When it comes to officiating, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski gave himself the same pep talk he delivered to his players.
Stefanski said he became “too wrapped up” in what quarterback Baker Mayfield said were two missed pass interference penalties on a second-down play with 2:55 remaining Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. Stefanski said that affected the ill-fated draw to Kareem Hunt he called on third-and-9 in a 47-42 loss at SoFi Stadium.
“In hindsight, I definitely wish I did something different,” Stefanski said Monday. “This is where I have to put our guys in position to succeed, and I didn’t do that there and I’m sick about it.
“Definitely got too wrapped up in the previous play call with the clock stopping and how that unfolded. I’ve got to put our guys in position and I can’t do that to our team.”
On second down from the Cleveland 15 with the Browns leading 42-41, Mayfield threw a deep incompletion to receiver Rashard Higgins. Mayfield said safety Derwin James Jr. interfered with Higgins, while cornerback Michael Davis did the same with receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Hunt netted only 3 yards on the ensuing draw, and the Chargers marched 48 yards to a touchdown on the next possession to take a 47-42 lead. The Browns got the ball back with 91 seconds to go.
Asked whether his “wrapped up” comment referred to the no-calls, Stefanski said, “I would just tell you, I’m never going to rely and we as a team are not going to rely on the officials. I need to in the moment — whether something gets called or doesn’t get called — I’ve got to move on and make sure I give the guys a chance to succeed.”
The Browns were still stinging from a 33-yard pass interference play on cornerback A.J. Green during the Chargers’ 75-yard touchdown drive that tied the score at 35 with 7:24 to play. CBS replays showed receiver Mike Williams blatantly grabbing Green’s jersey.
Stefanski was also second-guessed for his clock management on the final possession, as the Browns gained only 11 yards on the first three plays that consumed 50 seconds. Higgins caught a 6-yard pass, followed by throws of 3 and 2 yards to Hunt that left the Browns with only 41 seconds.
“We had a four verticals called that we checked it down to Kareem. Then it was a third-and-1 where we were aggressive to Kareem in the flat to try and get the first [down]. That’s the truth of it,” Stefanski said. “The first goal of that drive was to make sure we were in location to throw a Hail Mary. Obviously, we’d love to get as close as possible to do that, but that’s what happened there.”
After the game, Stefanski referred to protection issues that affected his play-calling. Starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. was inactive with an ankle injury, forcing Blake Hance into the lineup. Then with 13:59 to go in the fourth quarter, right tackle Jack Conklin suffered a knee injury and was replaced by rookie James Hudson III.
During the 2020 season, COVID-19 caused issues on the offensive line, but Stefanski didn’t seem to take the same conservative approach with his calls. He said Monday that the fact that Mayfield is playing with a partially-torn labrum in his left shoulder didn’t play a part in his decisions against the Chargers.
“No, it wasn’t [a factor],” Stefanski said. “Certainly understand that we had some guys playing in positions where I need to make sure I call the game in an appropriate fashion, but that doesn’t excuse not being aggressive when it’s called for.”
Stefanski said the issues in Los Angeles won’t prompt him to cede play-calling to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and serve as the overseer.
“I think we have a really good collaboration on gameday,” Stefanski said. “It’s a lot of us on there, but particularly AVP, [offensive line coach] Bill Callahan do a great job in making sure our operation is how we want it. Certainly there’s going to be moments where I need to do better, but I’m getting a ton of help throughout the game.”