior relationship with another one of the candidates, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, dating back to when McDaniels flew to Mayfield's hometown of Austin, Texas, the week of the 2018 draft to personally convey the Patriots' interest in selecting the former Oklahoma Heisman winner.
Although Mayfield has had to stay in Austin this offseason, he actually did meet Stefanski, who flew to Texas just before the outbreak. Mayfield came away impressed, according to those close to him, and their relationship has blossomed from there.
"Just hearing his message, everything he does is with a purpose," Mayfield said. "It's a very deliberate message, and he has everybody believing in that on the staff. I think that's how the foundation should be set, and he's done an unbelievable job of that."
Stefanski hasn't just made an impact with the players, though, despite being a 38-year-old first-time head coach. Thursday, Woods referred to Stefanski as both "authentic" and a "straight-shooter." Veteran Browns offensive line assistant Bill Callahan, himself a former college football and NFL head coach, said Stefanki's "ability to communicate and connect" -- even via Zoom calls -- "is outstanding."
"I think the world of Kevin and what he has done and accomplished in the very short period of time that we have been together," Callahan said. "If you just consider the fact that we really did not start until the first week in February as an entire staff, then we were at the NFL combine, and shortly after in mid-March, we're gone and all went our separate ways. He's been able to put together a staff, implement a system, coordinate everybody's role.
"The message that he gives the players on a daily and weekly basis is really no different than what it feels like if you were sitting in the team room and listening to him speak. He's very well thought-out. He's well-measured. He gets it. He understands players. As a leader, I'm so impressed with his ability to communicate his message and his mission to the team. It's been well-received."
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Mayfield repeatedly used the phrase "same page" when discussing Stefanski's interactions with the players, the staff and the new front office, headed by first-time general manager Andrew Berry. Mayfield and wide receiver Jarvis Landry also praised how smoothly Stefanski has been operating in concert with Van Pelt and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, with Landry calling it all "very helpful" amidst the challenging setting of learning new schemes from a distance.
"We have a game plan for what we really want to try to accomplish," Mayfield said, "and it seems as though Andrew, Kevin and the whole staff have gotten on the same page personnel-wise."
The talent of that personnel shouldn't be Cleveland's issue as the franchise aims to finally snap the NFL's longest playoff drought, now up to 18 years. The Browns boast one of the league's most gifted receiving duos (Odell Beckham Jr. and Landry) and top running back tandems (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt). By signing right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and drafting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick last month, the Browns are primed to feature one of the most improved offensive lines in the league, as well.
Though he struggled last year, Mayfield was a sensation as a rookie just two seasons ago. And this year he'll have playmaking tight end Austin Hooper, who joined Cleveland in free agency, at his disposal over the middle of the field.
Yet as the personnel, especially offensively, appears to be in place, finding the same page, all the way from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff down to the players, has evaded Cleveland since the franchise returned to the league more than two decades ago.
Stefanski, so far, has shown to be undaunted by the past. Or by the present predicament.
"We're in a tough spot, which everybody is, but he's been extremely positive," Callahan said. "He's upbeat, outgoing, he reaches out. He just keeps forging forward. I have been impressed in every aspect. ... And I feel really fortunate and really honored to be on his staff."