As HC Kevin Stefanski sat at the podium just short of 24 hours after the Browns' playoff exit, he took a moment to reflect on all that the 2023 season brought.
From Week 1 through the last game of the season, they dealt with injuries. Stars. Starters. Key role players. Backups. Offense. Defense. Special teams. They had 13 players on injured reserve over the course of the season, ranging from players who missed the allotted time and returned for a portion of the season, to season-ending injuries. They also dealt with other injuries that required players to miss time. They started five different quarterbacks over the course of the season.
And yet, through it all, they finished with an 11-6 regular season record and clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2020.
"These guys really fought like crazy," Stefanski said. "They really did. And it's the makeup of the football team that drives your success. And I give Andrew (Berry) credit for the guys that he brought into this locker room and the caliber of players that he brought in. I just, I'm very appreciative of all those guys."
Saturday's Wild Card game wasn't the ending many of the expected or wanted. After overcoming all the adversity in the regular season, they held high aspirations for a playoff run. The Browns went on four-game win streak in the month of December with QB Joe Flacco at the helm of the offense. The belief resonated throughout the locker room that they could continue to ride this wave of success. There was an aura around the team and in the locker that this season was different.
"I was talking to guys earlier and it was a special season, right?" LB Anthony Walker Jr. said. "And then you go through all adversity and that's what makes it more special. And then it's d----- yesterday because you lose. And all it is, is because the specialness was supposed to keep going. You think that like it's supposed to keep going. Like we have overcome so much, why can't we just keep overcoming right? And that's the way this game is, and we're just not the one. We're not the team that the specialness continued for. We're one of the 31 who lost and not going to make the Super Bowl or win the Super Bowl. So, we never want to take that for granted."
The Browns wrapped up the 2023 season on Jan. 14, 2024, following their loss to the Texans in the Wild Card round. Players cleaned out their lockers and spoke with media, and Head Coach Kevin Stefanski held a season-ending press conference at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
The 45-14 loss to the Texans in the first round of the playoffs was a jolt back to reality. They watched the "specialness" of the 2023 season dissipate.
"You take it for granted because you're in the process of it," Walker said. "You're winning games, you're in the playoffs, the city and everyone's behind you and got your back and everything. And then you lose the game. But that doesn't change what happened this season and how special it was. But the light got dimmed earlier than everybody wanted it to."
Even with the disappointing ending to the season, players throughout the locker room and Stefanski noted that the distinctiveness of the 2023 season and the special moments throughout that encompassed just who the Browns were as a team. They embodied the next man up mentality as backups and young players on all three sides of the ball filled in for injured players. They stuck to the belief of going 1-0 each week, focused on what was right in front of them. They celebrated their defensive successes on the field and picked one another up on the field.
All that stemmed from the culture they built as a team. It created a bond that held them together through the countless injuries that could have broken them as a team.
Walker said that some of the most special moments of the season came with Flacco – who was first signed to the Browns' practice squad on Nov. 20 following QB Deshaun Watson's season-ending shoulder surgery. He started two games for the Browns in Week 13 and 14 and was signed to the active roster on Dec. 14.
Yet, it wasn't just for what Flacco was able to do on the field at the helm of the Browns offense. Flacco led the Browns to four straight wins in his five starts during the regular season, and he threw for over 300 yards in four consecutive games.
"But for the person that he was off the field," Walker said. "Coming in and – I can tell this story now that the season's over – but we had an outing, a team outing in LA, and he showed up. And I think that was a huge point in our season, where guys saw him. And most quarterbacks at that age and what he's done in his career, he could have easily been like, 'Man, I'm tired, I'm going in and whatever.' But it's 1:30-2 o'clock and he's hanging out with the guys, and I think that was really special."
On Sunday, players wrapped up with meetings with Stefanski and cleaned out their lockers. They said their goodbyes to one another and made plans for the offseason. And while the sense of disappointment from the loss to the Texans 24 hours earlier still lingered, there is a belief that there is more to be done next season.
Many NFL locker rooms see turnover in the offseason, and each year can look slightly different than the previous one. However, Stefanski believes that their culture will last. The special nature of the 2023 season – from the work going back to April with offseason programs, through training camp at The Greenbrier, and all that they endured as a team during the regular season – resonated with the group and created a lasting impact.
"I would tell you the core of this football team, the guys that we know are coming back are guys that represent who we are, that understand what they need to do on a day-to-day basis to be great," Stefanski said. "So, we're excited about that. But bottom line is, when you're talking about the locker room, it's the people. It is just the people in that locker room. And I feel strongly about the people."