For most of this century, the only thing the Cleveland Browns led the league in was chaos and coaching changes. The playoffs were usually an afterthought by mid-October, and their famous east end zone was more like the adorable Puppy Bowl than the intimidating Dawg Pound.
The New York Giants’ misery isn’t nearly as extensive, but lately they have struggled. They have made four coaching changes in six years. They have made the playoffs once in nine years and are usually closer to the bottom of the NFC East than the top, which is some impressive mediocrity given that the division has only four teams.
At the end of last season, each franchise turned to coaches with deep ties to Philadelphia to reverse the courses of their damaged ships. Kevin Stefanski (St. Joseph’s Prep, ’00) has the Browns in line for the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Joe Judge (Lansdale Catholic, ‘00) has dug the Giants out of a 1-7 start to within one game of first place in the NFL’s Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Division.
Stefanski beat out Judge for the quarterback job for the freshmen team at the Prep in 1996, which led Judge to transfer.
Stefanski went to Penn and got his first taste of the NFL working as a training camp intern for the Eagles in 2005. He bonded with Brad Childress and grew up under his wing.
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Judge headed south to Mississippi State, where he played mostly on special teams but gained enough connections to work as a coach for Nick Saban and then Bill Belichick.
On Sunday, Stefanski and Judge will meet as head coaches when the Giants host the Browns. Throw in La Salle’s Sean McDermott, who has the Bills at 10-3, and this is a special time for Philly football.
“I do know Joe, a good man,” Stefanski said. “We crossed paths years ago. Played with his brother Jim in high school. A great person. I have been able to follow Joe’s career. We kind of had different paths. He went the college route coaching and then he made his way up to New England and has three Super Bowl rings to show for it.”
Renowned Newsday columnist Bob Glauber has been covering the Giants almost as long as Joe Judge has been alive. Was there when the “Big Tuna” was just another goldfish in the New York City sports aquarium. Says Judge reminds him of the Hall of Fame coach.
“I think there’s a little bit of [Bill] Parcells in him, which Giants fans relate to,” Glauber said. “He’s just got that tough, sometimes abrasive [way] with his players. All he cares about is getting the best out of everybody, and that’s the way it was with Parcells.”
But Judge is different from Parcells and Tom Coughlin, the franchise’s other Super Bowl-winning coach who had a nose as hard as granite. At his introductory news conference 11 months ago, Judge pledged to always remember that there are human beings underneath those helmets and shoulder pads.
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“Let’s not think that in professional sports, paying a paycheck to somebody makes it absent of empathy,” said Judge, who had been the special-teams coach in New England for Belichick, Parcells’ most notable pupil. “We need to make sure that the players in our locker room, we treat them the right way.”
When he spotted mistakes in training camp, his first as a head coach at any level, running laps was the penalty. That went for the players, coaches, and probably even the ball boys if the ice wasn’t cold enough. He also cut undrafted wide receiver Derrick Dillon, but only after a deadline that allowed Dillon to collect his $8,400 salary for the week. Dillon’s girlfriend had just had a baby and the coach encouraged the rookie to go home to New Orleans and be with his family.
“That kind of stuff really goes a long way toward players wanting to play,” said Glauber. “They know that beneath the demanding, tough guy is a caring human being who sees the greater importance of things in life.”
Dillon was brought back two days later and added to the Giants’ practice squad until he was released on Dec. 1.
Not to say there haven’t been problems. Besides the dreadful start, Judge had to fire his offensive line coach for reported insubordination, Golden Tate was deactivated for a game after some disruptive posts on social media, and 2019 first-round pick DeAndre Baker was released following an armed robbery charge on which he was subsequently cleared.
New York is rebuilding, and probably looking at another losing season. The Giants have to figure out if Daniel Jones is the future at quarterback, hope that Saquon Barkley can stay healthy enough to be a franchise running back, and find other weapons on offense to augment a good defense. Still, the culture has changed around the team.
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Safety Logan Ryan’s wife was having pregnancy complications in Florida in November. Judge told Ryan, a graduate of Eastern High School in South Jersey and one of the leaders of the defense, to use whatever time he needed to take care of Ashley. The Giants were 1-7 at the time.
“That’s who Joe is as a man,” said Ryan, an eight-year veteran who was a special-teams player under Judge in New England. “I know we care about X’s and O’s and winning and losing, but there are really good people here. ... I’ll do everything I can to play for a coach like that, and play for an organization like this.”
Baker Mayfield threw an interception late in the third quarter against the Ravens on Monday night that could have been a killer. Linebacker Tyus Bowser slipped into coverage and Mayfield should have seen it.
Or should he? When he got to the sideline, it was Stefanski who took responsibility for the turnover. Bad play-calling, perhaps. But really he was letting his third-year quarterback off the hook.
“He is the type of guy that he always wants to take the blame,” said Mayfield, who dusted himself off and completed 12 of his next 14 passes, including two for touchdowns. He also ran for a score.
The Browns lost when Justin Tucker kicked a 55-yard field goal in the waning seconds in what was probably the best game of the season.
“Under Stefanski they are always composed in crucial situations,” said Tony Grossi, NFL analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com who has covered the Browns for 36 years. “We’ll see as the games get bigger whether that continues. That’s one thing that Stefanski has definitely brought to the team. The roster -- the best guys, at least -- were here before him. He’s made them more composed with his demeanor. I think that’s definitely rubbed off on them in crucial situations.”
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The Browns were supposed to be contenders last season under Freddie Kitchens. Mayfield was maturing, the defense was improving, and they traded for Odell Beckham. But instead of a playoff run, the Browns turned into a soap opera. They went 6-10 and the vibe was similar to Terrell Owens’ second season with the Eagles, in 2005.
Andrew Berry took over as general manager for John Dorsey, and Stefanski was brought in to replace Kitchens, who had trouble maintaining order as the team lost four of its final five, including the season finale to 1-14 Cincinnati.
“This was a drama team last year,” Grossi said. “From the day of the trade to Odell Beckham, everything was ratcheted up 10-fold. Everything was drama, and [Stefanski’s] wiped out the drama. ... That’s been his calling card other than winning. He’s restored the adult in the room. It was like a circus last year.”
Mayfield credited the “4H” concept Stefanski picked up in the offseason when players and staff were sequestered by COVID-19. Members of the team would reveal their hopes, heroes, heartbreak, and history to one another in an effort to reveal a fifth H: humanity.
“You got to know somebody without actually being there,” said Mayfield, who has had four head coaches in his three NFL seasons. “It means a lot because then you build the foundation for a team that you want to play for. You want to play for these guys around you, and you want to fight for them. ... A lot of the new players got to know everybody quickly because of it. I don’t think we would be here [at 9-4] right now.”
Kareem Hunt, part of the best running back tandem in the league, said in September that he “was able to learn things about people I probably would not talk to that much. That was a good way to do it. It brought us closer as a team. I have those guys’ backs.”
Odds to win AP coach of the year according to Circa sportsbook in Las Vegas. Odds reflect winning amount based on $100 wager.
Ron Rivera, Washington (+275): For all of the deserved grief the division has taken, how appropriate for 2020 would it be for the coach of the year to come from the NFC East?
Brian Flores, Miami (+315): Nice work staying in playoff contention while working in rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh (+340): The Steelers have lost two in a row and have games against Indy and at Cleveland after this week’s layup at Cincinnati.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo (+695): Priced twice as high as Tomlin, whom the Bills just beat.
Sean McVay, L.A. Rams (+1100): Tied with Seattle atop the league’s toughest division; 0-2 against San Francisco, 9-2 against everyone else.
Andy Reid, Kansas City (+1700): No reason they shouldn’t be 15-1; Andy hasn’t won this award since 2002.
Matt LaFleur, Green Bay (+3000): Remember when the Packers were hammered by the Buccaneers in Week 6, 38-10? Seems like ancient history.
Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland (+3000): Last Browns coach to win was Forrest Gregg 44 years ago. Would’ve been among favorites had they beaten the Ravens on Monday.