The Browns playoff run was over before it started as the Texans rolled past: Cleveland 45-14 in the Wild Card round, slamming the door on a magical and memorable 2023 season that seemed destined for more

In the aftermath of the Browns 45-14 Wild Card round drubbing at the hands of the Houston Texans, cornerback Greg Newsome II may have provided the most poignant of words on all.

 

“We’ll have more opportunities but I feel like this particular season was a missed opportunity,” the 23-year-old said.

 

2023 was always meant to be one of this franchise’s best shots at the ultimate goal – a Super Bowl. When Cleveland made the controversial trade for Deshaun Watson back in 2022, simply making the playoffs was considered more of an appetizer than a main course.

 

Things seemed destined to go sideways from the outset of the season though, from the moment starting right tackle Jack Conklin went down with a knee injury in Week 1. It was the first of an excessive number of season-ending injuries this team had to endure. Maybe the biggest back-breaker came one week later when the heartbeat of the team, Nick Chubb suffered a gruesome season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh on Monday Night football.

 

The season felt like it could have been over then and there. Somehow it got worse after Watson put up the best game of his Browns tenure in a 27-3 win over the Titans but was revealed to have a mysterious shoulder injury. He’d miss three of the next four games, making all of five throws in what wound up turning into a 39-38 shootout win over the Colts. That was one of two wins with former XFLer P.J. Walker under center this season, as head coach Kevin Stefanski had coached his ass off getting the team, remarkably, to 4-2.

 

Watson finally returned for real in Week 9, leading a 27-0 rout of the Cardinals as the team lost another offensive starter in left tackle Jedrick Wills to a knee injury. That next week was perhaps the highlight performance of Watson’s 12 games in Cleveland, as he turned a miserable first half performance against Baltimore into a perfect second half, going 14-of-14 for 134 yards and a touchdown, rallying the team from 14 points down to beat their division rival 33-31.

 

Things were looking up, until days later with the bombshell news that a different shoulder injury would end Watson’s season. If the season didn’t feel over before then, it certainly did in that moment.

 

A couple weeks later though, Flacco Fever struck Northeast Ohio as the 38-year-old seemed to breathe some life into a season that was on the brink after yet another quarterback injury, this time to rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

 

Flacco took the city and the league by storm doing things no Browns QB ever had in the team’s December home stretch of the season. His story became something out of Hollywood, from on his couch at home in New Jersey, to starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. On the night they clinched a playoff berth, with a Thursday Night win over the Jets, Flacco become a full-fledged Cleveland icon, calling it “special” to play for Cleveland fans.

 

 

“As crazy as they can be, (the fans) are what make the game,” he said. “You’re not necessarily thinking about it, but that’s what it’s about. It’s about getting these communities excited about their team … I can’t thank the organization, my teammates, this team, this city enough. It stinks, the way it ends, but it was a lot of fun and I’m grateful for the time we had.”

 

Flacco’s is almost the perfect microcosm for the Browns 2023 season. He, like the Browns, wasn’t supposed to be here. Stunning and disappointing as the ending may feel, it was a monumental task to overcome what this team did to arrive at a postseason appearance. So much was spoken throughout the season about the togetherness of this locker room – that speaks to good roster construction.

 

The resiliency they displayed all season is a testament to head coach Kevin Stefanski, whose levelheadedness resonated throughout this team. Questions about his future and of general manager Andrew Berry’s future have certainly been answered.

 

2023 will and should garner plenty of memorable moments for fans. Kareem Hunt’s renaissance season. Stunning the 49ers with a last second Dustin Hopkins field goal in Week 6. The aforementioned comeback win over the Ravens. The Flacco-led fourth quarter rally against the Bears. That faithful December night where the Browns faithful got to experience the joy of clinching a playoff berth at home.

 

 

Given everything they’ve been through though, these Browns seemed destined for more. And while Newsome may believe more opportunities are on the horizon, next year offers no comfort or guarantee of similar success. There’s no telling what the roster will even look like two months from now.

 

Success in this sport is so fleeting. Which is why, as the 2023 season came crashing down on Saturday night, it was hard to not feel as though it was a massive missed opportunity.

 

 

 

Gideon Canice

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