Kevin Stefanski knows how important it is for him to establish a close bond with Baker Mayfield.
In-person contact between Stefanski and Mayfield — and all other Browns players and coaches — was drastically limited this offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stefanski, however, didn't waste time to see his new quarterback before the offseason was significantly shifted.
He visited Mayfield in February at his home in Austin, Texas, and their conversations weren't focused on football. Instead, they simply talked about themselves and their interests, like two people looking to become friends.
"That was really our first time to get in person and talk about life and get to know each other," Stefanski said Friday in a Zoom call with local reporters. "From that moment until now, I have been very impressed with Baker."
Stefanski said he has always preferred to visit players and coaches in person during the offseason, and he knew that would be an even more important task in his first season as a head coach in Cleveland. Mayfield, of course, was at the top of Stefanski's travel list — he's entering a crucial third year in the NFL, and Stefanski has formulated a specific wide-zone offense designed to boost Mayfield's production after he threw 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in a disappointing 2019 season.
A tight bond will certainly help that plan work at peak efficiency, so Stefanski felt it was necessary to meet Mayfield and his family somewhere away from a football field.
When Stefanski left Mayfield's home, he had a greater understanding of how he can elevate Mayfield to the best quarterback he can be.
"The head coach-quarterback relationship is important," Stefanski said. "I just felt like it was important for me to sit face-to-face with him, meet his family and get to know each other."
Mayfield has received praise from Browns players and coaches for rallying the team together in a much different start to training camp. Players are adhering to social distancing guidelines and have yet to take team snaps together on the field, but he's still found ways to build close bonds with teammates.
He also appears to be in terrific shape. Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry lauded Mayfield on Tuesday for adding four pounds of lean mass and devoting the offseason toward improving his body.
None of those nuances surprised Stefanski. He knew Mayfield had plenty of self-motivation after his offseason visit, and the unusual offseason didn't sway his vision of how Mayfield would look when he arrived at camp.
"It's really impressive," Stefanski said. "He did a nice job. That just does not happen. There is a lot of work that goes into that, and he clearly has done the work."
Check out photos of the team working out Tuesday
Stefanski wasn't the only person to visit Mayfield in the offseason. Rashard Higgins, Damion Ratley, David Njoku, Austin Hooper and Case Keenum, among other players, all made visits over the offseason, too. Hooper, who signed a four-year deal with the Browns in March, said Wednesday that he even made two visits to work out and grow chemistry.
"I feel like the more time you put in with each other, the better that relationship will grow," Hooper said.
Stefanski can already see how that will pay off on the field. He said Mayfield has impressed him with his ability to shift players at the line of scrimmage, and he's confident that Mayfield will shine once the Browns can finally practice with 11 players on both ends of the ball.
"At that position, your job is to make people better," Stefanski said. "In order to do that, you really have to get to know guys and you have to know what makes them tick. I think one of his strong suits is understanding his peers, his teammates, and he works at it. That is definitely a strong suit of his."
Stefanski has been full of praise whenever he's been asked about Mayfield. That is, perhaps, expected when a first-year head coach discusses their quarterback, but Stefanski has known what to expect from Mayfield since that February visit.
Now that training camp is here and Mayfield is back on the field, Stefanski has even more assurance that his quarterback has the potential to be what the Browns need under center.
"He understands his role," Stefanski said. "He understands what we want him to do in this offense."