KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Over the course of his first season as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski built a reputation for being one of the most aggressive head coaches in the league.
But facing a fourth and nine at the Browns' own 32-yard line and trailing the Kansas City Chiefs 22-17 with four minutes and 19 seconds remaining in the AFC divisional round on Sunday, Stefanski opted to punt the ball back to the defending Super Bowl champs.
Despite backup Chad Henne being in at quarterback for Kansas City after Patrick Mahomes left the game with an apparent head injury, the Browns never got the ball back. After Henne rushed for 13 yards on a third-and-14 with two minutes left, a five-yard pass to Tyreek Hill sealed the game, sending the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game for the third time in as many years.
Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call after the game, Stefanski was asked about his polarizing decision to punt rather than attempt to convert a fourth-and-nine. In defending his decision, the first-year head coach said that nine yards were simply too many for the Browns to attempt a fourth-down conversion in their own territory.
“No, that was just probably too long there at that distance," Stefanski said. "If it was tighter, without a doubt."
Punting wasn't the only polarizing decision that Stefanski made on Sunday, as he failed to challenge one Chiefs completion that appeared to hit the ground and challenged another that didn't hit the ground, losing a second-half timeout in the process. Asked about his team's challenge miscues vs. the Chiefs, Stefanski took full responsibility.
“All of those decisions, that is on me. I should have been better there," he said. "There is a cost to those when you do lose those because you lose a timeout. That is on me."
Following Sunday's loss, the Browns finished their 2020 season with a 12-6 overall record -- their best since re-entering the NFL in 1999.