The list of failed Cleveland Browns quarterbacks is so extensive, it’s hard to remember a time when there was a widespread sense of optimism about the team’s offense. We may have to go back to the Bernie Kosar days to recall an era when the team had extended stability at the position.
Entering what will be his first full season as the starter, Deshaun Watson doesn’t generate much exterior positivity, as observers are naturally concerned about the off-field issues that have enveloped him, and his on-field performances have left much to be desired.
Last season, when Watson finally played for the Browns, the results were mediocre. He averaged 183.7 passing yards per game and threw seven touchdown passes and five interceptions in six starts.
Heading into the 2023 campaign, though, the former Texans star has more experience in the Cleveland offense as he enters his second preseason with the Browns. The front office also added former Jets WR Elijah Moore to complement a hopefully healthy Amari Cooper.
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Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt has been enthused about what he has seen in offseason workouts so far. That’s a feeling that has not been linked to the Browns’ offense at any time in recent memory.
In a recent workout, Watson made a throw to Moore that demonstrated why Van Pelt believes there should be increased anticipation about what the Browns’ offense can deliver in 2023.
“The hair stood up on my arm,” Van Pelt said. “He dotted a touchdown in the red zone that was really an impressive throw. The seam route that was over the hook player and right on the face mask. So that was a throw, that degree of difficulty would have been high and he smoked it.”
“I’ve been around some good ones, but that was one [where] I literally got goosebumps. I was like, wow, that was a tremendous throw and catch.”
If one focuses on Watson strictly from the on-field perspective, there are significant reasons for optimism. Van Pelt said the NFL’s 2020 passing yardage leader is regaining his best form again.
“It’s just his confidence in the system itself, understanding, and what we’re asking of him and how to communicate at the line of scrimmage, everything from protections to calling plays in the huddle. He’s improved tenfold since this time last year,” Van Pelt said.
While Moore was more of a headline-making addition, the Browns also acquired another notable downfield threat in Marquise Goodwin, who has averaged 16.2 yards per reception in his career.
Cleveland is clearly building around its three-time Pro Bowl QB despite the controversies he has been linked to. Moore and Goodwin will give him better chances to challenge defenses with big plays from the wide receivers.
“Marquise and Elijah have been a boost to that room with their playmaking ability and their speed down the field,” Van Pelt said. “Just getting a feel for those guys right now and their timing and their pass routes, that’s the big part. We’ve circled [the deep ball] as an area of improvement.”
Moore was frustrated with his lack of targets with the Jets, but Van Pelt sees him being a very important part of the passing game for Cleveland.
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“He has great flexibility, inside and outside flexibility. He can run individual routes outside and win out there,” Van Pelt said. “He can come into the slot and has the twitch to win in the slot as well. He has excellent hands and a good feel for the game. So really, [he is] a complete receiver that can play both inside and out.”
Last season, Amari Cooper played hurt down the stretch and had core muscle surgery in February. However, he still finished with 78 receptions for 1,160 yards and nine TD catches.
“That’s just toughness,” Van Pelt said. “Him playing through injury and grimacing running down the field on touchdown receptions, that’s something to see. It means a lot to the players in that locker room. Certainly, it means a lot to the coaching staff.”
Now that Cooper should head into the new season in better health, he will again be a major weapon for what could actually be a potent Cleveland offense.
“He’s a true route runner with great explosion,” Van Pelt said. “If you watch early in the season before he was injured, he was hard to cover. So, I’m just excited to get him healthy and back to full speed.”
The team’s fourth-year offensive coordinator sees a complete vision coming together on offense. He credited general manager Andrew Berry for not only bringing in more key performers for the offense, but making sure important proven players remain in the picture.
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“AB and the crew upstairs have given us some pieces, more weapons,” Van Pelt said. “Being able to bring [Ethan] Pocic back [on a three-year contract] at that center spot, that was a huge lift for the coaching staff as well as the players.”
“To have that continuity up front and then the experience and the level of play of that offensive line, it’s really impressive. And then you add Nick [Chubb] to the mix in the backfield.”
Chubb has been an annual staple in the Browns’ offense, and with a more classic version of Watson in the backfield with him, Cleveland may be able to keep defenses off balance much more in 2023.
“It opens up a whole lot in the run game, especially [from] the gun. We’ll see more [gun runs] than we have in the past,” Van Pelt said.
“And then how often do you really want to use Deshaun in the run game as a runner? As a true runner. That stuff will work out through camp and get it ironed out as we go into the season, but it does give us a lot of opportunity, a lot of different schemes.”
The preseason may be an enticing buildup to seeing an entertaining and productive Browns offense, a statement that seems odd. Van Pelt cautioned that while the right pieces are in place, getting the attack to where it optimally wants to be will take some time.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We know that. We’re not there yet. We’ll still learn and grow, but [we’re] excited about what the future could be.”