For better or worse, these are the days that are going to define the Haslams’ ownership of the Cleveland Browns. Everything that came before it won’t matter. Whatever is yet to come will be philosophical fallout.
What’s up for grabs right now is whether these Tennessee truck stop billionaires with a spotty, at best, resume as NFL owners, can conquer their own desperation.
Because, above all else, what was trading for Deshaun Watson, and his trainload of baggage, other than an act of utter desperation?
I’m no mogul or captain of industry, but it seems likely that making a $230 million business decision based on the desperation born of past failures can put you on shaky ground.
I’m also no seismologist, but if you listened carefully over the last few days, you could distinctly hear the tinkling coming from the crystal in the Haslam’s china cabinet.
On the day of the trade, Watson was facing 22 lawsuits from women accusing him of inappropriate sexual conduct during massage sessions. Then it was 23. Now it’s 24. A New York Times story published earlier this week reported that Watson, then with the Houston Texans, made massage appointments with 66 women over a 17-month span through the spring of 2021.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing.
But his situation is the Browns’ problem now. It’s also the problem for many Browns fans — that the team willingly took on the Watson problem.
The reason the Browns took on the Watson problem is that the Browns, under the Haslams, have been incapable, through trade, free agency or the draft, of developing their own franchise quarterback.
So they decided to try to shortcut the search by pursuing Watson, and all his baggage. Desperation will do that — and the Browns weren’t the only have-nots in that hunt. Three other NFL teams pursued Watson as well. There may have been even more who needed a quarterback upgrade, but were unwilling to take on the potential fan base outrage that would come with trading for Watson.
The Browns were.
The Browns also had the best roster of the four finalists in the Watson Sweepstakes, which obviously appealed to Watson, who, with a no-trade clause, was driving that bus.
The Browns knew the price tag would be exorbitant. They knew the draft picks required would include multiple first rounders. The Browns knew, through the nature of the accusations by women against Watson, that it could potentially become a PR nightmare.
The Browns also knew that the outcry from fans of deposed quarterback Baker Mayfield would be long, loud and passionate.
Additionally, the Browns knew that the contract the Haslams were offering Watson — five years, $230 million — was unprecedented. So much so that it would undoubtedly infuriate other NFL owners, who would be forced then to further wet the beaks of their biggest stars, thanks to the market-quaking contract the Browns were prepared to give Watson.
At some point, all of those factors had to be acknowledged and discussed among those in the Browns’ executive hierarchy before any decision was made.
In the end, of course, it was the Haslams who had to make the final call. It was the Haslams who surely must have realized the firestorm, on multiple fronts, such a controversial trade would ignite. It was the Haslams who would be responsible for covering the terms of a contract calling for the largest sum of guaranteed money in NFL history.
The Haslams digested all those factors, accepted all those potential repercussions, including all the expected clamor, both nationally and locally, from a large percentage of the most loyal fan base in the NFL. The Haslams were willing to live with all of that in order to acquire, warts and all, that which the franchise had never had, not just on the Haslams’ watch, but in this century: an elite, top-five franchise quarterback.
Watson may eventually be the last piece of the puzzle, but he’s also the first line of defense for a franchise, more specifically, an ownership, weary of so many dead ends in its quarterback search.
For all those reasons, The Watson Decision, and all the rancor that it has generated, and will continue to generate throughout Dawg Pounds hither and yon, is the product of a desperate ownership, willing to go to extraordinary lengths to fix a decades-old problem once and for all, come what may.
But in its desperation, it has created an even bigger problem. That would be the nature of Watson’s situation, the gravity of which, particularly from a PR standpoint, Browns ownership either underestimated or felt it was a storm worth weathering.
It’s also a seminal, legacy-impacting moment in franchise history, and a legacy-defining moment in Haslam history.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s a very basic one: Never paint yourself into a corner from which the most tempting exit measure is a desperate one.