WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – In the background were the wild, wonderful Appalachian Mountains. Down the road it was majestic Greenbrier Resort set up for the richest of the rich, probably some who have relatives who came to these shores on the Mayflower.
The place first opened in 1778. Twenty-eight presidents have been here, along with plenty of celebrities and titans of industry.
Since 2014, the resort has added NFL teams to the roster. New Orleans and Houston have opened their training camps here.
Now it’s the Browns. As they opened the first training camp of 2023, coach Kevin Stefanski talked about the benefits of getting his team “away” from it all. The Browns will be here for eight days.
Greenbrier is located about an hour east of Beckley and about 15 miles from the Virginia border on Interstate 64. The opulent resort is surrounded by green, rugged mountains and a very remote country.
“We’re landlocked here,” Stefanski said. “We are in the middle of nowhere by design.”
Will it work? The team has a demanding schedule, playing all three AFC North teams in the first four weeks of the season.
CHANGE OF PERSONALITY
Stefanski has two main tasks. The first is to be the CEO of the team. In previous columns, I’ve written about his struggles in this area – especially holding players accountable on defense.
The Browns have imported two successful and experienced coordinators in Jim Schwartz (defense) and Bubba Ventrone (special teams) to upgrade these units and add more overall discipline to the team.
I asked Denzel Ward about the early impact of Schwartz.
“We have a great defensive playbook,” the cornerback said. “He’s going to be tough on us. That’s what we need. We need somebody to tell us what we’re doing good, what we’re doing bad and what we need to fix. He’s right there in our ear telling us.”
Schwartz was brought in not only to change former coordinator Joe Woods’ defensive schemes, but also the management style.
“He’s a fiery guy who will tell you how it is,” Ward said. “That’s what we need around here.”
The Browns made big free-agent additions to the defense. It should be improved.
“You can have a lot of talent, but you have to bring all the pieces together,” Ward said.
That’s part of what’s happening at Greenbrier.
Defense matters. The special teams matter. Team discipline matters.
But Stefanski was hired in 2020 in part because of his history of helping quarterbacks. Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins had the best years of their careers when they were in Minnesota. Stefanski was their QB coach and later offensive coordinator.
Part of Stefanski’s job when he came to Cleveland was to fix Baker Mayfield. Stefanski not only had to be the head coach, he also had to design an offense to help Mayfield and also call the plays.
The Browns were 11-5 in the surprising 2020 season and even beat Pittsburgh in a playoff game. That year remains the best season of Mayfield’s career.
A strong case can be made that Jacoby Brissett had his best NFL season in his 11 games as a starter for Cleveland last year.
NOW IT’S WATSON’S TURN
There are several reasons why Watson was generally dismal in his six late-season starts with the Browns. I’m not going to reheat the old collection of leftovers from 2022.
That’s why I asked Stefanski about Watson on Saturday.
“He’s in a really, really good spot,” the head coach said. “I’m excited about where he’s got his grasp on the system. He’s just constantly working.”
Stefanski rarely falls for anyone. My question was neutral, wondering how Watson was feeling. This is why his unsolicited praise is meaningful.
Can Stefanski create an offense that highlights what Watson does well?
Watson’s problems were of his own design due to his off-season activities with massage therapists. It made for a messy season. It was a PR disaster for the Browns and Watson, who was suspended for the first 11 games. The quarterback looked visibly nervous not only in his awful opener in Houston, but in some other games as well.
On Saturday, Stefanski discussed the benefits of having Watson know “he’s our starter from day one.” Watson’s suspension is behind him. So are the vast majority of his civil lawsuits.
“We have him for the season,” Stefanski said “It helps when we practice. It helps him get the maximum reps he needs to get ready.”
It’s football all the time for Stefanski and his quarterback.
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