We now have a half-season sample size of Deshaun Watson in Cleveland since he returned at the mid-point of last season after an 11-game suspension due to claims of sexual misconduct.
The early returns: not pretty.
The start of the season promised plenty for the Browns. There was a world in which Watson would return to his form in 2020, when he went to his third Pro Bowl in four years and led the league in passing. Or there was a possibility that he played like a solid but not spectacular quarterback. The gulf between those two is the difference between the Browns being a certified juggernaut or being another team among the batch of AFC contenders. Either of those outcomes could have ended with a championship parade for a team that was stacked across the roster.
Then there were two other two roads: we’d get the 2022 version again: sometimes good, often bad. Or, the spark that typified his game in 2019 and 2020 would be gone for good, and the Browns would be left with a $200m sinkhole on their cap sheet, forcing head coach Kevin Stefanski out while scorn is poured on everyone at the Browns for cozying up to Watson in the first place.
Any guesses which way things are trending?
The Browns handed Watson a record-shattering, $230m fully guaranteed contract before he played a down in Cleveland. And this was after everyone knew about the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against him. Yes, Watson has never been criminally charged with any wrongdoing. But the NFL, which requires a lower burden of proof than the legal system, banned him for 11 games and condemned his “egregious” and “predatory behavior”.
To justify paying any quarterback – but particularly this quarterback – well above the going market rate, he would have to churn out MVP-like production year after year (in ethical terms, many would argue no prize was worth recruiting Watson). The Browns could just about stomach Watson being on the fringes of the top 10, an inconsistent gunner who will win a game one week and throw it away the next.
But the player of today looks something closer to Davis Mills, the also-ran who ultimately replaced him in Houston, than the Watson of old. Watson’s game had always revolved around two strengths: his deep-ball accuracy and his ability to create when pressured. In his time in Cleveland, both have cratered. He’s less accurate, less aggressive, less decisive, and looks slower with the ball in his hands.
Average and bad quarterbacks fold when the pass rush comes screaming at them. Watson had always held steady. That was until he stepped on to the field for Cleveland: He has turned pressures into sacks at a league-high rate and averages just 4.8 yards per attempt when pressured – the only time he’s fallen below the 7.5-yards-per-attempt mark in his career. His knack for creating out of structure has vanished.
Everywhere you look, the numbers make grim reading for Browns fans: Watson ranks 32nd in PFF’s ‘Big-Time Throw’ metric; he’s 11th in turnover-worthy play percentage; he’s third in the percentage of plays that turn into sacks; and Cleveland have the second-lowest completion percentage on throws of 10 yards or more. Put that together, and he’s ranked 30th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks this season in QBR rating. (If he had played enough games in 2022, he’d have been 27th last season.)
Watson is seeing things too late or not at all and the ball too often falls short of its target, flopping to the ground like a punctured balloon. His feel for the rhythms of the game is nothing special – and he is paid to be among the very best in the league.
Do not make a drinking game out of his baffling decisions.
And here’s the thing, it should be easier for Watson these days. In Houston, he was surrounded by mediocre talent and yet he still delivered, nudging him into MVP discussions. But this Browns team is the most talented Watson has ever played on. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league, even with some injuries. The receiving corps isn’t as versatile as the league’s top groups but it is talented. On defense, the team has overhauled a group that had a crippling aversion to the run last season and lacked playmakers outside Myles Garrett. It’s now full of fun, springy pass-rushers to pair with Garrett and is led by Jim Schwartz, a defensive warlock.
It was discouraging to watch how many teams courted Watson after the sexual misconduct allegations: proof, if we needed it, that NFL teams think off-field problems don’t matter as long as a player is good enough. Watson was so impactful, so brilliant on a bad Texans team, the thinking went, just imagine what he could do in a functional one. Through two weeks this season, he has been outplayed by Baker Mayfield, whom the Browns cast aside to acquire Watson and whose salary is a fraction of his successor’s in Cleveland.
There were mitigating factors to Watson’s initial struggles. His backers pointed to rust after he missed the majority of two seasons due to a dispute with the Texans and the suspension the NFL handed down in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations. Plus, Stefanski tried to implement a fresh offense, uprooting what the team did before Watson’s return and looking to build an ecosystem that better suited his new quarterback. The alchemy was clunky. The Browns would bounce from system to system on a play-to-play basis, one that made Watson more comfortable and another that let the backs and offensive line sing.
After dabbling with ways to fuse the two styles together, Stefanski has put all his chips in on Watson.
If there is one thing that distinguishes the coaches who have had prolonged periods of success – Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll – it is that they have always been able to evolve. Their teams played the game in different ways, but what they all shared was a clarity of vision. They recognized when the time was right to abandon a winning formula and had the courage to implement a new one. Stefanski’s reward for ripping his offense up and starting again? Watson has stunk.
Watson himself is clearly frustrated. He pushed an official during Monday Night Football. On Tuesday, his private quarterback coach took a thinly veiled aim at the design of the Browns’ offense.
From here on out it could get worse. The aggravating thing for the Browns is that it’s not clear how to solve Watson’s problems because it’s not clear what’s causing them. He’s 28 and hasn’t suffered any significant injuries, so there’s no physical reason he should be struggling. It’s possible he’s feeling the pressure of a large contract, but he’s hardly going to take a pay cut to relieve the burden. Sure, he has had a lot of time away from the field, but he’s been back nearly a year now and has shown no signs that’s he’s getting any better.
And Watson isn’t the only problem the Browns have to deal with. Running back Nick Chubb’s season-ending injury leaves a void in Cleveland’s offense. Backup Jerome Ford and the recently re-signed Kareem Hunt will give the Browns a solid one-two punch on the ground. But neither is Chubb, a player capable of turning the teensiest bit of space into a touchdown.
Ripping Chubb’s skills out of the offense will leave Watson exposed. If you want to put on orange-tinted glasses, you could point to the Ewing Theory: that in Chubb going down the Browns can lean all the way into a style that better suits Watson. But that obscures three facts: the offense has already been tailored to Watson’s preference; the rest of the offense looks disjointed; Chubb is the best back in the league, regardless of the scheme.
The Browns are well-equipped nearly everywhere else, and they could still win the division or seal a playoff berth. But those were not the expectations heading into the year. This team was built to challenge for – and possibly win – a Super Bowl. Rickety parts of the roster (depth at cornerback; issues at linebacker) were supposed to be offset by MVP-caliber quarterback play. Through two weeks, they’re as far away from that as Pittsburgh, Carolina and Atlanta.
Cleveland went all in on Watson – selling their souls in the process. He is on the books for almost $64m a year for the next three years, with no mechanism for Cleveland to move off his contract. There hasn’t been – and won’t be – much help from the draft either: the Browns traded their 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks to the Texans in return for Watson.
He could, of course, still turn things around – he’s young and looked like having a shot at a Hall of Fame career just a few years ago. But if Watson continues to fall on his face, the Browns will have torched a championship window that they crawled through shame to get to.