Whether it becomes thin enough for owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to execute a head coaching change at the end of what's still likely to become a wasted Browns season could hinge on whether Stefanski can convince them ― and Deshaun Watson ― he is capable of maximizing the elite talent the controversial quarterback possesses.
Barring injury, the feel-good, swan-song win of Jacoby Brissett over fellow quarterback Tom Brady and the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the final time the Browns will play without Watson this season. He will return from suspension to face his former team, the Houston Texans, and debut with his new one on the road Sunday.
On one hand, Stefanski will have a three-time Pro Bowl selection manning the sport's most important position, thereby increasing the team's chances for success and creating the potential for a no-holds-barred approach on offense.
On the other hand, the Browns underachieved en route to a record of 4-7 during Watson's 11-game suspension tied to allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, so there is pressure for the franchise to show promise and produce positive results with the Stefanski-Watson pairing in place down the stretch.
Unless the Browns miraculously win out, they will squander the first of Watson's historic five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
Will Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam stick with Kevin Stefanski for another season?
Do you believe the Haslams would risk punting on another season by keeping Stefanski if he fails to satisfy them with Watson on the field?
Some owners definitely would give Stefanski a full season with Watson, no matter how the last six games unfold. The Haslams might.
However, it's fair to remind everyone testing the patience of this Browns ownership group is not wise. Jimmy Haslam, by his own admission, is impatient by nature. Of the five full-time head coaches the Haslams have hired since they bought the Browns in 2012, Stefanski, who landed the job in 2020, has lasted the longest, surpassing Hue Jackson, who was fired after two and a half seasons.
Changes likely to Cleveland Browns coaching staff
Changes will likely be made to Stefanski's staff in January. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer have not held up their end of the bargain this season. Some of the warts on defense and special teams will be masked if Watson plays like a top-tier quarterback, although heavy damage has already been done to whatever confidence anyone has left in Woods and Priefer.
Defeating the Bucs (5-6) is a good step ― and the defense stepped up versus Brady ― but the 2022 Browns have yet to consistently deliver in two of the game's three phases.
As the play caller tasked with squeezing as much juice as possible out of a Brissett-led offense amid the Watson ban, Stefanski has been respectable. Some backbreaking late-game mistakes aside, Brissett deserves credit for playing well and even more praise for his leadership and locker-room presence. His teammates genuinely love him.
Yet the entire operation failing to win more than four games in Watson's absence falls squarely on Stefanski. He hired Woods and retained Priefer, a holdover from the regime led by former General Manager John Dorsey and coach Freddie Kitchens.
All of it raises questions about whether Stefanski is a better offensive coordinator than a head coach. Yes, he proved to be the perfect fit for an unprecedented Zoom-driven, COVID-19-dominated 2020 season, when he won NFL Coach of the Year and guided the Browns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Yet everyone in the league knows they are beholden to answer, “What have you done for me lately?”
The next six games should offer vital answers, and obstacles await.
Watson looked rattled and rusty in his only semblance of real game action with the Browns, a preseason appearance Aug. 12 in Florida against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He encountered boos and vulgar chants from the crowd and went 1-of-5 passing for 7 yards with a rating of 39.6.
Expect Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson to be booed by Houston Texans fans
More than two dozen women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct through the judicial system, and the fan bases of Browns opponents will make sure he hears about it during road games.
As far as the atmosphere next weekend is concerned, legendary NFL writer John McClain thinks Watson might actually catch a break to some degree during his Browns debut in Houston because Texans fans are thoroughly disgusted with the team's pathetic 1-9-1 season.
“He'll get booed but not like he would if the team [Houston] was winning,” McClain, who retired from the Houston Chronicle earlier this year, wrote in a text exchange.
Even if Watson avoids a full dose of vitriol, he must adjust to real NFL action for the first time in 700 days ― or one year, 11 months and one day. He hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since Jan. 3, 2021, after sitting out last season in Houston amid a trade request.
Watson's desire to leave his previous team ought to be considered by the Haslams when they evaluate the key members of the organization surrounding him. Stefanski's performance will be at the forefront the next month and a half, but the roster constructed by GM Andrew Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta will continue to be subjected to scrutiny, too.
Remember, the Browns were initially informed Watson would not waive his no-trade clause for them as they competed with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in the final sweepstakes for his services. It took the Browns presenting Watson with a fully guaranteed “Godfather” offer to change his mind on March 18, with Cleveland also agreeing to trade a package of draft picks, including three in the first round, to Houston.
The last scenario the Haslams would want is Watson feeling buyer's remorse early in his Browns tenure.
They need Watson to feel good about his head coach and the direction of the franchise.
Stefanski certainly didn't hurt his stock with Sunday's triumph, but the next six weeks are shaping up to be more significant for his future.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns' Kevin Stefanski must show he's right for Deshaun Watson