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What was the Point of the Browns 2022 Season?

The Cleveland Browns were always a long shot to make the postseason and with their hopes of making the playoffs all but over, it's important to discuss what this team was trying to achieve this year.
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Having suffered their eighth loss of the season, the Cleveland Browns are all but eliminated from postseason consideration. The playoffs were a long shot the second the Browns traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson and their approach as well as their goals for the 2022 season changed accordingly. Given that the 2022 season was compromised, the important question is what the goals of this season were and what progress the team able to make towards achieving them.

The 2022 season was shaped by a choice the Browns made coming out of a disappointing 2021. The Browns made the decision that Baker Mayfield wasn't good enough to be a franchise quarterback. They could either stick with Mayfield for his fifth-year option or they could replace him with someone they felt was better.

The Browns were privately rebuffed by both Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, which in hindsight proved to be a blessing. Wilson has been hurt and awful while Rodgers looks like someone ready to retire with the Packers on the hook for almost $100 million after this season. Despite off field issues, the Browns went ahead and pursued Watson along with a host of other teams. They were able to convince Watson to agree to play in Cleveland. Six picks and $230 million guaranteed later, they had their man.

The alternative was to go with Mayfield or another journeyman for a year, hardly a lock to make the postseason in a loaded AFC field. They would then follow up by trying to trade for a top tier veteran signal caller if one was available. The other option was to move up to draft one, which requires waiting on the rookie to develop. Maybe that could've worked, but the Browns took what was actually available rather than hoping for something to be available to them.

The choice the Browns made, sacrificing the 2022 season for at least four seasons of being a contender looks like the most expedient path forward they had available. When it comes to off field or character concerns, it's fair game.

So when the Browns made the move to Watson, knowing he was going to receive a substantial suspension. they pulled their punches in 2022. That's not to say they didn't try to win, because they did, but they made roster decisions with an eye to 2023.

First, they extended a bunch of their own players while limiting their financial impact this year. The goal there was to hoard an enormous amount of cap room with the intent to roll it over into 2023. That would enable them to pay rising contract costs and give them money to add to their roster when they intended to compete for a championship.

The Browns currently have $31.8 million in effective cap space per Over the Cap, the most in the NFL. The Denver Broncos are second with $11.3 million, meaning the Browns have $20.5 million more than the next highest team. That $31.8 million rolled into 2023 becomes $63.6 million. That's with Deshaun Watson, Myles Garrett, Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, Nick Chubb, Denzel Ward, David Njoku and Amari Cooper already signed to contract extensions.

As a result, that led into the second element of the Browns plan. The team limited their activity in free agency. They let some veterans go on the defensive side of the ball, making the team younger which hurt them this year, only really adding defensive tackle Taven Bryan and center Ethan Pocic. Bryan was an unproven former first round pick given a shot to demonstrate he could offer more than what he did for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

He didn't. He's not a starting defensive tackle and it was unrealistic to expect him to be when they made the signing. Now if he wants to come back for a smaller contract and be a rotational player, he could be a great option, but it seems unlikely that Bryan would go for it.

Meanwhile, Ethan Pocic has been outstanding for the Browns and cost them a whopping $1.1875 million.

Free agents would have understandably viewed the Browns with skepticism given Watson's unknown fate at that time. That likely means that the players willing to listen to the Browns would want more money to sign. The Browns didn't want to spend much money, let alone a surcharge for Watson's uncertainty, so they held back.

Finally, the Browns leaned into their youth on the roster in a few key positions, seeing if the players they had brought in through the NFL Draft the previous few seasons could sink or swim. The Browns wanted to get a sense of what they had to make a good assessment of how they should proceed in a pivotal offseason.

Defensive tackle has been horrible, though rookie Perrion Winfrey is coming off the two best games of his career. He's been notoriously unreliable this season, a product of his own poor decisions, but he is making progress. He's going to get his shot to prove that he continue to improve as well as be relied upon at least for the rest of this season and training camp next year.

On the flip side, the Browns have to be thrilled with the development of Donovan Peoples-Jones. The third-year receiver has a shot to hit 1,000 yards on the season and provided a lift as a punt returner. The Browns will likely try to lock him up to an extension of his own in the coming offseason. He and Amari Cooper have been everything the Browns hoped they would be. David Njoku's emergence as a top tight end has given them an impressive trio. of receiving threats.

It's a similar situation with corner. The Browns drafted terrific player in Martin Emerson, which has allowed them to move Greg Newsome into the slot. Newsome still has work to do in gaining confidence in that role, but he's improving and that move could pay off handsomely. The biggest disappointment has been the play of Denzel Ward this season.

Clearly, the Browns are going to overhaul the defensive tackle position, but that is something the organization certainly knew before the 2022 season began. They have some young options at receiver, but will probably keep looking for more. 

Safety, linebacker, offensive tackle and tight end are positions the Browns will likely consider addressing even if it's simply improving the depth, but likely with a look towards starting in the near future.

The Browns hoped they could compete and win enough games to make the postseason, but the organization made it pretty clear what they thought of their chances for this season, deferring so much of it into the future.

That doesn't excuse the Browns from criticism for failures in games like the Carolina Panthers (even though they won), New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens. Those were all winnable games in which the Browns fell short.

It still doesn't make some of the reactions to yesterday's loss any less confusing, if not downright laughable because it simply ignores any context.

From a fan perspective, being asked to wait another year is never fun, especially with a team in the Browns that has been abysmal for a quarter century, achieving just one playoff win which came in 2020. However, referring back to the question of picking the best path to get where fans want to go, it seems like the Browns have done just that.

As for the players, they are the biggest supporters of Watson, both in where he is right now as a quarterback and where he's going to be. Players including Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and Jadeveon Clowney are advocates for Watson. They aren't just going through the motions when they speak. There's a level of excitement with this locker room now that they have Watson in the mix. So if careers are being wasted in Cleveland, it's news to the players.

Most importantly, any disappointment suffered in 2022 doesn't impact the team's plan moving forward nor their ability to operate towards that end. 2022 was the year of Deshaun Watson, enduring a season they largely played without him while hoping to get player development in the process.

The pressure is on the Cleveland Browns to deliver in 2023. That starts with Deshaun Watson who has to pay off the massive investment the organization made in him, but it's also on the front office to get the remaining missing pieces to make the Browns a championship contender. Let's stop pretending this wasn't always the case.