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Browns hire Vikings’ Kevin Stefanski, filling the NFL’s last head coaching vacancy

Kevin Stefanski will be tasked with taking over a talented but underperforming team in Cleveland. (Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

Two weeks after the regular season ended, the final NFL head-coaching opening was filled, with the Cleveland Browns hiring Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, according to a person with knowledge of the team’s plans.

Stefanski, 37, takes over a team that entered the 2019 season with inflated expectations and failed to deliver across the board as its season turned into a weekly soap opera under first-year coach Freddie Kitchens. He won’t get a second season, with the Browns hiring their fifth head coach since owner Jimmy Haslams took over in 2012.

Last year, the Vikings’ OC was the top choice of Paul DePodesta, the Browns’ chief strategy officer, but John Dorsey, then the general manager, preferred Kitchens. Dorsey is out, though, and DePodesta made the move to Stefanski, according to The NFL Network first reported the news of Stefanski’s hire.

Stefanski was in his first season as the full-time offensive coordinator in Minnesota, where he’d been an assistant for 14 seasons. The Vikings went 10-6 in the regular season and upset the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round. However, they lost Saturday to the San Francisco 49ers.

All told, five NFL teams — Washington, Dallas, Carolina, the New York Giants and Browns — made sideline changes. Here’s the rundown on who landed where.

Panthers steal Rhule from Giants

Baylor Coach Matt Rhule reportedly was the New York Giants’ top target to fill their head coaching vacancy. But Panthers owner David Tepper, making his first head coaching hire after buying the franchise in 2018, traveled to Waco, Texas, to meet with Rhule and his family early last week and offered Rhule a deal he apparently could not refuse. Instead of getting on a plane to interview with Giants officials in New York, as was the reported plan, the born-and-raised New Yorker instead succeeds Ron Rivera in Carolina.

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Rhule did give the Giants a chance to match the Panthers’ offer before accepting the deal, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, but New York declined.

Rhule has been mentioned for various NFL head coaching vacancies — he interviewed for the Jets job after the 2018 season — even though he has all of one year of professional coaching experience, with the Giants as an assistant offensive line coach in 2012. He has turned around two college programs at Temple and Baylor, winning 10 games in a season with both programs. This past season, he finished 11-3 with a scandal-wracked Bears team that went 1-11 in 2017, ending the season with a loss to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The Panthers will have to pay a $15 million-plus buyout to Baylor, offsetting that expense with the knowledge that they can pay Rhule a lower annual salary considering his lack of NFL experience. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Panthers and Rhule agreed to a seven-year deal worth $60 million that could be worth up to $70 million with incentives.

Here comes another Judge in New York

After Rhule chose the Panthers, the Giants moved quickly, finalizing a deal with Joe Judge, a special teams assistant for Bill Belichick since 2012 (this past season, he also was the Patriots’ wide receivers coach).

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Judge, 38, reportedly was a candidate to take the head coaching job at Mississippi State, his alma mater, before agreeing to take over the top job in New York. He was a special teams assistant for Nick Saban at Alabama before joining Belichick and the Patriots.

“He’s very intense. Joe is really passionate about what he does,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said in 2017. “He has a hyper attention to detail; there is no stone unturned by the time we get to the game, and we feel super prepared and know he’s going to put us in position to make plays. As a player, that’s all you can ask for. And you have to appreciate the energy and passion with which he coaches. I think it really carries over to us as players. We love going out there and playing for him, and for each other.”

The Giants hope to emulate the success of the Baltimore Ravens, who hired a young special teams coach named John Harbaugh in January, 2008. Harbaugh led the Ravens to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season and they’re a favorite to win another title this season.

Cowboys move on from Garrett, hire McCarthy

After finally notifying Jason Garrett that he was out as their head coach, the Dallas Cowboys quickly lined up his replacement, hiring of former Packers coach Mike McCarthy on a five-year contract.

McCarthy, known for mentoring and developing Aaron Rodgers, spent 13 seasons in Green Bay, going 125-77-2 and winning a Super Bowl, before being fired on Dec. 2, 2018. Green Bay made the playoffs nine times in his 13 seasons. His hiring was first reported by Fox Sports.

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Garrett, who was in his 10th season as the Cowboys’ coach, was working under a contract set to expire Jan. 14 and it was widely expected that he would not return after Dallas finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, bitterly disappointing their 77-year-old “win-now” owner.

The Cowboys had begun interviewing potential replacements for Garrett as soon as their season ended and also spoke with former NFL head coach Marvin Lewis in their only other interview with a former head coach.

McCarthy, 56, had also interviewed for the vacancies in Cleveland and Carolina, as well as with the New York Giants, after spending the season preparing for a return somewhere. But “it was like love at first sight” between McCarthy and the Cowboys, a source told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.

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Washington Redskins hire Ron Rivera

The Redskins wasted no time in landing their top choice. Ron Rivera, who was fired as coach of the Carolina Panthers in December, was officially introduced as Washington’s new coach less than a week after the season ended. In eight seasons as coach of the Panthers, Rivera went 76-63-1 and made the playoffs four times, with one trip to the Super Bowl. Interim coach Bill Callahan was 3-8 for Washington after replacing the fired Jay Gruden, who was 0-5 this season and 35-49-1 over parts of six seasons.