The Browns know they need to take a big step on offense to get back to the playoffs, and they also know that all starts with QB Deshaun Watson returning to the Pro Bowl-level form he had his first four years of his career.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry each feel confident about Watson rising to that mark in 2023, and they made those beliefs clear when they discussed his future this week in Phoenix at the NFL Annual Meetings.
"I think confidence for me comes from seeing it, and I've seen him do it," Stefanski said. "I saw him do it in those games last season. I know it wasn't perfect. I certainly wasn't perfect. We weren't perfect around him and as we all know, it's not a one-man show. It's a team game and we didn't have as much team success as we would've liked late in the season there.
"But I've seen it from Deshaun in games, I've seen it from practice, I've seen it in his career, so that's why I'm confident."
Watson's improvements were perhaps the biggest part of the conversations Stefanski and Berry each had with local reporters at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, the first time they've met with media since free agency began on March 15.
The Browns have been quite busy since then, starting the period by patching holes in their defense with free-agent acquisitions and depth pieces and completing a big splash to the receiver room last week by acquiring speedy WR Elijah Moore in a trade with the Jets. TE Jordan Akins, who played with Watson in Houston in 2018 and 2019, was signed, too, and WR Marquise Goodwin has reportedly agreed to terms as well.
Moore and Goodwin will instantly become two of the fastest receivers on the roster, and Akins' familiarity with Watson should help him adjust quickly into the offense — although Berry said that wasn't the reason they signed him. Akins led the Texans with five touchdowns last season and showed a new level of playmaking ability the Browns wanted to add to their tight ends group.
The Browns expect the trio of new receiving options to help Watson and the offense find more explosiveness.
"I think we're all very excited about Deshaun, excited for a full offseason with the guys he's already built chemistry with and some of the additional players that we've added to the offense," Berry said. "I think just even familiarity with Kevin and the offensive staff and just honestly even settling into a new environment. We've seen him obviously in practice and game settings, we've seen his talent, seen his ability, but it's an adjustment period, and we feel really good about him getting a full spring, a full summer, and perhaps a more normal start to the regular season boding well for the team."
The six games Watson played last year were all important for Stefanski learning more about what plays and personnel groupings he prefers, and that learning process should be accelerated by having a full offseason to map out a 17-game plan.
As Watson grows more comfortable in the system, Stefanski expects him to be able to take even more control of the offense — such as re-directing play calls at the line of scrimmage and directing the timing of certain playcalls during the game.
"I think comfort in the system, that certainly comes, and the quarterback, as we say this all the time, has the trump card because he's got the best view of it from where he is," Stefanski said. "There were times last year where Deshaun made great adjustments to what we were doing, and he always has that ability. I think as he becomes more comfortable in our system, he'll know when and where to do that more often. A lot of times when you're playing no huddle, that comes up more often than not. When you're at the line of scrimmage, you're making those decisions. So he did it sometimes last year. I think that will only grow the more reps he gets in our system."
With more reps and more weapons, Stefanski and Berry see Watson taking a big leap back to what he was before he arrived in Cleveland last season — and taking the rest of the offense with him.
"I know Deshaun's excited about the guys that we've added," Stefanski said. "I know he's talked to all of them and I'm sure he'll be throwing with them sooner than later, but our goal is always to make sure that our quarterback has everything at his disposal."