CLEVELAND — The way Deshaun Watson celebrated with Jacoby Brissett after the fourth-down conversion, the way Myles Garrett celebrated a sack with rookie Perrion Winfrey, the way Watson growled into the night sky as the final seconds ticked off the clock all combined to reveal one important factor on this season.
They haven’t given up. Not on each other and not on their coach.
If you wondered, like I did, whether this team would still fight and compete with the playoffs realistically out of reach, this was their response.
No, the Ravens didn’t have Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Yes, the offense still managed just one touchdown. Nevertheless, Watson looked comfortable on the move and made plays with his feet, the defense delivered a huge fourth-down stop on the opening drive and forced two turnovers, and the Browns left with an incredibly impressive 13-3 win against a Ravens team still playing for the division.
December often has a way of bringing out the worst in the Browns. We’ve seen the earth swallow up plenty of coaching staffs after December unravelings.
I’ve been hard on Kevin Stefanski and this coaching staff at various points, particularly last week after the loss at Cincinnati. But at no point did I ever believe Stefanski, Andrew Berry or Paul DePodesta should be fired. Changes could, and should, be coming to the staff. But three tent poles of the organization should remain for next year.
Coach: Who likes stats?
Us: ? pic.twitter.com/XFFgAIzvHG
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 18, 2022
Locker rooms have power. Teams can revolt and quit on their coaches, particularly after volatile seasons such as this. Three of the worst losses were the debacle against the Jets, the absolute no-show coming off the bye week at Miami and then last week at Cincinnati, which effectively ended the team’s postseason hopes before Watson’s first home game.
I’ll forever believe the loss to the Jets altered the trajectory of the season, but to their credit, the Browns responded with a win four days later against the Steelers. The pitiful display against Miami was followed by another loss to the Bills, which sealed the fate of this defensive staff in my eyes. But to their credit, the Browns fought back with their season unraveling to steal a win against Tampa Bay.
Now this. Now with little to play for, the defense delivered a terrific effort in keeping the Ravens out of the end zone. The Ravens rushed for 198 yards, but they hadn’t trailed by double figures all year until Saturday.
Nothing about this team, nothing about this season makes much sense. The only constant has been the Browns kicking open the coffin every time we get our shovels.
No, they aren’t going to the playoffs. I don’t care what minuscule percentage chance the data says they have. But they aren’t giving up on their coach or on each other, either.
“It was never in doubt the kind of guys we have in this locker room,” Garrett said. “I was never worried about the kind of heart they were going to bring to that field because I see it every day.”
The inconsistency is maddening. This is the second straight year the defense is finally putting its shoes on the right feet after spending at least half the season playing out of position, blowing schemes and missing tackles.
I do believe Watson, as expected, has injected life into both sides of the ball. Just his arrival has provided a lift, although he still has a long way to go to return to the player he was in Houston. The Browns are keeping the calls simple for him — his average depth of target was just 3.5 yards in the first half. It isn’t a complicated scheme they’re running.
One of the plays I thought Watson looked most natural on was early in the fourth quarter when the Ravens brought pressure on third down. Watson saw the middle open up and never hesitated in scrambling for 17 yards. It’s the weapon that makes him so dangerous when he’s right.
It’s not there yet, but every week he looks a little more comfortable.
The Browns now have three division wins, which actually isn’t all that unusual in recent history. But they haven’t had four wins within the division since they returned to the league in 1999.
For all that has gone wrong this year, a win to end the season at Pittsburgh would give Cleveland its first 4-2 record within the North since the North was created. That’s meaningful. And it’s a sign of progress in a season when progress hasn’t always been easy to identify.
(Photo: Ron Schwane / Associated Press)