To reach the NFL playoffs in the AFC in 2022, teams had to finish with at least a 9-8 record. Just one team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had a winning record but didn’t make the playoffs in the AFC.
The NFC was similar, either a 9-8 record or winning the NFC South got you into the playoffs with the Detriot Lions missing despite having a winning record.
The Cleveland Browns were 7-10. Not counting tiebreaker scenarios, the team was two wins away from being among those with a winning record and potentially making the playoffs. Three wins would have made it certain for the team.
Browns fans remember the season, a rough one from the offseason all the way through the end.
- Cleveland should have beaten the New York Jets but for a number of miscues in the last two minutes that made a historic collapse
- The Browns lost to the Los Angeles Chargers on a missed field goal at the end of the game
- Finally, the New Orleans Saints marched into town and Cleveland couldn’t win a frozen, windy game
Three games, two of which the Browns gave away and one that just should have never been won by a dome team coming into a bad weather game.
That is how close the team was to being in the playoffs or at least having a winning record. Based on that, Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of improvement that they have to make in 2023 to make the playoffs and be a force. Despite that, somehow it feels like they need to remake so much and it feels like they are so far away.
This offseason, the team needs to count on three things, three prongs if you will, to get them back to the playoffs:
- QB Deshaun Watson
- Jim Schwartz
- Improving the defensive line
The reality is that the Browns are a talented team all over the place. On offense, speed at wide receiver would be nice but Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, David Njoku and Nick Chubb are a great set of weapons. The good offensive line also helps.
With the amount of draft capital and money the team is paying Watson, he has to take the team over the top on that side of the ball. Simply, an improvement from what Jacoby Brissett provided last season is not only expected but could turn a couple of losses into wins.
Speaking of turning losses into wins, DC Joe Woods seemed to turn wins into losses last year. Cleveland should not have lost to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4 but Woods’ defense just couldn’t stop the run and, often, had wide-open receivers. That was a theme all year.
Letting go of Woods and hiring a respected veteran defensive coordinator like Schwartz is the second prong to the team’s improvement. Whoever is to blame, Woods’ defenders were rarely in a position to get stops. Schwartz’s job will be to put them in position to do so where we will then find out about the actual talent of the players there.
Much like an improved Watson could have won a couple of games last year, if Schwartz was in place in 2022 Cleveland would likely have a couple more victories.
Finally, Schwartz still needs talent. The best coaches can’t do much when they lack players who can produce. For the Browns defense, the defensive line must get a few reinforcements. Replacing Jadeveon Clowney, even if it is with a rotational defensive end, will be important but finding two starting-level defensive tackles will be game changers.
Just average play from the defensive tackle room could have improved the team’s performance in 2022. Whether it is in free agency or with one of their first two selections (currently set for rounds 2 and 3, GM Andrew Berry must improve the interior of the defense to help the ends and linebackers actually do their jobs well.
Schwartz’s coaching and game planning could help a young player like Perrion Winfrey but an influx of talent is required as well.
The plan is simple, not easy, for Cleveland this offseason. Watson must be very good to great next year, Schwartz must stabilize the defense and Berry must improve the defensive line.
The Browns were just a couple of plays away from making the playoffs last year. Watson and Schwartz are in place and must do their jobs while the rest of the offseason changes falls on Berry to make. A three-pronged approach to improvement but all three must come through in 2023.