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Kevin Stefanski recalls Minnesota as a 'special place,' but Sunday will be all business

Stefanski spent 14 seasons in Minneapolis and expects to face a tall challenge against his former team

Kevin Stefanski plans to shake hands and exchange greetings with plenty of opposing coaches and players Sunday when the Browns head to Minnesota, Stefanski's former NFL home, for their Week 4 matchup against the Vikings.

But the Browns' head coach, who spent 14 years in the Vikings franchise before coming to Cleveland in 2020, is not treating the trip as any sort of reunion party.

"It's a special place," Stefanski said Wednesday. "I had a great time there and was treated great by the organization, from the ownership, coaches, and the staff. I have really good friends there. 

"With that said, it's a really big game. They're a really good team. That has our full attention."

That was always the expected response from Stefanski, who is looking to keep the Browns flying high after a 26-6 win over the Bears that advanced their record to 2-1.

The Vikings, meanwhile, are 1-2, but their record might not accurately show the true talent on their roster.

Minnesota owns the eighth-best offense in the NFL and secured an impressive 30-17 win last week against the Seahawks. Their defense is off to a slower start — currently ranked 20th in the league in points allowed — but is expected to improve and once again be a strength.

Stefanski doesn't need to do much research to know how difficult the challenge will be (he's certainly still doing the research, though). After spending nearly a decade and a half in Minneapolis, he expects the Vikings to be a tough matchup.

"They very easily could be 3-0," he said. "They won on the road and played a good Cincinnati Bengals team and had them at the end, had a fumble, almost in field goal territory. Week 2, they go to Arizona, who is undefeated. They had a field goal they missed late in the game. Then they go home and played in their first home game. I thought they played lights out. So big challenge, really good football players on their roster."

The offensive system Stefanski has incorporated in Cleveland is similar to the one head coach Mike Zimmer has successfully implemented in Minnesota since he became their coach in 2014.

The run game comes first. The Vikings have two-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook. The Browns have two-time Pro Bowler Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, a do-it-all running back who thrashed a tough Bears defense in Week 3. Chubb and Cook could be among those competing for the league's rushing title near the end of the season.

But if the run game sputters, the passers can pick them up. Kirk Cousins has been a consistent, reliable thrower for the last four seasons in Minnesota and has two Pro Bowl receivers to throw to with Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield is off to one of his best starts of his career and has previously benefited from two other Pro Bowlers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

Both sides have a clear, successful offensive identity, which is just another reason why Stefanski isn't taking anything lightly when it comes to preparations against his former team.

"It's a really, really sound scheme on both sides of the ball," he said. "They do a great job. Coach Zim is as good as it gets."

Stefanski gave ample credit to Zimmer and the numerous coaches he worked with in Minnesota for molding him into the coach he is today. He started in 2006 as an assistant to the head coach, who was Brad Childress at the time, and then gradually hovered across various offensive coaching positions — from quarterbacks, to tight ends, to running backs and eventually to offensive coordinator.

"I'm not different than a lot of people in terms of when you get that start, you start at the bottom and you just have to work really hard," he said. "I think that's ultimately what all coaches do. We kind of sit back when we're the low man on the totem pole, be very quiet and take notes, and ultimately try to be a sponge and learn as much as you can in those moments."

Now, he's the reigning NFL Coach of the Year and commanding one of the most talented teams in the league. 

He'll have plenty of people to thank for that when he arrives at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, but when he puts on the headset and stares across the other end of the field at a team of familiar purple jerseys, he'll be focused on ensuring the team in orange helmets finishes with a win.

"We're going to have to be about our business," he said. "We have our work cut out for us."