The Browns: got a taste of success this season. Now the bar has been raised

The 2023 Cleveland Browns had a successful, joyous and at times even magical season that ended with a thud in an embarrassing playoff loss. All of those can be true, and they are. The Browns won 11 games, overcame major injury issues and were a resilient, likable group that was playing its best in December.

One awful Saturday in Houston does not make the season a failure. It was a dreadful day, for sure, but it feels like a missed opportunity because the Browns had been playing so well late in the season. They appeared to have enough pieces and the right fits to be a January thorn to some team (or teams, preferably) along the way. But the defense sprung multiple leaks, the offense couldn’t sustain its early success and things unraveled quickly.

Browns’ season comes to an end after being overwhelmed in playoff loss to Texans

The Browns pressured opposing quarterbacks all season and thrived upon the mistakes and big plays that pressure created. When they couldn’t create any, locker cleanout day was moved up a week (or two) earlier than anyone on the team anticipated.

It feels like a disappointment because a defense that made words such as “culture” and “standard” feel like more than locker room cliches suddenly seemed to lose its identity adjusted and took advantage of playing with the lead in turning the heat up on Flacco. For the first time, it was clear the Browns were playing with backup tackles and that Flacco trusting his big arm could be dangerous. Mostly, the defense put the offense in bad spots, and the Texans quickly turned bad into horrendous.

Flacco needed only about three weeks to develop what seemed to be a master’s degree-level understanding of Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Since September, the defense had taken to Jim Schwartz both from a scheme and mentality standpoint, and it didn’t seem at all exaggerated when Schwartz would say Cleveland’s defense looked like it was playing with 15 players when at its best. Stefanski had made a special teams coordinator change last winter, too, and the organization made a kicker change in August. For most of the season, the Browns made their kicks and won field position battles they’d previously lost.

The offense adapted to the early loss of Nick Chubb to a knee injury and Watson’s early inconsistencies, both in performance and availability. But Watson came back in early November looking healthy and willing to throw the ball downfield. In Week 10, Watson rebounded from a lousy start in Baltimore to finish 14-of-14 in the second half. The Browns that day announced themselves as AFC contenders. Two days later, Watson was ruled out for the season. A tryout with Flacco was arranged, and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson became the starter. At that point, dismissing the Browns as playoff contenders was an easy thought — and the prevailing one. That the real fun was just beginning says everything about why the season was a success, and one that should be remembered fondly.

Because the Browns were willing to punt on 2022 for Watson, making the playoffs in 2023 was a must. For reasons that included Watson’s future salary-cap numbers and program growth, Cleveland needed to see the players it committed to and invested in have strong seasons. It needed last offseason’s big coaching staff moves to pay off. The Browns needed to see development from young players and show a better feel for the matters of chemistry and personality that build strong locker rooms. Overall, they saw growth, had many of their choices validated and tasted success.

The team Stefanski took to Houston on Saturday was good. A talented and experienced one, too. The no-show by that team is at least a little head-scratching, and even if you thought parts of the offense were on borrowed time, few expected the Texans to extinguish the Browns so quickly and convincingly.

Now, we’re looking ahead. The Browns’ front-line players are under contract and set to return. It’s less than ideal to enter a third straight season not being sure how Watson is going to play — and how quickly he’s going to play well — but expectations are up. They have to be. Some complicated decisions, starting with how to handle the last year of Chubb’s current contract, lie ahead. The Browns made some immediate offensive staff changes, including the  that qualify as at least a little surprising. But those moves underscore the importance of what’s ahead.

 

 

 

Gideon Canice

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