Browns fans have been challenged more times than can be counted.
The 2023 season and its abrupt conclusion present them with another predicament, one they haven’t often faced.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said.
The regular season was a delight.
The Browns won 11 games, including five in the final two minutes, and clinched a playoff spot with a home victory Dec. 28 in primetime. They overcame a variety of season-ending injuries to key players, including quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Nick Chubb. They won games with a franchise-record four starting quarterbacks. They watched 38-year-old Joe Flacco resurrect his career and lock up the postseason bid by leading four straight victories in December.
The postseason was a disaster.
The Browns were favored to win in Houston in the wild card round but were destroyed 45-14. The defense looked confused, slow and sloppy. Flacco threw a pair of pick-sixes that ended any comeback hopes.
“Disappointed in how it ended, of course,” coach Kevin Stefanski said Jan. 14, the day after the loss. “Disappointed when it ends, but I don’t want to lose sight of the accomplishments of this football team and I give them a ton of credit for that.”
TOP FIVE MOMENTS
- Party time — The improbable season had been building toward a playoff berth, and the clinching victory in primetime Dec. 28 set off a celebration across Northeast Ohio. The Browns beat the Jets 37-20 as Joe Flacco threw for 296 yards in the first half, Jerome Ford had two touchdowns and undrafted rookie Ronnie Hickman returned his first career interception for a touchdown.
Many defensive players did a lap around Cleveland Browns Stadium to enjoy the occasion with the fans, and David Njoku drank someone’s beer.
- Fantastic finish — The 33-31 comeback win in Baltimore wound up being bittersweet, as a broken bone was discovered in Deshaun Watson’s throwing shoulder and required season-ending surgery. But in the immediate aftermath, the joy was unbridled.
Watson was 14-for-14 in the second half and led the winning field goal drive in the final minutes, including a key scramble. Dustin Hopkins rebounded from a missed extra point to nail the 40-yarder as time expired. And cornerback Greg Newsome got his first interception in his third season and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
- Joltin’ Joe –Flacco had tons of memorable moments and thrilling throws in his limited time, but one stands above the rest. The fourth-quarter pass to Amari Cooper among a triangle of Bears defenders looked like an interception until it wasn’t. A streaking Cooper grabbed the perfect pass and turned upfield for the 51-yard touchdown that tied the game and set the stage for another late victory.
At 38 years old and out of football until November, Flacco left no doubt he could still sling it.
- Breaking through — The Browns had never beaten the Ravens and Steelers in consecutive games but pulled off the double dip despite Watson’s injury against the Ravens. Rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson got a second chance as a starter and led a winning field goal drive for a 13-10 win over the Steelers on Nov. 19. Thompson-Robinson had only 165 passing yards and a 54.9 passer rating but made a couple of key throws on the final drive.
The Browns finished the year with five victories after scores in the final two minutes.
- A little bit of everything — The 39-38 Week 7 win in Indianapolis wasn’t the prettiest, but the highlights were something to behold. From Myles Garrett leaping over the line to block a field goal to Garrett’s strip-sack that led to a touchdown to Ford’s 69-yard touchdown run to Hopkins’ three 50-plus-yard field goals to Kareem Hunt’s 1-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left.
And P.J. Walker came off the bench for Watson and led his second straight comeback win.
BOTTOM FIVE MOMENTS
- Over and out — The surprising season came to a stunning and screeching halt in Houston. The Browns were favored to win the wild card game on the road and instead were blown out 45-14. The No. 1-ranked defense was outschemed, fooled and a step slow, and the epilogue to Flacco’s amazing story were back-to-back pick-sixes in the third quarter that ended any hope.
- Hard to watch — In a season of serious injuries, the most painful came when Nick Chubb went down in Week 2 in a Monday night loss in Pittsburgh. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick hit Chubb on the side of the left knee with his foot still planted in the ground, and the leg bent in an unnatural way. He needed two surgeries to repair the torn ligaments and other damage.
The injuries were only beginning, as Deshaun Watson, Grant Delpit, Jedrick Wills Jr., Dawand Jones, Dustin Hopkins, Rodney McLeod and Maurice Hurst II also suffered season-enders.
- No way to start — Rookie fifth-round pick Dorian Thompson-Robinson wasn’t ready. For any of it.
Not his first start when Watson was an unexpected scratch with a right shoulder strain. Not the Ravens defense. Not the pressure of the moment.
Thompson-Robinson threw for 121 yards with three interceptions, four sacks and a 25.3 passer rating in a 28-3 home loss Oct. 1.
- On second thought — The Browns battled back from an awful start and led in Seattle 20-17 with just more than two minutes left. Facing third-and-3 with P.J. Walker at quarterback, coach Kevin Stefanski called a pass. Walker threw toward Amari Cooper running a quick slant, but the ball ricocheted off the helmet of the blitzing safety, shot into the air and was intercepted.
The Seahawks seized the opportunity and marched to the winning score.
- Adding insult –The Chubb injury wasn’t the only misery Sept. 18 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 26-22 after bookend defensive touchdowns.
Alex Highsmith returned an interception 30 yards on the first play from scrimmage, and T.J. Watt returned a fumble forced by Highsmith 16 yards with 6:58 left in the fourth quarter. Highsmith beat Wills, who was slow getting off the line, and stripped Watson.
TOP FIVE PLAYERS
Myles Garrett, defensive end
The likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year had a sack slump at the end of the year — one in his final seven games — but that doesn’t change Garrett’s dominance throughout the season. He finished with 14 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, 17 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
Even more important than the numbers was the way he affected the game. Offenses, other than the Titans’, did everything in their power to limit his impact — consistent double and triple teams, quick throws and running away from him — which restricted what they could do and created more opportunities for other defenders.
Amari Cooper, receiver
In a position group that otherwise lacked star power, Cooper drove the passing game. He caught 72 passes for a career-high 1,250 yards, a career-high 17.4 average and five touchdowns.
The highlight performance came in Houston on Dec. 24, as he caught 11 passes for a franchise-record 265 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant win.
David Njoku, tight end
The breakout season finally arrived.
Njoku, who always had tremendous potential, made his first Pro Bowl after setting career highs with 81 catches for 882 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also a willing and strong blocker and committed to being a great teammate.
His intense desire to play was abundantly clear when he took the field two days after sustaining painful burns to his face, hands and arms.
Dustin Hopkins, kicker
If not for Garrett, he would’ve been a strong contender for team MVP.
Hopkins brought calm to an unsettled situation after Cade York was cut following the preseason. Not only did Hopkins go 33-for-36 on field goals and 24-for-26 on extra points before missing the final three games with a hamstring injury, he came through in the biggest moments. He made all eight attempts from 50 yards and drilled four game-winners.
Joe Flacco, quarterback
He made quite an impression in less than two months. After being signed Nov. 20, he lost his first start then won four straight to lead the Browns into the playoffs. He did it by throwing the ball all over the field, averaging 40.8 passes and totaling 1,616 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The story captured the imagination of the fans, while his performance inspired teammates.
Honorable mention: left guard Joel Bitonio, cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson Jr., linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, safety Grant Delpit.
Bottom five players: receiver Marquise Goodwin, safety Juan Thornhill, right tackle James Hudson III, tight end Jordan Akins, defensive tackle Siaki Ika.
OFFSEASON TO-DO LIST
- Staffing issues — Kevin Stefanski has done the heavy lifting by hiring offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, running backs coach Duce Staley, tight ends coach Tommy Rees — his final title could be different — and defensive line coach Jacques Cesaire. They replace Alex Van Pelt, Stump Mitchell, T.C. McCartney and Ben Bloom, who could stay on as the defensive run game coordinator.
The work that remains is finalizing roles and titles, filling any holes created by someone leaving for another team — including respected and departed offensive line coach Bill Callahan — and meshing philosophies.
- Know when to hold them — The Browns have a long list of players eligible for free agency in March and should keep at least a few.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will be the No. 1 linebacker next season but is the only one at the position guaranteed to return. Captain Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki are set to be free agents, and the Browns should re-sign one. Both have versatility, experience and knowledge of the system.
Dalvin Tomlinson and Siaki Ika will return at defensive tackle, while Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst II and Shelby Harris can be free agents. Elliott will likely get a multiyear deal elsewhere, but Hurst and Harris will be less expensive and Hurst said last week he’d like to come back.
Safety Rodney McLeod, punter Corey Bojorquez and backup offensive lineman Nick Harris are among the other possibilities to return.
We’ll get to quarterback Joe Flacco below.
- Support system — Doing everything possible to help quarterback Deshaun Watson succeed remains the No. 1 priority. That was part of the reason for the staff changes and will guide the offseason roster moves.
Even if Amari Cooper comes back — he’s set to make $20 million in the final year of his contract — the Browns are a receiver short near the top of the depth chart. They could use someone to slide in behind Cooper at the No. 2 spot, or even bump Cooper to No. 2.
An upgrade at tight end behind David Njoku is a good idea, as is another option at running back with Nick Chubb’s status uncertain and Kareem Hunt expected to leave as a free agent.
- Backup plan — Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry have expressed confidence Watson will recover from surgery to repair a broken bone in his throwing shoulder and be ready by spring. That doesn’t lessen the importance of having a quality and experienced backup, a lesson the Browns and many other teams had reinforced this season.
Flacco would be ideal but may have played himself out of the Browns’ price range. If it’s not him, the Browns need to find someone like him or Jacoby Brissett — veterans who can win games. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round pick in April, doesn’t qualify.
- Get ready — This may be the most important item on the list but will take time and good fortune to accomplish.
Getting Watson back healthy and in position to play better than ever is a must if the Browns are going to reach their vast potential. The injury is an unusual one for a quarterback.
Several other key players will rehab during the offseason, including Chubb, tackles Jedrick Wills Jr., Dawand Jones and Jack Conklin, Hurst and McLeod.