Kevin Stefanski never altered his expectations for what he believed the Browns could accomplish in 2020.
The Browns head coach truly believed they could reach the Super Bowl. He thought that goal was realistic as soon as he walked into the doors of the headquarters in Berea for the first time just over a year ago.
He knew how fortunate he was to inherit a talented roster, one that underwent a disappointing, 6-10 season in 2019. He had a plan to maximize the production of every position on the team, and all he needed was for everyone to buy into his expectation, too.
"I definitely can look back and tell you that I'm proud of the effort of our players, our coaches on our staff," Stefanski said. "We accomplished, definitely, some of our goals, but ultimately, not all of our goals."
No, the Browns did not reach the Super Bowl. For Stefanski, that means the season didn't quite meet his expectations, and he'll spend the next six months until training camp lamenting that fact.
But he also realizes that 31 other coaches around the NFL didn't meet their expectations, either, and Stefanski's offseason challenge will be going to work to put the Browns in a better position than the rest of those teams at meeting expectations next season.
Oh, and if there were any doubt, Stefanski's expectations for 2021 are exactly the same as 2020.
"Expectations for us will always be to win that last game," he said.
Over the course of a grueling, unusual season, Stefanski kept his big picture expectations mostly to himself.
He rarely discussed matters beyond the current week on the schedule with the Browns, and he urged everyone on the team to focus on the next game on the schedule. As Cleveland toppled seasonal streaks that marked the significance of the Browns' success — they went 11-5 for the first time since 1994 and made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years — Stefanski refused to take a step back and admire how high his team had climbed.
His reasoning was simple: They weren't at the top of the mountain yet. The Browns always had more steps in front of them, and he saw no point in looking at the landmarks until his team was hoisting a Lombardi Trophy or could climb no further.
The journey ended Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. That's where the Browns fell, 22-17, to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round. They took the reigning Super Bowl champions down to the final minute but fell short.
Few believed the Browns could make it to that stage in the first place. Not with a first-year head coach. Not with a team that went 6-10 just a year ago. Not in a season where the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the league's newswire each week.
The Browns arguably were one of the teams hit hardest by the latter. They dealt with several positive COVID-19 cases and unexpected absences due to high-risk-close-contact tracing in the final half of the season. The bad news didn't go away for good until last week after the Browns had won a playoff game without Stefanski, who tested positive himself, and several other assistant coaches and important players.
But Stefanski always believed the Browns could go further. He pushed them to believe that, too, and when the wins started to accumulate early in the year, no one on the Browns was doubting him.
"I'm proud of our guys for battling all season long," Stefanski said. "I'm proud of the guys for putting up with the coaches and us moving the schedule on them constantly. I'm proud of how resilient they were in that regard, and I'm proud of how resilient they were in different ball games. I think we established our identity this season on offense, defense and special teams."
That identity was known since training camp. On offense, the Browns were expected to be a run-first unit that could plow through any opposition. On defense, they relied on strong plays from their defensive line to force long third downs and turnovers. The identity for special teams is always about consistency, and the Browns certainly received that from their kick, punt and return units.
Stefanski is confident strong identities will be established again next season. His expectations for the Browns can't possibly go any higher after everything his team accomplished this season.
But they were already as high as they can possibly get. The Browns didn't reach them — they didn't check the last box labeled with "Super Bowl" — but Stefanski believes they can next season.
"When you taste the success like we did this season, I think the guys understand that the work that they did was what allowed them to taste that success," he said. "I'm already hearing that they want to get back to work.
"We will have to spend a lot of time this offseason in finding ways to make sure that we are getting better. We have to get better as a football team. I have to get better as a coach. That will be our focus moving forward."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday by the Browns photo team