Head Coach Kevin Stefanski (1.14.24)
“Okay. These days, as we know, are no fun. Just meeting with the players and it’s very abrupt when the season ends. All our guys really put in so much work and to not be playing any more games, that’s tough. That’s hard for our guys and hard for us as coaches. So, that’s the immediate emotions and the first thing you think about when you wake up on a day like this, and then you also have to step back and express gratitude because I am extremely grateful for this football team. They work like crazy. They did everything I asked them to do, really going all the way back to April and they fought for each other. I think those are a bunch of guys that care about each other, and I think you saw that throughout this season and just the things that they went through and kept coming back. So I’m really proud of this football team. Again, disappointed in how it ended, of course, disappointed when it ends. But I don’t want to lose sight of the accomplishments of this football team, and I give them a ton of credit for that. But with that, I’ll take any questions.”
I want to ask kind of about the buy in that you had this year. Everybody sort of pulling the rope in the same direction, whatever cliché you want to use. How difficult is that to replicate? Because it’s not going to be the same group next year necessarily. How do you try to replicate that?
“Yeah, I mean, every year is different. As you mentioned, Chris (Easterling), the players are always different and that’s the NFL. It’s never the same, ever. So you treat each year differently. I would tell you the core of this football team, the guys that we know are coming back are guys that represent who we are, that understand what they need to do on a day-to-day basis to be great. So we’re excited about that. But bottom line is, when you’re talking about the locker room, it’s the people. It is just the people in that locker room. And I feel strongly about the people.”
Have you spoken to Deshaun (Watson) and rolling it forward a little bit, are you confident he’s going to be ready for the start of the season? Can you give us any update whatsoever on his rehab?
“Yeah, he’s doing great in rehab. I’m confident he’ll be ready to roll this spring. He’s chomping at the bit, but he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do when it comes to what the doctors are telling him and as he rehabs through this. But, he’ll be ready to roll.”
Are you going into the offseason with him as your starting quarterback?
Do you think that the injuries really just caught up to you yesterday?
“Yeah, we just didn’t play well yesterday. We didn’t coach well enough, Jeff (Schudel). I know you can point to injuries. I think every team could point to injuries, but we didn’t do the things you have to do to win on the road. Pretty simple.”
Watching the film from yesterday, what do you think the biggest issues defensively were in that first half?
“Like we talked about yesterday, I’d give them credit. They had some good schemes. They got us on some big plays, and for big plays to happen, it’s typically a miscommunication or falling out of your gap or what it might be. So it’s all little things that, as we know, they add up to the big thing.”
Is there any scenario where you see (Joe) Flacco and Watson coexist?
“Yeah, I’d leave all those things up to, obviously, Andrew (Berry), in this offseason. I will say this about Joe. Joe was awesome for this football team. He did a great job, battled like crazy. I know he enjoyed it. We obviously wish yesterday’s outcome was different, but I have a ton of respect for Joe and what he was able to do.”
Would he like to come back?
“I think Joe is going to work through everything this offseason, as you can imagine, but had a great meeting with Joe – really, all these guys. He’s grateful for the opportunity and he’ll work through this offseason, see where it lands.”
Do you think he’s a starting quarterback in the NFL still?
“Obviously, as you guys saw, I mean, he’s talented. He won football games for us. We had multiple guys that have won football games for us. So I believe in all these guys.”
What did you learn most from this season and what do you take away from just everything you guys were able to overcome?
“Yeah, pretty raw not being 24 hours removed from yesterday. So I think the biggest thing for me, Daryl (Ruiter), is just these guys really fought like crazy. They really did. And it’s the makeup of the football team that drives your success. And I give Andrew credit for the guys that he brought into this locker room and the caliber of players that he brought in. I just – I’m very appreciative of all those guys.”
Do you feel that all your coaches will be back?
“Yeah, I think we’re evaluating everything right now, Tony (Grossi). The other thing, as you know, is some guys will get opportunities over the next couple of weeks, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
I know you have a lot to analyze, but at first blush, though, how do you account for the disparity on how well you guys played at home versus on the road?
“Something to look at, obviously. You can easily say crowd noise and that type of thing, but those are things that we’ll look at. Didn’t end how we wanted it to, but I also know we played really good defense for the majority of the season.”
With that disappointing ending to the season, how do you hope guys take that into the offseason? How do you hope they approach it knowing that it didn’t end the way you wanted it to be?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s hard Cam (Justice), but you’re always looking to take a little bit of the previous year with you and use it as fuel. We’re one of the 31 teams that isn’t standing at the end and that hurts. S, you always use that as motivation for the next year.”
Do you feel conviction that you did the right thing by resting everybody in Cincinnati?
“Yeah. You just go with the information that’s available to you in those decisions. I wouldn’t – obviously didn’t get the outcome we desired yesterday, but really just trying to do what’s best for the football team.”
Would you rethink that in the future just given how well you guys were playing going into that?
“Yeah, I think it’s always dependent on where you are in the future. Where are you from a health standpoint, those are the type of things you’re always thinking about.”
Deshaun, it was start and stop with him this year, but do you think he had enough time in kind of the tweak system and now you guys have been together for kind of two years that he’ll be able to hit the ground running?
“Yeah, no doubt. I mean, 4-1 as a starter. Some really great moments. That second half versus Baltimore is something that I don’t know how many people on Earth can do. What he did with the injuries that he had in that second half, so very excited for him. He’s excited. I know he wants to get back healthy and he’s well on his way to doing that.”
The culture within the locker room is a tight-knit group. It’s really hard to create and something that hasn’t been created here in a long time. How do you replicate that and carry that forward so that continues? Because it just felt like that was so instrumental in your success.
“Yeah, we kind of talked a little bit earlier about that. It’s hard because these teams are different year to year. I mean, every single team has turnover. That’s the NFL. So you have core things that you believe in your culture. You have core things that you believe in when it comes to your roster. And then there strcore guys that are leaders for this football team that we’ll be counting on.”
Can you use this year, though, as expectation for what you want, to look for in the future?
“Yeah, without a doubt. And I think I don’t want to lose sight of how good we were on defense this season, historic. And I think Coach (Jim) Schwartz and the defensive staff did an outstanding job implementing the system in year one. Some really good moments for us and some young players that we’re excited about.”
You guys gave up 13.9 points per game at home, over 31 on the road. We haven’t had a differential like that in the NFL in 40 years. What do you make of it?
“Something – you’re going to have to give me some time. I think we have to pull that apart and look at it. I mean, it is something that you have to get to the bottom of and we’ll look at it.”
Joel Bitonio, we saw him in there with a boot on his right ankle. He said he was playing with a high ankle sprain yesterday.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s unbelievable. And that’s kind of what I was talking about earlier, when you talk about guys fighting for each other. He did not have to go back in that game with a high ankle sprain, and most people couldn’t and most people wouldn’t. And he was not going to let his guys down. He battled to the end. He’ll rest up and heal up, but he’s a quintessential teammate. That’s what we’re talking about. When you talk about the Cleveland Browns, guys that will do anything and everything they can for their teammate.”
You don’t have a ton of film where Deshaun was the quarterback that you know that he can be. So how grateful are you that you do have that Baltimore second half that I think maybe showed everybody what he can do? And what did he do that day that just makes you realize he can be the guy?
“Yeah, I think again, Mary Kay (Cabot), I think it was three games and then was out with the injury and then finally back and then again went out. So, that was disappointing for Deshaun, and he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to play more than that. But to lead his team, to play winning football in those games and to play the style that he played and then willing his team to victory there in that second half and then just different moments throughout this season, making plays that are hard to coach. So I’m excited about him getting healthy and we’re excited about getting him back here.”
I heard the whole time Joe Flacco was here, I heard a lot of people just, you know, he’s more your style. You like to call plays better for a guy like that pocket passer, play action, all that kind of, you know. What say you about that notion?
“Yeah, I don’t get caught up in style. We concern ourselves with winning football, and I think you saw multiple quarterbacks. And I say that with P.J. (Walker) going in there and Dorian (Thompson-Robinson) going in there and it’s our job as coaches to adjust to the players and the skill sets of the players and the playing style of the players. So that’s what I think we have to do as coaches. But we’re concerned with winning.”
Your offense? I mean we’re trying to figure out what it’s going to look like when you and Watson have extended time to perform.
“Yeah, I guess I would go back to there were some really good moments this season. You know, it’s such a small sample size with Deshaun and you had a weather game in there. So, I think we all know what he’s capable of. We’re excited about the future.”
You guys made the playoffs in 2020 and I think there’s always some of that outside perspective of like, now we have it happen again and it took you a couple of years to kind of get back. How do you protect from that mindset sort of setting in of like oh yeah, we’ll be back next year and kind of keep working. Is it as simple as just using last night as an example?
“Well, yeah, and I think our guys know that and the NFL is set up that way where you see new teams in the playoffs every single year. So our goal is to win championships. All 32 clubs talk about that. So, when you get back you start putting the work in to set yourself up for those types of things. But we know that all of that is earned. When you talk about playoffs and you talk about putting yourself in position to win championships.”
Watching a guy like C.J. Stroud operating yesterday – you didn’t have time to think about this during the game, maybe when you watched the film or something. Did you have an opportunity to think to yourself we got a guy like this over here on our sideline that has that kind of armed talent, that has that kind of mobility and can do these kinds of things?
“Yeah. Well, I’d say this Mary Kay, he’s a very good player, very good young player. I again give them credit for what they were able to do. Offense, defense, special teams. We feel really confident in our guys. We feel really confident in the roster that we have that Andrew’s put together and Deshaun’s a huge part of that.”
And this might be a little philosophical, but when they do leave, when guys who had an impact end up moving on, what do they leave with the team for the next year?
“You know, it’s interesting. I was just talking to one of our players about a guy like Malcolm Smith. Played a couple of years for us at linebacker and had a huge impact and maybe didn’t show up on the stat sheet all the time, but he had a huge impact on that young linebacker room. So, there are always guys that you wish you could bring back. You know everybody and guys, there’s different opportunities and those type of things, but you do learn from a lot of veterans that you bring into your program.”
Winning the championship and that being the goal. I’m sure you know this already, but winning the division and playing at home, is it reinforced this year?
“Yeah, you’re right, and it’s definitely something we talk about, Tony. When every team talks about winning the Super Bowl, part of getting there is winning your division. So that’s always going to be at the forefront of our goals. Obviously, didn’t accomplish that goal this season, but yeah, that’s priority number one.”
There’s been a lot of coaches that have come through here, especially since ’99. Do you feel like that with your body of work, especially this season, that you’re the guy that can get this franchise to where it wants to going forward?
“Yeah, as you can imagine, I’m not going to really get into my role and all that, Jake (Trotter), other than to say we’ll put in the work. Nice try [laughing].”
I thought it was pretty good.
All your conversations with the organization’s medical team. What is the degree of confidence that you’re getting from the medical team about Deshaun being able to come back? Because the fracture in the throwing shoulders sounds like a pretty serious thing.
“Yeah, he’s in great hands with Dr. (Neal) ElAttrache out there in his rehab, he’s doing great. He’s on schedule, if not ahead of schedule, so very confident.”
When you talk about him being ready in the spring, are they telling you that he’s going to be…?
“He’s telling me that. We’ll update you guys as we get closer to there, but he’s feeling great. He’s right on track, so I know he’ll be ready probably sooner than most just because of how hard he works.”
There was a small sample size of an opportunity with him healthy and you guys working well together, how much do you feel like you can build on just what you saw him do with you calling it for him this year?
“Yeah. Again, just going back to each one of those games is so different in that small sample size. But Deshaun has shown here and throughout his career, he’s a playmaker. He’s made a ton of plays for us, and that’s part of his game that we’re so excited about. He put it on display, so getting him healthy, getting him back in the system and those types of things, he’s excited about it.”
Ogbo (Okoronkwo), is he going to need surgery?
“I don’t know that.”
You don’t know for sure if he’s going to have it?
“I don’t have a medical update on [that] – I don’t know.”
Do you and Alex Van Pelt need to go back into the lab this spring with Watson like you did last year?
“I think every spring you have to do that. I really do Tony, because the game is changing. The NFL continues to evolve year to year. I say this all the time, but you put on tape from ten years ago, it doesn’t look the same. So you’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve as much as you can. So, yeah, I think all three sides of the ball, you got to go into the lab.”
Do you think you need to build the arsenal of weapons, a little bit around Deshaun to be more explosive?
“Yeah, I think that’s definitely Andrew’s desire to add as many good players as you can, Mary Kay. But I feel really good about the guys on our roster, not to go through every guy, but really pleased with what these guys were able to accomplish. Amari (Cooper), Dave (Njoku), Elijah (Moore), I think all had career-type years and I’m proud of those guys.”
We’ve seen Nick (Chubb) around a lot over the last several weeks. How is he progressing? What’s the prognosis?
“I don’t have an update other than to say he’s doing great, he’s progressing. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to do, if not more so. We’ll see how it goes.”
You’re talking about guys who have opportunities, Kareem Hunt talked today about potentially and opportunity, but obviously, this is home. Did he have more left than you guys thought, considering he wasn’t with you guys, with touchdowns?
“Well, I’ll say this about Kareem. I’m so appreciative of him and the way he played and the style with which he played. Obviously, pre-injury to Nick, we didn’t have a spot, but to Kareem’s credit, he stayed in great shape. We brought him in, worked him out. He looked great, picked back up the system right away and played really good football for us and made plays in high-leverage moments and scored touchdowns. And obviously yesterday, having the ability to make a playoff in the goal line, make a play in the red zone. So he provided huge value for us and he’s a battler. Love the way he runs. The style with which he runs gave us a huge jolt that we needed.”
You promoted Myles (Garrett), for Defensive Player of the Year a couple of weeks ago. He started off with 13 sacks and just couldn’t be stopped. What happened the last six, seven games with just one sack?
“Yeah. I would caution you to judge too much of defensive football off of sacks. I think that can be really dangerous just to look at sacks. I think pressures are really the thing that you want to look at and affecting the quarterback. And with Myles, the other unique thing about him, as you guys know, teams do everything in their power to make sure he doesn’t make those disruptive plays. So he’s getting a tight end, he’s getting – the line is sliding to him, they’re running away from him, those type of things. But if you just look at his impact, and particularly if you want to use pressure rate, I think that’s something you can look at. But if you look at his impact overall, it was unbelievable.”
Deshaun has basically played eleven games since 2020. We’ve seen him when he’s come back off the big layoffs. It takes a little while for him to get going again. Now he’s coming off the surgery to his throwing shoulder. So what gives you optimism that he’s going to be able to hit the ground running in a conference where you have very little margin for error? There’s so many good teams.
“Yeah. I would just tell you Deshaun’s been in this system. He knows his teammates. He’ll rehab like he does. He’s attacking it already. So I just have a ton of confidence in him just based on the work he’s put in and what I’ve seen from him.”
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