The Cleveland Browns had a clean sweep at the NFL Honors Thursday night in Las Vegas with all four of their nominated finalists winning season-long Associated Press awards. Kevin Stefanski won his second Coach of the Year award, Myles Garrett was named Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in his career, Joe Flacco won Comeback Player of the Year and Jim Schwartz won Assistant Coach of the Year.
Hiring Schwartz as defensive coordinator was part of Stefanski’s impressive 2023 run. The Browns won 11 games and became the first team since 2015 and just the seventh in the Super Bowl era to win a game with four different starting quarterbacks. Stefanski’s offensive adaptability and Schwartz’s attack-first defense helped the Browns become the only team to defeat the No. 1 seed in both the AFC and NFC.
“We have an immense sense of pride in all of these awards,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry told The Athletic last week. “Our ultimate goal is obviously to win games on the field, but it’s great when employees of the organization — players, coaches and staff who work so hard — are recognized for their achievements in a given year, it’s phenomenal and deserved. I couldn’t be more proud of those four individuals in terms of their contributions this season.”
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The Browns made the playoffs because Flacco led them on a four-game December win streak after he spent the first 11 weeks of the season waiting for a team to call. Cleveland signed Flacco to its practice squad on Nov. 20, and in five December starts he threw 13 touchdown passes. The Browns had just nine touchdown passes in their first 11 games.
Heroics by Garrett and the defense sparked a two-game win streak in October that included victories over the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, who represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this weekend. Garrett’s 14 sacks on the season were two short of the numbers he posted in 2021 and 2022, but voters made Garrett the choice for his dominance in big moments and the way he changed games by commanding extra attention from blockers and consistently speeding up quarterbacks and opposing play callers.
Stefanski prefers to keep a low public profile and dismissed any talk of his Coach of the Year candidacy during the season. But he broke his normal routine multiple times in campaigning for Garrett, repeatedly calling him “the best player on the best defense in the league.” Berry said much of the same.
“Hopefully this (Defensive Player of the Year award) is the first of several for Myles,” Berry said in the team’s announcement of the awards. “We are so proud of him. We see how hard he works every day. He represents our city and our franchise at such a high level. It’s not just what he does on the field, but what he does off the field as well. Obviously, he’s as dominant a force as there is in the entire league.”
Horrible take!! Myles was the better player!! Reality of the situation ! Myles Faced way more double teams and affect on qbs! Fans please stop looking at stats and look at film please!! https://t.co/neF8LwtfKk
— Micah Parsons (@MicahhParsons11) February 9, 2024
Garrett received 23 of the 50 first-place votes for Defensive Player of the Year. In a 5-3-1 scoring system, he finished 25 points ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, who got 19 first-place votes after posting a league-best 19 sacks.
Garrett was presented his award by Deion Sanders, the University of Colorado head coach who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. Garrett becomes the first Browns defender to win the award, and his long list of thank yous on the stage Thursday night included Stefanski, Berry, Schwartz and Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
“We had a hell of a brotherhood that helped support me and get me here,” Garrett said.
Schwartz’s defense ranked among the top three in multiple major categories. The 270.2 yards allowed per game were the fewest by any team since Seattle’s 267.1 in 2014. The Browns also had the league’s best defense on third down (opponents converted just 29.1 percent) and in passing yards allowed per game (164.7).
Stefanski and Garrett were the betting favorites to win their respective awards in December. Garrett was named the Pro Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year last month.
Flacco winning might have been a bit of a surprise, but he became one of the league’s best stories during Cleveland’s December run.
“With Joe Cool, we’re just so proud,” Berry said. “From the couch to the playoffs, he was such a stabilizing force for our team this season. We’re so thankful that he decided to join us for the playoff push.”
The Browns were the first team to call Flacco to inquire about him playing a 16th NFL season, and the initial call was made the day after the Browns found out Deshaun Watson would need season-ending shoulder surgery. Watson will be back as the Browns’ starter while Flacco, who turned 39 last month, is eligible for free agency. Flacco made his first three starts for the Browns while still on the practice squad, and the team later added per-game incentives to his veteran minimum contract to show its gratitude for Flacco’s contributions and unselfishness.
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Stefanski joins Ron Rivera, Bruce Arians and Bill Belichick as the only coaches to win multiple Coach of the Year awards this century, and just the 13th coach to earn it more than once. Stefanski did not attend the ceremony.
Stefanski and first-year Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans finished tied in the Coach of the Year voting. Stefanski won due to his 21 first-place votes to Ryans’ 20.
“We are so lucky to have Kevin as a leader of our organization,” Berry said. “What he’s been able to navigate throughout the first four years here has been nothing short of remarkable. Battling all the adversity that we had this season and guiding us to another playoff appearance is just phenomenal, and we’re so lucky to have Kevin as a steward of our program the last four years … and really into the foreseeable future.”
(Photo of Myles Garrett: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)