As Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry took the time to reflect on the 2023 season, there were a number of different moments that stood out as ones that he won't forget.
A handful came from the night that the Browns clinched a playoff berth with their win over the Jets on Thursday Night Football. Yet, one in particular came the next morning on Dec. 29 from Berry's first boss in the NFL Tom Telesco.
"So, Tom, he sent a text that said, 'Your team had every excuse available to you to be a 10-loss team, and your players, coaches and staff never flinched. Good job and congratulations.' And the reason that memory is so strong for me is for two reasons: one, it was kind of like the no red pen moment, from your first boss in the NFL," Berry said. "But the second part of it is, it was really cool to me to see that there were people externally that had sensed, saw, felt, what we all had internally on a week-to-week basis with this team."
The Browns dealt with a plethora of adversity this season on the injury front. They battled through losing stars and key players from the first week of the season through the very end of the season. They started five quarterbacks over the course of the season, and had players miss time on all three sides of the ball. They relied on young players and backups to fill roles. And through it all, they won 11 games and found their way in the playoffs. They struggled during the Wild Card game against the Texans, with uncharacteristic mistakes that turned costly and ultimately ended their season.
And yet, there is more to take away from the 2023 season than its ending.
"The thing that I'm most proud of with this group of players, coaches and staff is all the adversity that they overcame throughout the season," Berry said. "I talked a lot the last time I was with you all about turning challenges into opportunities for this organization. And I thought the men and women within the building, our players in the locker room, did a phenomenal job of that throughout the season, always getting up off the mat, dealing with every challenge, and really accomplishing something that was noteworthy and special this season for the organization, for our city, and for our fan base."
Berry discussed several topics on Jan. 22 to wrap up the 2023 season. So, let's look at five important areas from Berry's press conference.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski's fourth season
As Berry reflected on all the challenges that the Browns endured during the 2023 season and how they handled the adversity as a team, Berry said that the ability to do so started with HC Kevin Stefanski.
"Kevin, the way that he was able to lead and manage through challenges in adversity this year was absolutely phenomenal," Berry said. "And we have a smart, adaptable, emotionally intelligent leader who the crazy part is, he's not even close to his ceiling. And this is a guy who hopefully in the next month should earn his second Coach of the Year award in his first four years as a head coach. And I know that our organization is in really good hands both now and for the foreseeable future with him."
And through all the factors of the season, Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-win season and a playoff berth. The 11 regular-season wins tied for the second-most in team history, sitting behind 1986 when the team won 12 games. They also won eight home games, which set a team record for wins at home. And they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
One of the characteristics that Berry said they focus on within the organization is finding people with a growth mindset. And to him, Stefanski has those characteristics of being a continuous learner and evolves over time. Berry said that both inside and outside the organization, they have seen Stefanski grow and evolve as a leader and a coach in the last four years.
"How he led and managed the year – this year where I don't know how he wouldn't win Coach of the Year – this year versus his first year were different," Berry said. "And I think the second part of it is, I always say Kevin, he's the best of us on just a human level. He truly is the best of us. And I think that authenticity really allows him to be an exceptional leader for our organization. So, it's really those two things combined that make me excited for the next several years."
RB Nick Chubb update
Even though Nick Chubb was not on the field for a majority of the season following his season-ending knee injury, he found ways to have a positive impact on the team. He was around the facility and his teammates. He served as Dawg Pound Captain for the last home game of the season on Dec. 28.
"I probably came into this year -- let's say on a scale of one to ten in terms of respect for Nick Chubb, it was a 10," Berry said. "And probably coming out of this year, it's now a 20. Nick – you would have never guessed that Nick was out for the season with how he operated within the building. It was like he was doing two a day practices for rehab."
He also still went with the team to a few road games in the latter half of the season. When the Browns were out in LA to face the Rams, Chubb was in the player's suite for the game. Berry said that he stopped over in the suite and saw Chubb walking without his crutches.
"'I was like, 'Nick, are you being stubborn?'" Berry recalled. "And he's like, 'No, it actually feels pretty good.' I was like, 'Nick, if you're supposed to be on your crutches, be on your crutches.' Well, we come back from the trip and then the next day, Dr. (James) Voos, they had put out this tape because they were going to just test where he was and they're like, 'Oh, no, officially, he doesn't need to be on his crutches anymore.' He had walked the whole thing. It was normal. And I share that, he's still very early in his rehab process, but the tenacity at which he has attacked his rehab. He did everything in his power this year to heal himself, but also make a positive impact with the team and it's culminated."
However, there is a looming question for the Browns surrounding Chubb, as he has one year left on his contract.
"Nick – I can say for myself, no one in the organization – nobody wants to see that carry in Pittsburgh be the last time he carries the ball for the Cleveland Browns," Berry said. "And obviously, there are things that we'll have to work through, but that would not be our intention as well. We obviously will work to keep him on the team."
QB Deshaun Watson's progression from shoulder injury
Watson underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in November and spent the remainder of the season rehabbing the shoulder. He spent time towards the end of the season back around the team in their push for the playoffs and during the Wild Card game.
Berry said on Monday that Watson is "progressing well," through the rehab process. As an organization, they continue to feel confident about his recovery. Berry added that there is nothing that would suggest Watson would have a type of limitation moving forward.
"He's doing everything in his power in terms of rehab," Berry said. "He's coming along well. We anticipate him being on a normal or potentially ahead of schedule time. I hesitate to say that because it still is early, but we're really pleased with this progress so far and certainly looking forward to getting him back when he comes in the spring."
Carrying three quarterbacks on the roster
With the Browns dealing with several injuries in their quarterback room this season, they used five different starting quarterbacks over the course of the regular season. They brought in veteran QB Joe Flacco in November following Watson's surgery, first signing him to the practice squad before signing him to the active roster. In five regular season games, Flacco completed 123-of-204 passes for 1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns. He helped lead the Browns to a playoff berth in the final stretch of the season.
As the Browns continue to evaluate the 2023 season and look ahead to 2024, Berry considered it a fair statement that they would have three quarterbacks on the roster moving forward. How that looks – whether with all three on the 53-man roster or having one on the practice squad, as well as how the market works out in the offseason – will come at a later point in the offseason.
"In terms of the quarterback room, we've always valued the quarterback position," Berry said. "And I think probably if you look at our history over the last four seasons, we've always been towards the top of the league in backup quarterback expenditures or resources, whether it was Case (Keenum) for the first two years, obviously Jacoby (Brisset) last year and then even this year coming into the year with (Josh) Dobbs and Dorian (Thompson-Robinson). So, it's something I believe that backup quarterback really is a top 30 position on the roster, and we do believe in carrying three, and that's something that we'll probably do moving forward."
How the Browns move forward to 2024
After the Browns' season came to an end, Berry began to follow closely along with the story of Detroit and their playoff run. Part of the interest has come from his friendship with executive vice president and general manager Brad Holmes, but also for the fact that the Lions hosted their first home playoff game in 30 years. As he watched the games against the Rams and the Buccaneers, Berry notice the energy in the stadium and how the team fed off their fans in those games.
"It kind of got me thinking, what's it going to look like or sound like or feel like when we're hosting a home playoff game here in Cleveland?" Berry said. "What's the energy going to be feeding into the week? What's it going to sound like on the opening kickoff?"
He saw parallels to the atmosphere from Thursday Night Football against the Jets when the Browns clinched a playoff berth. There was a sense of electricity in the air as players warmed up pregame with a packed stadium. The surprise of Chubb as the Dawg Pound Captain and the roar of fans in excitement. Players taking a lap around the field following the game to share in the moment with fans. It provided a taste of the potential in Cleveland.
The Browns are about a week removed from seeing their season come to an end in the Wild Card round with the loss to the Texans. As they approach the of offseason, Berry said they will continue to use the time for reflection and self-assessment.
There are takeaways from how they handled the adversity of the 2023 season, as well assessing the performance in the Wild Card game. He noted that "we chose a bad day to have a bad day," and recognize the struggles they faced in the playoff matchup. Yet, Berry also said that in their process, they look at the full body of work and not overreact to the result of the playoff game.
"We look at everything that we did 'A to Z', on the field, off the field, with the goal of improvement," Berry said. "And it's really not just improvement but positioning the organization in a way where we can have our first home playoff game in 29 years, where we can consistently produce playoff teams and deep runs. And ultimately the goal is to bring the franchise its first Super Bowl. So, all the decisions moving forward will be with that goal in mind. And at times that may lead to hard and uncomfortable decisions, but everything will be with that mindset for improvement. And it's because we know that our fans will appreciate it. We owe it to our fans. We owe it to the city. We owe it to the players, coaches and staff in the organization. That's really our fiduciary responsibility."