The Cleveland Browns hired Kevin Stefanski as head coach on Sunday, making him the 12th man to carry the title in the expansion era. The former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator could facilitate a 20/20 understanding between the front office of Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta (and rumored favorite-candidate-for-GM Andrew Berry) and the coaching staff, which will most likely be rooted in that old blasphemous term among certain Browns circles: Analytics.
Yes, you may still have a bad taste in your mouth from the Sashi Brown regime, but “analytics” isn’t just about a bunch of pedantic nerds sitting in a room formulating algorithms and crunching numbers. Analytics are used for player evaluation/acquisition and should be used in correlation with traditional scouting methods. Analytics assist coaches with identifying trends, strategies, and weaknesses of weekly opponents. Analytics provide useful input on gamedays, offering win probabilities and risk-reward ratios of certain situations. Simply put: It’s about putting the team and its players in the best position to succeed, which is a foreign concept to this franchise and seemingly something for which Stefanski excels.
He is data-driven and the advantageous offense could have been built in a lab for the Browns, particularly in the areas of personnel usage, the play-action passing game, and zone-running.1
Personnel groupings are denoted using a two-digit numerical system that identifies the type of offensive personnel, and the number of each type of personnel. Every offensive personnel package has five offensive linemen and one quarterback, which leaves the offense with five players among the running back, tight end, and wide receiver position groups. In naming the grouping, the first digit identifies the number of running backs, the second digit identifies the number of tight ends, and the number of wide receivers is inferred based on subtracting the total number of running backs and tight ends from five.
As mentioned above, Stefanski seemingly has a knack for putting players in the best position to succeed, especially when it comes to advantageous play-calling and his usage of variable/beneficial personnel groupings. The Vikings deployed “12” and “21” personnel groupings the second-most in the league at 35% and 22%, respectively (Sharp Football).2 Correspondingly, the Browns found immense success from these groupings in 2019, in particular, “12” personnel, where Baker Mayfield had a 100.5 passer rating, 11.1 air yards per attempt, and a 2.5:1 interception to touchdown ratio, while the running game averaged 4.5 yards per carry (Sharp Football).
It would be a delight for a coach to devise gameplans that correlate to players’ strengths, rather than focusing on specific plays or concepts that may not fit with the players at your disposal.
Per Pro Football Focus (“PFF”), the Vikings offense utilized play-action on 31.4% of quarterback Kirk Cousins’s dropbacks, which was the fifth-most in the NFL in 2019. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had the highest completion percentage differential in the NFL on play-action vs. non-play-action dropbacks (10.1%). Further, play-action was utilized 10.1% more (34.2% vs. 24.1%) in victories vs. losses for the Browns in 2019. As an example, the below two film exhibits present Mayfield at his best (from Week 12 vs. the Miami Dolphins):
In order for play action to be effective, the quarterback must sell the threat of a run by actively putting the ball in and out of the midsection of the running back. The overriding concept is to get the defense to react to the action (or fake play) and give the offensive players a chance to get open and execute the pass (or real play). Cousins and the offense, in general, were superb in selling play-fakes during the 2019 season under the tutelage of Stefanski. The Browns left a lot to be desired in this area during the 2019 season, with a rushed and disconcerted approach that was unable to take advantage of one of the league’s best ground games.
With the proper coaching and installation, the play-action passing game could (and should) become a focal point of this offense in 2020.
The overall idea of a zone run is to create cut-back lanes through which the running back can run. The running back reads the blocks in front of him and picks the lane to enter. Browns running back Nick Chubb plays his best in the zone scheme, as it emphasizes his patience, vision, and explosiveness. In fact, one of his best scampers of the season utilized this concept Week 4 vs. the Baltimore Ravens:
From a blocking perspective, a zone scheme is best suited for an offensive line that has more athleticism than physicality, which is exactly the case for the Browns current squad. Zone blocking calls for an offensive lineman to take a “zone step” to the play-side in order to block a specific area or gap instead of a specific player assignment. Using this concept would only further develop Nick Chubb (and fellow running back Kareem Hunt), who already form one of the NFL’s most formidable duos at the position group.
For those of you in the “run the darn ball” crowd, no team in the NFL used the rushing game in the red zone more than the Vikings under Stefanski (62% of plays). The team had the eighth-best success rate in the red zone (Sharp Football). The Browns, on the other hand, ran on 45% of red-zone plays (16th) and were 31st in success rate (36%).
An aligned, singular vision on how to assess and acquire talent, create a culture and generate sustained success was the goal from this coaching search and it was seemingly achieved. With the right choices at coordinator and position coaches, Stefanski has the tools to lead this team to the promised land. Time will tell if owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam will have the patience to see this thing through.