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As Browns reboot Deshaun Watson, the presumption of him recapturing elite trajectory is fading

“Where is his arrow pointed?”

That was a question a general manager once posed to me about hefty quarterback contracts. At the time, the GM’s franchise was engaged in talks with its veteran starter. The negotiation was at a particularly contentious point. The player was frustrated, his agent was angry and the GM was explaining an offer that was significantly less than what free agency could get the QB down the line. The impasse, the GM said, was about “quarterback arrows.”

For the contract the agent was seeking, the GM wanted the player’s arrow to reflect future growth potential.

“I want the arrow to be up, and his is like this … ”

The GM drew a flat line in the air with his finger.

“… until it eventually becomes this … ”

He veered the trajectory downward.

“… and that’s when you get into problems with a quarterback contract.”

When I think about NFL quarterbacks, I usually think about that conversation. It wasn’t meant to sound particularly brilliant. If anything, the point the GM made was about answering a question with simplicity: How do you feel about your quarterback’s future? Is he ascending and getting better? Is he stagnating? Or is he regressing?

Of course, there’s a multitude of numbers and circumstances that explain why the arrow is doing what it’s doing. But before you get to that, there is usually an initial gut reaction before you get to the details. Name any veteran quarterback in the NFL right now, and you likely have an immediate arrow that jumps into your mind when it comes to his trajectory.

Matthew Stafford? Baker Mayfield? Jared Goff? Patrick Mahomes?

An arrow likely jumped into your head.

Now do it for Deshaun Watson.

Deshaun Watson hasn’t played a full NFL season since 2020. (Scott Galvin/USA TODAY Sports) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

If you are limited to his remarkable last half of football for the Browns, the arrow might be up.

If you factor in the statistical similarities between 2022 and 2023 (and toss out win-loss records that can be misleading), the arrow might be flat.

And from the widest vantage — from his peak in Houston to Wednesday’s season-ending depth in Cleveland — the arrow is likely down.

The fact that you can find some way to justify all three of those arrows for one player is probably an indication that things aren’t going well.

Watson had moments for the Browns this season. There was the win over the Tennessee Titans when he finally resembled the player Cleveland had paid so dearly for. There was the second half against the Baltimore Ravens when he was as perfect as he’d ever been in a Browns uniform. There was the win over the Arizona Cardinals when he was workmanlike, efficient and relaxed.

Those were three of his past four starts. Taken together, they were good, certainly progress over 2022. But also still a very long way from his ceiling from 2020 in Houston, which … even though Watson is only 28 …feels like a lifetime ago.

That’s likely because he has played so little football since that season and now won’t play again until, at best, the start of the 2024 season. If he can come back from his shoulder surgery for the start of that campaign, he will have played 12 games in a span of three years and nine months. It’s a wild void that also includes long spates without in-season practice reps, too, from sitting out his final year in Houston, riding out a suspension for alleged sexual misconduct his first year in Cleveland and injuries that will have shelved him for more than half a season of practice as well.

That’s a lot of missed football at a position that requires an immense amount of fine-tuning, chemistry and physical repetition. The idea that a quarterback can ever go through nearly four years of various struggles and then recapture previously elite form is dubious, at best. And league history is littered with examples.

Anyone remember Daunte Culpepper? In 2004, he had one of the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history — at a time when the league wasn’t a pinball machine with unlimited rolls. In 16 games, he passed for 4,717 yards and set a league record for combined yardage with 5,123 passing and rushing. He also threw for 39 touchdowns and rushed for two more. He was 27 years old, one of the most exciting players in the league and seemingly on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Everything was in front of him.

One year later, he suffered a brutal knee injury and nothing was ever the same. He played five more seasons, never throwing more than six touchdown passes in a single year. His relationship with the coaching staff and front office went sideways, and he eventually got traded to the Miami Dolphins, who ultimately chose dealing for Culpepper over signing Drew Brees. It was a disastrous mistake that then-head coach Nick Saban remains irritated about to this day. The Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions both tried to resurrect Culpepper’s career to no avail.

That’s a story worth thinking about with Watson undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder. Surely the Browns have confidence it will all go smoothly. But it wasn’t that long ago when Cam Newton’s shoulder issues in Carolina were expected to be remedied without complication. They weren’t, and he was never able to get back to his MVP form.

Watson had a rash of injuries this season. He was beaten up. And that trend of taking punishment isn’t exactly new. He took a lot of hits when he played with the Texans, too … much of it inflicted by roster shortcomings, but some also inflicted by how Watson played. Now he’s going to be playing with ACL repairs in both knees (one in college, the other with the Texans) and a surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Maybe he returns to the Browns in 2024 and it all clicks in place. At the very least, he will have nearly three calendar years of mentally processing and studying Kevin Stefanski’s offense. That’s assuming that 2023 ends in a fashion that doesn’t lead ownership to shift gears, which doesn’t seem like it’s a hammer-lock guarantee at the moment. But even if that’s the case, Watson still has to take the moments of 2023 and turn them into stretches in 2024. He has to stay healthy. He has to practice and play a full season of meaningful football. That’s quite the checklist.

Assuming Watson steps back onto the field at the start of the 2024 season, it bookended an extremely messy 44-month span going back to his final start with the Texans. A maelstrom of recent injuries, less-recent civil litigation, a prolonged fight with the NFL over his personal conduct suspension, on-field struggles — not to mention the ever-present history-making contract and haul of trade assets that strapped a moon-sized boulder of expectation onto his shoulder.

Given all of that, answer the question again about Watson: Where is his arrow pointing?

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