Jackson: Browns have to build off last season's success and maximize their window
I had a bit of a chuckle while watching the NFL Honors late last week, the league’s annual awards show that ended up featuring the Cleveland Browns more than anyone without early access to the list of winners probably imagined.
I expected Kevin Stefanski to win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, which he did via a tiebreaker over Houston’s DeMeco Ryans. I expected Myles Garrett to be the Defensive Player of the Year, though there were multiple worthy candidates. I was at least a little surprised Joe Flacco won Comeback Player of the Year and Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was voted Assistant Coach of the Year, though both were deserving.
To go full Cleveland and pay homage to one of the greatest movies ever, these are major awards. They really are. The Browns, as a whole, should be proud. The winners should be proud, as I’m sure they are. The Browns faced an important 2023 season on multiple fronts, and despite facing a bunch of injuries, unforeseen detours and big moments versus quality opposition that could have easily gone the other way, they won 11 games, made the playoffs and for much of the back half of the season looked like a real AFC contender.
That brings us to the now and the official end of the 2023 season. The Browns are busy working on April’s draft. The folks in charge have long been into crunching salary numbers and discussing names for free agency in March, and soon they’ll turn ideas into plans. In two months the players will return to Northeast Ohio and the formal start of the offseason program, and sooner than we all think the focus will be on raising the bar, how the Browns can truly become AFC contenders in 2024, and how the moves we’re all just projecting right now might help them push to maximize this window.
Back to that chuckle. I should have guessed that Stefanski wasn’t going to attend the ceremony and receive his second Coach of the Year trophy in person. He’s not much for the spotlight or personal accolades of any kind. He operated completely under the radar even around Northeast Ohio back in 2020 when he first won the award, and he wasn’t going to be begging for attention his second time around. He did a masterful job of keeping his team in the moment even when things got fun in November and December. He’s fully aware of how public perception (and angst) will swing if his team can’t maintain its poise next season while pursuing bigger goals, those that were mentioned above and the obvious ones the Browns have finally earned the right to realistically chase.
Stefanski should be Cleveland’s coach for a long time, and with his adaptability and steady hand in what’s been anything but a steady environment, he’s shown if the Browns win bigger prizes and play deeper into Januarys of the near future, he’ll be a part of it. It’s just not his style to put himself in front of anything, and that’s served him and his team well.
As the Browns winning those four awards underscored, it was a good season. It was good enough that the ending felt extra disappointing.
The Browns were favored in Houston in the wild-card round. They had ridden a four-game December win streak to clinching a playoff spot before the calendar turned to 2024, and Flacco was throwing bombs in an offense he appeared to master in about three weeks. Cleveland’s defense had swarmed all season, but it had no answers that day in Houston. Flacco faced consistent pressure, and it looked like the Browns finally just ran out of manpower against a Texans team that had adjusted from the Week 16 regular-season matchup and was much more dangerous with star rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Have the Texans passed the Browns? Which team is more dangerous going forward? Both are fair questions. The Browns are bringing back much of their roster and almost all of their top players. Flacco is almost definitely moving on as Deshaun Watson is returning. There’s not a lot of certainty there, which is less than ideal headed to Watson’s third year with the Browns, but he did have some big moments in 2023 before his season-ending injury. The defense had big moments, too. But it routinely got torched on the road and by mobile quarterbacks, and its lack of answers in the playoff game has to be a concern going forward.
Do the awards feel different because the Browns flopped in the wild-card round? Is the goodwill earned by the 11-win season lessened by the way it ended? That’s up to you and your viewpoint of things. If you believe in Watson, believe in the Andrew Berry-led personnel staff and think Stefanski’s coaching staff changes will work much in the same way last year’s did, then you can easily make the case that the Browns are in fine shape. If you’re not impressed with the uninspiring hire of new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, have reservations about Watson either remaining healthy or reaching a high level (or both), and wonder why the group that touted itself as the world’s best defense couldn’t get within a zip code of Stroud in the wild-card round, then you probably have some uneasiness.
All of that — the good, the bad and the uncertain — is why Stefanski, Berry and the rest of the group are already back to work on next season (and in some ways, beyond). The team’s unprecedented investment in Watson is presumably why the offensive staff got a remake. It’s also why even the most optimistic fan is at least a little nervous; what Flacco did in coming out of the bullpen is probably not going to be replicated. Did the Browns learn valuable lessons and build unbreakable locker room bonds in their push in November and December? Or did this team kind of max out ahead of facing a bunch of crucial salary-cap-related decisions and the last draft without a first-round pick thanks to the Watson trade?
There are reasons Stefanski makes the big bucks and has multiple Coach of the Year trophies. By now, he knows the roster. And the organization. He pressed the right buttons last year in everything from the carefully planned preseason team-bonding trips to the coaching hires to the short-yardage trick plays that had counters and counters to those counters. He prepped different game plans for different quarterbacks, and now he again has to try to do everything to get Watson playing like he used to.
Everyone in the AFC is chasing the Kansas City Chiefs, who visit Cleveland in the 2024 regular season. The Browns are in a rugged and loaded division, but they believe they’re almost as good as anyone. Now that the offseason is officially here, we’re a few weeks from the first round of moves and financial decisions that will shape Cleveland’s upcoming season and give us real answers as to what Stefanski and Berry think about the roster.
Last year’s Browns only played two national TV games, and that’s almost certain to change. There’s no more keeping a low profile for Stefanski, and there’s no more success in just making the playoffs for the organization as a whole.
Where is this whole thing headed? In just a couple of weeks, the long chase to next February begins.
(Photo of Deshaun Watson and Kevin Stefanski: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)