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Can the Browns follow the Bengals’ Blueprint to get to contention in 2023?

Cleveland doesn’t necessarily need a complete overhaul to move in the right direction next season.

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Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

While I’m by no means a Football Nostradamus, the first three games of the Deshaun Watson era in Cleveland have revealed some significant truths. The most obvious reality is the Browns are not “one quarterback away” from Super Bowl contention. Rather, the Browns lurk somewhere between a talented but sloppy and underachieving group and a deeply flawed organization that could crater at any time.

The current fan and media narrative is that Kevin Stefanski will get a full season to coach Watson and evolve his offense. However, such a narrative is based on speculation - despite how logical such an argument is. Trusting that mercurial team owner Jimmy Haslam is capable of sticking to a long-term plan takes a massive leap of faith.

After all, of the five head coaches Haslam has hired, only Hue Jackson has been retained for longer than two seasons - a feat accomplished only through Jackson’s season long public relations blitz in 2017. Jackson basically reminded local media that Haslam had promised him another year - essentially backing the billionaire into a very public corner.

Such a strategy wouldn’t seem to fit the sterile and often times terse Stefanski, who has proven himself one of the league’s most low-volume head coaches.

Certainly, Stefanski can help himself by directing Watson to more productive performances over the season’s final month. The Baltimore win should go a long way in securing Stefanski’s return. Of course, adding some wins always helps to distract from what has been a disappointing and disjointed season. However, as we have witnessed over the past three weeks, it’s nearly impossible for any quarterback to instantly succeed in a new system after not playing for nearly two seasons.

While there will be plenty of time for future head coaching talk, I’ve noticed some past and current league trends that could be beneficial to the Browns’ future - regardless of who is leading such an endeavor.

The Bengal Blueprint

If Stefanski remains as Head Coach, it’s likely he will need to replace Joe Woods as Defensive Coordinator. Given the Browns’ current personnel limitations and lack of premium draft picks, it’s likely such a job won’t be a hot commodity around the league. The Browns will have to get creative to find a worthy successor to Woods.

Such a scenario is reminiscent of the 2020 Bengals. After a long search, the Bengals eventually landed Lou Anarumo - then a little known defensive backs coach. Anarumo’s defense struggled in 2020, then ascended during the Bengals’ 2021 Super Bowl run. The keystones of Anarumo’s defense are intelligence and adaptability.

The Bengals’ defense has grown to become matchup-specific, as evidenced by their Cover-2 mastery of Pat Mahomes, followed by dropping 7 defenders into coverage at Tennessee, and then heavy blitzing against the Browns. These strategies reward flexibility and accentuate the veteran nature of the Bengals’ defense.

An undertold story regarding the Bengals - and a hopeful blueprint for the Browns moving forward - is how the Bengals completely reshaped their defense through free agency. Given how limited the Browns’ premium draft capacity is and/or based on Andrew Berry’s spotty draft record, free agency may be the Browns’ only option in upgrading a disappointing defense.

The Bengal Blueprint - Part Two

Another revealing Athletic article explained how Bengals’ head coach Zac Taylor has essentially modified - or basically scrapped - his Sean McVay-inspired system in favor of running Joe Burrow’s college offense. Obviously, you can’t argue with the results - as the Bengals’ offense has remained efficient and at times explosive after a slow start to the season.

More significant is the lack of ego involved in making such a move. Given that NFL coaches are deeply invested in controlling their teams and systems, it’s unique when a coach can remove his ego and do what’s best for a team. In Taylor’s case, he realized his system was limiting Burrow - one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

Such a story has massive significance for the Browns and Stefanski. After three games, we obviously have no idea if Stefanski’s system is the right fit for Watson. You could also argue the opposite - is Watson the right QB for Stefanski’s system? However, given Stefanski’s tenuous job status and Watson’s fully guaranteed contract, such a question will not be asked in Berea.

Assuming Stefanski remains in Cleveland, it will be fascinating to see how his offense evolves to better highlight Watson’s unique abilities. Stefanski’s tight end heavy running game has loosened throughout this season and could all but disappear in 2023. These next three games are vital in showing that the two are a correct pairing. Regardless of immediate results, Watson will certainly have more input next season - regardless of the head coach.

Stuck in the Past

The Browns’ 2020 playoff win over the Steelers feels like it happened two decades ago. Only a handful of core players remain on the team’s roster, as Berry has completely transformed the team in his image. Similarly, the way the Browns won several of those 2020 games has disappeared.

The 2020 Browns played a clean, physical and smart style of football en route to a playoff appearance. The offense was physical and precise and rarely committed penalties. Early passing created late opportunities to run and close out games. Although limited on defense and special teams personnel, the Browns played smart and created opportunities.

We haven’t seen many of these traits in 2022 - at least not on a consistent basis. The Browns have been dominated at the point of attack this season. Their only wins have come against teams who struggle and/or refuse to run the ball - or in last week’s case, an offensive coordinator who inexplicably wanted a backup QB to continue throwing. Similarly, the once vaunted running attack has struggled in recent weeks.

Although more troubling is this trend.

Simply put, the Browns’ offensive line is not very good at the moment.

Injuries to Ethan Pocic and Wyatt Teller have affected the Browns’ offensive line. Replacement Hjalte Froholdt is simply not an NFL starter, as he can’t handle the strength of NFL defensive tackles. Similarly, Teller has regressed, while Jack Conklin may be the league’s oldest 28-year old.

Heading into 2023, it’s not a certainty that the Browns will again feature a strong O Line. Conklin could depart, likely leaving untested James Hudson as his replacement. Jedrick Wills remains inconsistent, while Joel Bitonio will be another year older. Certainly, the main offseason priority will again be reshaping the defense - which could leave the offensive line vulnerable to more degradation.

Assuming that Stefanski returns in 2023, his challenge in elevating Watson could prove difficult if the offensive line remains stagnant.

Dave Kolonich has written for Fox Sports Ohio, The Orange and Brown Report and created Cleveland Reboot.