CLEVELAND (AP) — Deshaun Watson's arrival in March brought expectations, scrutiny and distractions to Cleveland. It changed everything about the Browns.
So did his 11-game suspension.
Once they learned their newly acquired franchise quarterback would miss the first two months after Watson settled with the NFL following sexual misconduct allegations, the Browns were forced to be more realistic about their goals this season.
Super Bowl dreams dissolved into survival mode.
Now, after eight games, the Browns (3-5) are barely hanging on.
Four losses by three points or fewer, defensive inconsistencies, special teams breakdowns and injuries — notably to star defensive end Myles Garrett, who was in a car wreck — all contributed to the Browns reaching their bye week in a precarious state as Watson's return looms.
But a strong all-around performance in a 32-13 thrashing of Cincinnati in Cleveland's final game before the break ended a four-game losing streak, quieted criticism of coach Kevin Stefanski and offered hope that the next nine games will go better.
“I think it provided a picture of the team that we can be,” general manager Andrew Berry said. "We were by no means perfect, but we played our most complete game. We're hopeful that that will be a nice springboard going into the second half of the year.”
Watson may begin practicing next week. As long as he fulfills the requirements of his settlement, he'll be eligible to play on Dec. 4 at Houston, which could be the start of a playoff push, assuming the Browns don't collapse during a difficult stretch with road games at Miami (6-2) and Buffalo (6-3), followed by a home date with Tampa Bay (4-5).
Stefanski was voted NFL Coach of the Year after helping the Browns end a nearly 20-year playoff drought in his first season. But an 8-9 record in 2021 followed by the more-bad-than-good start to this season has raised questions about whether he's the right coach going forward.
Berry gave Stefanski a vote of confidence during the bye, pointing to the team's self-induced stress caused by the controversial Watson trade.
“Look, Kevin has had to navigate some pretty unique circumstances and some pretty difficult circumstances during his tenure,” Berry said. “And our belief in Kevin is just as strong as the day that we hired him."
Berry, Stefanski and their respective staffs spent the bye week analyzing the first eight games and planning for the next nine.
Cleveland's offense has been better than expected with Jacoby Brissett filling in for Watson. Of course, it helps to have one of the league's best lines, along with star running back Nick Chubb, who gets better every season.
The Browns didn't overwork Chubb — sometimes to their detriment — in the first eight games so he's fresh in November and December. Cleveland figures to lean on its running attack in Brissett's last three starts and while Watson knocks off rust following a 700-day break between regular-season games.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Solid performances against Baltimore and Cincinnati have been encouraging for Cleveland's defense, which was plagued by communication issues in the secondary and poor tackling over the first six games.
Still, questions remain about the unit's ability to stop the run as young defensive tackles have developed slower than expected, and Cleveland's undersized linebackers have struggled on inside runs. The Falcons and Chargers bulldozed the Browns for more than 200 yards rushing in consecutive weeks.
Brissett's impact goes way beyond his QB rating.
While the 29-year-old has made costly turnovers in losses, he's played at a high level (17 of 22 for a season-high 278 yards against the Bengals) while providing valuable leadership with Watson in limbo.
“We knew that he was a special guy in the locker room,” Berry said. "He’s been an excellent addition to our organization and we couldn’t be happier with what he’s provided the team so far.”
Brissett is under contract only through this season, but it wouldn't be surprising if he signed on for another season in Cleveland.
Second-year linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed last week's game with a knee injury, preventing him from building on his best game this season the previous week against the Ravens.
Before that, he hadn't made much of an impact or flashed the big-play potential he flashed as a rookie.
Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward has missed the past three games with a concussion but could be on target to return this week against Miami. Same goes for Pro Bowl right guard Wyatt Teller, who sat out two straight games with a calf injury.
The bye week also allowed Garrett (shoulder, biceps), tight end David Njoku (knee) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (ankle) extra time to heal.
Season-ending injuries to linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. (quadriceps) and Jacob Phillips (pectoral) only complicated Cleveland's defensive issues.
54 — Years since Leroy Kelly became the last Cleveland running back to win the league rushing title. Chubb has twice finished as runner-up but is on pace to end both his and the Browns' droughts.
The surprising Dolphins and their super-speedy receiving corps will be quite a test out of the break for the Browns, who desperately need Ward to be healthy for this one.
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