WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Jimmy Haslam tried to walk the line but refused to define it.
The Cleveland Browns team co-owner warned that “I think it’s really dangerous” to float on “now or never” timelines or predetermine thresholds on which to judge your coaches and players in a game of variability. He declined to guarantee his team makes the playoffs to earn his vote of confidence or to quantify what the Browns’ success will look like in 2023.
“I’m not saying expectations aren’t high,” Haslam said on Monday afternoon from training camp. “I’m just not going to draw a line for you on what they are. They are tall.
“We all have high expectations.”
Without the extenuating circumstances that have darkened the franchise in recent years, those expectations are also visible.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry enter their fourth season with what Haslam believes is their most stable yet. The COVID-19 pandemic from its first season is no longer a worldwide health emergency; defender Baker Mayfield’s injuries in his second season now stem from a different quarterback era. Last season, after the Browns successfully traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson, he missed the first 11 games while serving a league suspension stemming from sexual misconduct allegations. On and off the field, the team was always on the move.
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Now, as the Browns ramp up their first week of training camp in the West Virginia Mountains, team leaders feel they can focus more on maximizing their people and winning scheme than in years past.
So it’s worth asking, what are reasonable expectations for the Browns this season? What’s at stake for their leadership? And how is Deshaun Watson influencing all of this?
Complete offseason with Watson at QB1
After an NFL investigation determined that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy multiple times, the league fined Watson $5 million and suspended him for 11 games. Watson’s disciplinary measures also required him to undergo a professional evaluation by behavioral specialists and follow his treatment program.
Watson said this week that “I didn’t take it seriously”.
“He spent a lot of time in counseling,” said Browns team co-owner Dee Haslam. “I leave all that to the professionals. His adviser, evidently, he’s grown a lot and he’s said over and over again, ‘I’ve learned a lot.’ I hope he continues to grow through this process.”
Watson is also working to grow as a team leader and quarterback.
He addressed the entire team Saturday night in an exercise coach Kevin Stefanski calls “the four Hs,” in which players and coaches are invited one by one to share their stories, heroes, heartbreaks and hopes. He said he intends to show more personality this year than last year, when quarterback Jacoby Brissett started for more than half of the season, leaving teammates unsure where to turn when both are present at camp.
Now, Watson is clearly taking on first-team replays in the bright orange “4” jersey that reflects his sheltered position. Stefanski and his team can tailor the offense to Watson’s strengths, talking with him as they build a shared vision.
Watson is vocal in these conversations.
“He loves to pause the tape and say, ‘Okay, what could we do here? What if we run this? What if we did that?’” Stefanski told Yahoo Sports during a Monday afternoon session. “And that fits perfectly with me and our coaching staff. Since you’re constantly pushing yourself to be more creative, it’s a perfect fit. The good ones want to go down the rabbit hole.”
The coaching staff will dive into Watson’s film to see how they can capture the quarterback who won three consecutive Pro Bowl berths with the Houston Texans, Watson completing 67.8% of his passes at Houston for 14,539 yards and 104 touchdowns to just 36 interceptions. Watson’s return to play last season after nearly two years out was much more difficult: He completed just 58.2% of his passes, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions as the Browns split 3-3.
Losses this season can no longer be attributed to rust and suspensions. But the Browns feel that full Watson integration won’t be their only source of improvement.
Why the Browns Think They’re ‘In a Much Better Position’
Two new coordinators strolled through training camps on Monday, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz instilling his offense and defense mindset, while former Browns player Bubba Vetrone oversaw special teams.
“I don’t want to be negative about their predecessors,” Jimmy Haslam said on Monday, “but I think Jim Schwartz and Bubba Vetrone will be a huge help to us.” The Browns ranked 20th in scoring defense last season, 14th in total defense. In longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings, the Browns were ranked No. 18.
Boosting each unit above mid-platoon can take some pressure off the attack, which hopes to live up to it anyway. Successful signings in those positions would also reflect well on Stefanski, after two losing seasons following his 11-5 debut campaign.
The task only gets more complicated as the AFC accumulates top quarterbacks, the Browns needing to face twice-yearly threats in Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. Perhaps this strong competition influences Haslam’s decision not to publicly announce the playoffs or division title as a measure of success – the path to 2023 division titles is not created equally across the league.
Jimmy Haslam, however, said he is “highly confident” that Stefanski is the right coach for the job and that his assessment of success in 2023 will take into account not just the record but also injury occurrence, late-season improvement and momentum. Haslam said he never considered a coaching change for 2023.
“It was an easy decision,” Haslam said. “There was never a thought to not bring Kevin back. I think he’s a good coach. He proved that in the first year, he did a tremendous job. Sophomore year, we had some bumps and bruises with Baker and his injury. And last year was just tough.
“Overall, we are in a much better position than last year.”