INDIANAPOLIS — General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski are entering the fourth year in their roles. The Browns have missed the playoffs two straight seasons, underachieving to finish 8-9 in 2021 and 7-10 in 2022. They’re over the salary cap and committed to paying quarterback Deshaun Watson the remaining $184 million from a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
And owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam have a history of impatience. Berry and Stefanski have already stayed longer than their many predecessors in the Haslams’ 11 years in charge.
The pressure is on in 2023.
“I feel urgency every year,” Berry said Tuesday at the scouting combine. “To be honest, I think we all feel like we have an incredible responsibility to the organization and to the city to put a good team out on the field.
“If you don’t feel urgency and honestly you don’t feel excitement, that’s probably the biggest one — if you don’t feel excitement you’re in the wrong role.”
The controversial trade a year ago for Watson — a net of five draft picks were sent to Houston, including three first-rounders — and his NFL record in guaranteed money raised expectations internally. His 11-game suspension following more than two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct affected everything last season — he wasn’t his former Pro Bowl self as the Browns went 3-3 in his starts — but that won’t be an excuse moving forward.
“Every year your goal is to make sure that you get to the playoffs, and I do think that there are different points organizationally where your roster or your core is in a different place,” Berry said. “We feel really good about a lot of our key and top players being in the middle of their prime and certainly think that this is a year where we can be very competitive, but we want to be competitive every year. That’s really the goal. We want to be playing deep into the season every year and that’ll be the goal.”
The Browns ended a 17-year postseason drought in 2020, the first year for the Berry-Stefanski tandem. They reached the divisional round but haven’t been able to build on the success.
The decision to dump former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield in favor of Watson was made to give the Browns a chance at Super Bowl contention. Watson made the Pro Bowl in all three full seasons with the Texans and led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards in 2020.
The Browns’ all-in approach with Watson put them in a difficult salary cap position — they’re approximately $14 million over the cap — but Berry felt it was worthwhile for someone they consider an elite talent.
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) February 28, 2023
“Rather than looking at it in a vacuum, it’s looking at well, OK, what are the other numbers around it?” Berry said. “We feel like we’re going to be in a good position entering the start of the league year to accomplish what we need to accomplish for the team.
“And at the end of the day — I think I’m going to butcher this, but I’m going to steal from (Chargers GM) Tom Telesco — he’d rather have good players on high cap numbers than necessarily a ton of cap space. I think any GM would probably say the same thing.”
Watson is scheduled to have a $55 million cap number for 2023, and Berry said that can be handled. He also said restructuring the contract to reduce the cap hit is possible.
“It could be on the table, but there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what we can do from a cap perspective,” he said.
Berry was adamant he won’t be limited in free agency. The Browns have glaring needs at defensive tackle, defensive end, receiver and safety.
“The rules are flexible, whether it’s releasing a player, trading a player, restructuring a deal, negotiating an extension,” he said. “There are a number of different avenues to create cap space. The approach we would take would really be dictated by the opportunities in front of us.
“One of our tenets is flexibility. We have enough flexibility to be as aggressive or conservative as we need to be.”
Berry declined to directly answer a question about Watson’s clinical treatments that were part of his suspension agreement with the NFL.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate question for me to answer in this setting, but I will say that we’re pleased with where Deshaun is, pleased with the progress that he’s made since he’s been with us, and certainly anticipate him having a very strong year on and off the field going into ’23,” Berry said.
Watson showed flashes of brilliance in his six games but completed 58.2 percent for 1,102 yards, seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a 79.1 passer rating. The completion percentage and rating were career lows.
“We’re very excited about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We are looking forward to continuing to evolve the offense over the next several months. Obviously having him have a full offseason going into 2023 and certainly expect him to play at a high level this upcoming year.”
Paying a quarterback a king’s ransom isn’t a Browns-only problem. The Eagles just went to the Super Bowl with Jalen Hurts on a rookie deal but plan to give him a long-term extension, the Bills recently did that with Josh Allen and the Ravens and Lamar Jackson are at a stalemate at the conclusion of his rookie contract.
“It’s definitely challenging to have a quarterback once you’re paying them,” Bills GM Brandon Beane said. “You obviously enjoy the moments when they’re on that rookie deal, but it’s a quarterback league and so you just work around it. You understand that’s part of the economics of the game and I’ll take the problem of having Josh Allen and having to work around it versus being in quarterback purgatory as some people like to say. It’s part of the deal. It’s not easy, but you’re not going to hear me complain.”
The key for the Browns is for Watson to play at an MVP-caliber level as Allen has in recent years.