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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Christian D'Andrea

Joe Flacco couldn’t be Cinderella forever. Now the Browns’ season is over

It’s a credit to the Cleveland Browns they even got this far. Saturday’s 45-14 Wild Card loss to the Houston Texans capped a season in which they went 11-6, tying the mark for most wins in a season since 1986. This happened despite five different starting quarterbacks, including XFL legend PJ Walker (awful), fifth round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (overwhelmed) and Jeff Driskel (inconsequential).

That’s not who we’re here to talk about. This is the story of a revitalized Joe Flacco and the volatile mix of explosives that finally left the Browns covered in soot after riding high to finish their regular season.

Flacco was one of the best stories of the 2023 season. The 38-year-old veteran was unemployed in November, waiting for someone to bring him back to the gridiron. And while the New York Jets, for whom he’d played the previous three seasons, demurred despite absolute poison coursing through their passing game, another team with a powerful defense awaited.

Cleveland signed him to its practice squad on November 20. By December 3 he was the team’s starting quarterback. He wrapped the season with four straight wins to push the Browns into the playoffs and create a baseline of hope for a fanbase that needed three rock fight victories to earn the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.

Flacco was never going to be the guy to get them there. He was a poorly secured cannon, firing into the air with his coordinates just a bit off. His average throw depth of 8.7 yards downfield was the second-highest of his career, per SIS. His 24 deep throws (20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage) in five weeks were more than Kirk Cousins had thrown in eight games this season. His 11 completions on those throws were as many as Bryce Young had all year.

This presented the kind of risk a man approaching 39 years old and with nothing to lose could manage. His 14 touchdowns in fewer than two months as a Brown were as many as Deshaun Watson, acquired for three first round picks and given $235 million fully guaranteed before playing a snap in Cleveland despite more than 20 accusations of sexual misconduct dating back to his playing days with the Houston Texans, has in two years.

But he failed to go a single game without an interception. He turned the ball over 11 times in six games. His 70.1 percent on target throw rate would rank 31st in the NFL if he’d played enough games to qualify among the league’s starters, per Pro Football Reference. That places him right between Kenny Pickett and Joshua Dobbs when it comes to hitting his receivers.

Flacco spent the tail end of 2023 incurring a debt. On Saturday, after taking a 14-10 lead, the collectors began to call. Flacco was tasked with throwing his team back into this game as the run game and defense that had carried Cleveland throughout the year failed. The Browns’ tailbacks averaged 2.5 yards per carry. Their defense allowed three different drives of at least 71 yards. The soon-to-be 39-year-old soon became the team’s only hope of a comeback.

To his credit, Flacco tried. In the end, he was still late-stage Joe Flacco.

In 2024, Cleveland will go back to Watson, a quarterback who has proven untrustable on and off the field. In 2022 he was outplayed by Jacoby Brissett. In 2023 he was shown up by Flacco.

But he might be able to win behind a dominant defense, powerful run game and an offense that can work when you chuck passes up there and hope for the best. That is, at least until the playoffs come.

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