Compelling arguments can be made this year in favor of many NFL head coaches for the official coach of the year award, for two reasons. First, there were many very good NFL head coaches this year. Second, the standard for this award continues to be very loose and vague.
What does it mean to be coach of the year? From 2001 through 2018, Bill Belichick could have been coach of the year almost every year. The rough understanding seems to be that the award goes to the coach whose team most exceeds it generally accepted expectations for the year.
Under that standard, which we’ll borrow for our own coach of the year award, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski deserves to be the PFT coach of the year. Without the benefit of an offseason program or preseason games, Stefanski gradually, deliberately, and inevitably crafted a winning program from a team that grossly underachieved in 2019. The effort started simply by winning the games that they should. It culminated in winning multiple games that they should have lost, first against the Colt and most notably against the Titans.
Stefanski fixed the various flaws in quarterback Baker Mayfield‘s game. When the Browns lost receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. for the season, the Browns (after initially struggling against the Raiders without OBJ) didn’t miss a beat. And they took full advantage of their bye week to address flaws, to focus on strengths, and to keep pushing toward a grossly unexpected 11-5 record in one of the toughest divisions in football — and Cleveland’s first postseason berth since 2002.
The latter days of the season have been marred by COVID-19 infections that began as community spread and became a full-blown outbreak. Stefanski won’t be available for the playoff game, which undoubtedly will prove his value to the team.
He’ll continue to prove his value in the coming years. This isn’t an aberration or a blip on the radar screen. This is the arrival of the Browns as a force to be reckoned with. They should improve, not regress, in 2021 and beyond.
Others who merit consideration for the award include, most notably, Packers coach Matt LaFleur. He walked two years ago into a jambalaya of dysfunction and he has steered the team toward consecutive 13-3 records. He won’t get the votes that he should for the official award, because we’ve already come to expect LaFleur to thrive.
Ditto for Bills coach Sean McDermott, who has turned the Bills into, currently, the best team in the NFL. A playoff berth was presumed and a division title was likely. The ascension to dominance was not. McDermott deserves credit for that.
Others who did much better than the expectations would have suggested include Washington coach Ron Rivera, who fought through cancer to take an overmatched roster to an unlikely division title, Saints coach Sean Payton, Dolphins coach Brian Flores, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid, whose team consistently faced the best that every opponent had to offer — and consistently won.
In the end, there can only be one winner, however. In a year with several impressive coaching performances, Stefanski stands out.