July 24—By TOM WITHERS
WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The pressure to win is intense and the expectations are heightened for the Browns.
Failure is not an option. They’re in win-now mode.
With a talented roster and quarterback Deshaun Watson available for his first full season with the team following an 11-game NFL suspension in 2022, the Browns have run out of excuses — and maybe time — to compete in the AFC.
From the outside, a playoff appearance would seem to be the minimum standard of success for the Browns, who went 7-10 last season.
However, owner Jimmy Haslam isn’t making any ultimatums, projections or predictions.
“I’m not saying the expectations aren’t high. I’m just not going to draw a line for you guys what they are,” Haslam said July 24 at the Greenbrier Resort, Cleveland’s home for the first eight days of training camp.
“They’re high. All of us have high expectations. Everybody that works for the Browns that’s here has high expectations today.”
Haslam and his wife, Dee, have been in the league long enough to know anything can happen during a season. In the Browns’ case, anything has usually meant something bad.
Cleveland is 60-119-1 since the Haslams’ 2012 takeover.
The Browns have only made the postseason once in the owners’ tenure, and the organization has suffered countless setbacks — many of them self-inflicted — over the past decade.
This season could be different, though.
The Haslams have invested heavily in players (Watson was guaranteed $230 million and Cleveland has a league-high $302 million cash spend this season, according to spotrac.com), allowing chief strategist Paul DePodesta and general manager Andrew Berry to give fourth-year coach Kevin Stefanski a team that on paper can stack up against anyone in the league.
But Jimmy Haslam also knows that navigating a season full of injuries, tough losses and unexpected developments is tricky.
“I think it’s really dangerous to say now or never,” he said when asked about a timetable to win. “The NFL is unbelievably competitive and our division — just Cincinnati, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, us — most people think is the toughest division. So do we feel the best about our roster that we have going into this year? Do I think Andrew and Paul and Kevin have done a great job? We do.
“Are we excited about this year? Yes. To say it’s now or never, I think it’d be grossly unfair, but we’re excited about this year.”
Stefanski won coach of the year honors in 2020 after leading the Browns to their only playoff win since 1999. But he’s gone 15-19 since. Jimmy Haslam said if it was an easy decision to keep Stefanski after a challenging 2022.
“There was never a thought not to bring Kevin back. We like him,” he said. “He’s a good coach. He proved it in the first year, did a tremendous job. In the second year we had some bumps and bruises. … And last year was just difficult.”
Much of the Browns’ success will hinge on whether Watson, who struggled at times during his six games last season, can rediscover his Pro Bowl form.
Watson was banned by the league last season for violating its personal conduct policy after two dozen women accused him of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions while he played for the Houston Texans.
On July 23, Watson said the suspension changed him as a player and person — for the better.
The Haslams expressed pride in Watson, saying the 27-year-old has matured during his time with the Browns.
“I think he has learned a lot about himself and what he can and can’t do,” Jimmy Haslam said. “He’s learned who you can trust and who you can’t trust. Deshaun has always, always been humble. He’s even more humble. I’ll be honest, I think the time away from football, the time away from teammates, et cetera, he now values that more than he ever has.
“Not that he didn’t before. And you can see Deshaun, who’s always been a leader and last year was in an awkward scenario.”
Watson underwent mandatory therapy as one of the conditions of his ban, and Dee Haslam is encouraged that he has continued to receive counseling.
“He has said over and over, ‘I have learned so much,’ and hopefully he’ll continue to grow through that process,” Dee Haslam said.
The Haslams remain hopeful they can come to an agreement with the city of Cleveland to renovate the team’s lakefront stadium, which was built in 1999. They both described the process as “complex” and did not rule out the possibility the team could build a new stadium elsewhere. “The only thing Dee and I would say for sure is that we’re not leaving Northeastern Ohio,” he said. … WR Amari Cooper is not expected to miss much time with an injury Berry called a “minor tweak” on July 23. Cooper worked on the side during the morning practice. … Rookie T Dawand Jones, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State, was out sick for the second straight day.