Browns owners Jimmy Haslam is mired in yet another losing season and facing increasing questions about the hiring of novice head coach Freddie Kitchens both in Cleveland and nationally.
That decision in January to promote the first-time play caller to the head coaching position was not universally championed within the front office, and sources said Haslam once again went against the recommendation of the organization's analytics department in opting to hire Kitchens. That department, much-ballyhooed at one time and given considerable resources by Haslam across several coaching and general manager regime changes, believed Kevin Stefanski, currently the Vikings offensive coordinator, was the best candidate for the job.
The analytics department is headed by former Oakland A's "Moneyball" executive Paul DePodesta, and has been a part of the search process for years. When Haslam opted to hire former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson back in 2016 it was against the reservations of the analytics team, sources said, who strongly supported Sean McDermott for the job (McDermott was the Panthers defensive coordinator and was hired as the Bills head coach that offseason). The analytics model has tended to differ from the candidates that ownership was been drawn to or been the most comfortable with, and Kitchens had strong internal support within the football operations department due to his great work with quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first-overall pick, in the second half of 2018.
But Mayfield and the passing game overall have regressed and suffered since Week 1 of 2019, despite a blockbuster trade for receiver Odell Beckham, raising some doubts about Kitchens' future for 2020. Cleveland entered the season with the highest hopes and expectations since Haslam purchased the team in 2012, but stand at 2-6 and with steep odds to getting into the playoff chase. Kitchens has been under fire for his in-game management as well as the Browns' weekly lack of discipline and penalty-prone ways.
Stefanski has steadily built a strong reputation for himself for his work with quarterbacks and garnered some head coaching interest last year despite just being promoted to the offensive coordinator role with the Vikings during the 2018 season. Stefanski, 37, earned high marks for his work with struggling veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins last month, when the Vikings passing game shook off its September woes to become the best in the league for the month of October. A strong finish by the Vikings could further boost his interest around the league with the 2020 cycle short on hot coordinators, and some of the teams that just hired a new coach a year ago poised to potentially do so again this January.