The Browns just completed their longest season since the franchise was reinstated to the NFL. It’s one that can be celebrated and built upon.
But in the aftermath of a narrow loss against the Chiefs on Sunday, Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski couldn’t help but dwell a bit on what he and his team didn’t do in what proved to be a winnable game.
“I’ll reflect later (on the season),” Stefanski said shortly after the 22-17 defeat in the Divisional Round. “I think right now it stings when you don’t get the job done that you came to get done.”
Especially painful was a potential scoring play late in the first half that amounted to a 10-point swing in Kansas City’s favor. With the Browns staring down an opportunity to cut their deficit to six heading into halftime, wide receiver Rashard Higgins caught a pass just outside the end zone and dove with outstretched arms toward the pylon while taking a shot to the head from Daniel Sorensen. The ball popped out before Higgins crossed the goal line and tricked through the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback.
While some might find the rule polarizing, everyone is clear on it. Thus, Stefanski said the Browns have been coached to attack the situation differently.
“I will never ever doubt Rashard Higgins’ effort or our guys’ effort,” he said. “Our rule there is not to reach the ball out. It’s first-and-goal, and he knows that. Again, appreciate his effort. He battled like he always does but we got to fight that urge because its such a big loss if it does end up being a touchback.”
Stefanski declined to go into specifics regarding Sorenson’s helmet-to-helmet contact with Higgins that went unflagged.
“Honestly, I didn’t see the replay,” he said. “I was told about it, but I’ll let the league handle those types of things.”
The first-year coach had more regret over himself not examining the replays of other crucial plays. In the fourth quarter, the Browns challenged an acrobatic catch from Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill, who deftly pinned the ball to his thigh while rolling over. That cost Cleveland a timeout that would have served them well against the defending Super Bowl champs while down five in the final minutes, particularly on defense.
Stefanski, making his playoff debut on the sidelines after a positive COVID-19 test kept him out of last week’s win over the Steelers, also opted not to challenge a long completion in the third quarter that, upon review, was clearly dropped. The Chiefs came away with a field goal on that drive.
“All those decisions, that’s on me,” Stefanski said. “I should have been better there. There’s a cost to those when you do lose those, because you’re losing a time out, so that’s on me.”
Stefanski, of course, helped the Browns much more than he hurt them this season. He’s a strong Coach of the Year candidate after leading the club to its first postseason berth in 13 years and first postseason win in 26.
That was undoubtedly the first job he came to do in Cleveland, and he got it done in a matter of months. The Browns are no longer the Browns as we’ve known them.
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