The biggest shock of the weekend involving the 49ers and Vikings wasn’t the result in the NFC Divisional Playoff on Saturday. Instead it was the Cleveland Browns’ decision to hire now-former Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, instead of runner up Robert Saleh, less than 24 hours after Saleh’s defense held the Vikings to 10 points and 147 yards of total offense.
One game does not a candidate make, but the optics and timing were not ideal for a Browns franchise that has a reputation for getting it wrong, coaching decisions and otherwise. It’s also why Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, along with many 49ers fans in the Bay Area, was surprised to hear the news.
“I expected Saleh to get it,” Rapoport told Murph & Mac on Monday morning. “So I was planning in my head like how I would say it…Then I got the word it was Stefanski — who is a really good, young, respected coach who has done a really good job in Minnesota, and likes analytics and all that, I get it — but I was very surprised. I was very surprised.”
Stefanski, 37, worked his way up in the Vikings organization, starting out as a assistant to then head coach Brad Childress in 2006. 2019 was his first as the team’s offensive coordinator, and saw the Minnesota offense finish seventh in offensive efficiency according to football outsiders. That likely made him a more enticing candidate than Saleh, considering the Browns finished 23rd in offensive efficiency, despite significant talent at the skill positions.
Saleh’s defense of course was nothing to sneeze at. His unit finished fifth in overall efficiency while dealing with consistent injuries to a number of All-Pro caliber players (Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, Jaquiski Tartt, to name just a few), and was dominant at close to full strength. Despite the snub, Rapoport believes Saleh’s pedigree as both a defensive mind and a leader, will put him at the top of the market next season.
“(Saleh) was the other finalist. He has put himself now deep in the discussion for head coaching openings next year, where I feel very confident that he’ll have a chance at being a head coach next year. Assuming the 49ers are good which they’re probably going to be year in and year out, the way he acts on the sideline, the way his players speak about him.
“Don’t you think that ever owner heard Richard Sherman yesterday say ‘Look, why isn’t someone hiring this guy?’ These are things that speak loudly to these owners and I think Saleh is in a great position now.”
Sherman has been campaigning ever since Saleh was linked to the Browns job, and heaped praise on his coordinator after Saturday’s win.
“Saleh called a fantastic game,” Sherman said. “I heard a lot of people and read a lot of media reports talking about this game would decide the Cleveland Browns coaching position between their offensive coordinator and Saleh. If that’s the way they want to decide it, I think Saleh put on a great performance and he deserves consideration. He’s called great games throughout the year. This was a masterpiece of him knowing his personnel, having his personnel, coming up with a fantastic plan, and us executing it.”
Rapoport says that Saleh’s reputation should be enough to keep him in the minds of owners, even if the 49ers’ defense takes a step back from a production standpoint next season.
“I would say for someone like Saleh who’s really, really smart, who’s pretty dynamic, who I think could be someone who could lead a team, I hope it doesn’t depend on what’s the 49ers’ defensive ranking next year.
“The Giants hired Joe Judge. He’s a special teams coach who I think is a really good leader, will speak to everyone in the locker room and will shepherd this organization into a good place. I think that means more than where the Patriots special teams rankings were. That’s what teams should look for. That’s why I hope Saleh is in position next year like he was this year.”