When the Cleveland Browns head to the “Space City” to face the Houston Texans in Week 13, quarterback Deshaun Watson will make his Browns debut against his former team. Since Tim Couch was the starting QB for the Browns when the franchise returned in 1999, Cleveland has had over 30 different starting quarterbacks (including Watson).
Don’t even get me started on how many different head coaches the Browns have had in that same period of time.
It’s unbelievable how many HC/QB combinations the Browns have gone through. On numerous occasions, the fans thought they had the right HC/QB combination to lead the Browns to success, but for a variety of reasons such as injuries, roster construction, bad play calling and questionable penalties, it never came together.
When the Browns drafted Colt McCoy in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of the University of Texas, I thought it would work out well for the team, and that he could be the long-term answer at quarterback. Ultimately, that didn’t happen, as McCoy is now the backup quarterback to Kyler Murray with the Arizona Cardinals, and the Browns have had countless quarterbacks in and out of the starting rotation since then.
While McCoy was in Cleveland, he had Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmer as head coaches. McCoy was 6-15 as the Browns starting quarterback (2-6 in 2010 under Mangini and 4-9 in 2011 under Shurmer). While 6-15 isn’t a franchise-altering record for a starting QB in the NFL, I don't put all the blame on McCoy. He was not given a fair chance to succeed because of the hand he was dealt.
I believe the Cleveland Browns have a problem: Their stubbornness.
Instead of conforming their offense to fit the quarterback’s skill set, the Browns try to fit a square peg in a round hole year after year, season after season. Whether they draft a quarterback like McCoy or Baker Mayfield, or if they add a quarterback via free agency like Jason Campbell or Robert Griffin III, the team forces the QB to run an offensive system that doesn’t fit their skill set, setting them up to fail. In turn, the Browns get put behind the eight ball.
Look at the Kansas City Chiefs. They drafted Patrick Mahomes 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Texas Tech. Since then, the AFC Championship has been renamed the “Arrowhead Invitational”, as Kansas City has hosted the AFC Championship every year since 2018. After not appearing in the Super Bowl since 1969, KC has played in two of the last three Super Bowls, winning in 2019 and losing in 2020.
Even though they traded wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins this past offseason, the Chiefs are currently 9-2, and they hold the top spot in the AFC.
Why has Kansas City been so successful?
They saw what Mahomes’ strengths and weaknesses were while he was at Texas Tech and configured their offense to suit him. It also helps that Andy Reid is the head coach in KC and Eric Bieniemy is Kansas City’s offensive coordinator.
The Baltimore Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson 32nd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Louisville. Although Baltimore hasn’t had the playoff success they expect, as they lost in either the AFC Wildcard or the Divisional Round every season Jackson has been their starter, they’ve still been a perennial powerhouse in the AFC. This season, the Ravens are tied for first place with the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of their 19-17 Week 5 win in Baltimore.
It certainly helps that John Harbaugh is the head coach for the Ravens, and Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator. They saw where Lamar Jackson flourished and where he struggled while he was at Louisville, and they configured their offense to best suit him, and they did so mid-way through his rookie season when Joe Flacco struggled running the traditional offense Baltimore had run for years with the former Delaware signal caller under center.
The way the Browns go through head coach-quarterback combinations is like someone looking through profiles on dating apps. They’ll swipe right on an HC/QB duo, and they’ll start talking to them, but after a year of talking and going out on a couple of dates, the Browns decide to dump them and go back to swiping left and right.
Occasionally, the Browns will stay in the same relationship for more than a year and see how it all pans out. That strategy has had mixed reviews. It didn’t work with Hue Jackson and any of the quarterbacks with him. The jury is still out on whether or not it will work with Kevin Stefanski.
It was a mixed bag with Baker Mayfield and now we have to play the wait-and-see game with Watson. The guy who Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney compared to Michael Jordan hasn’t taken a snap since January 3rd, 2021 against the Tennessee Titans. Even though Watson is eligible to play in the final six games of the 2022 season, it’s too small of a sample size to know definitively whether Stefanski-Watson is the right combination or not. Watson and Stefanski being together for all of the 2023 season will be the first true test of whether or not it will lead to success for the Browns.
The Browns will play their 12th game of the season in Houston against the Texans. They have established their offensive identity, which is smash-mouth run football with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. However, Watson brings two different elements to the Browns where Jacoby Brissett fell short:
Watson can make plays with his legs
He can throw the ball deep.
While the Browns don’t need to abandon their run-first mentality, they do need to utilize more of the passing game with No.4 taking the snaps. By utilizing more of the passing game, it will give us another opportunity to evaluate whether or not the Stefanski-Watson duo will be the future for the Browns.
Should Watson struggle in these final six games and all of the 2023 season, will the Cleveland Browns stick to their stubborn ways and get rid of Watson after dishing out a $230 million contract? Stefanski was hired by the Browns in January 2020, and he immediately led them to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and nearly knocked off Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round (the refs played a factor in that not happening). If they struggle next season, will they be stubborn and fire Stefanski despite the success he’s had? It wouldn’t be the first time the Browns have done it should it come to fruition.
Although the Browns faltered down the stretch and missed the playoffs in 2014, I believe that the team was headed in the right direction with head coach Mike Petitine, and I believe they would’ve been a playoff team if they stayed with Brian Hoyer at QB and never went to Johnny Maziel (who was a waste of a draft pick).
Stefanski and Watson have the potential to lead the Cleveland Browns to heights they haven’t reached in several years, but the organization’s stubbornness could prevent that from happening.
Will the Browns be patient to allow for the situation to develop or will they rush to a decision that comes back to bite them? Only time will tell.