The Browns franchise changed immeasurably and perhaps irrevocably a year ago.
The bomb dropped last March 18 late in the afternoon — Deshaun Watson was headed to Cleveland.
Despite the time that has passed, it remains too early to forecast the final outcome from arguably the most controversial move in the history of the organization. The acquisition of Watson is loaded with complexities.
It was met with serious backlash, which had nothing to do with him as a quarterback.
The Browns were joined by the Saints, Panthers and Falcons in an unapologetic pursuit of Watson after he wasn’t indicted by a pair of Texas grand juries. While that was enough for the quarterback-thirsty teams and some fans to feel comfortable with adding Watson, plenty of people couldn’t get past the more than two dozen accusations of sexual assault and misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
Loyal fans denounced the Browns after the trade came to fruition that Friday afternoon. Ownership, general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski had flown to Houston earlier in the week to meet with Watson, but he initially eliminated the Browns from contention. So the abrupt about-face — after owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam agreed to fully guarantee the five-year, $230 million contract — struck some as especially devastating.
Calls and donations to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center increased sharply, as many survivors of sexual assault were triggered by the coverage of Watson. Those who were Browns fans also experienced a sense of betrayal that their team would go out of its way to acquire him.
The decision-makers said they got comfortable with what they learned of Watson as a person and the accusations. The organization believed it was prepared for the negative publicity headed its way but perhaps not to the extent and duration that followed. The Browns were ripped by local and national media, the number of allegations grew and the reporting of the sordid and disturbing details of the lawsuits continued throughout the offseason.
The worst of the accusations included forcing a therapist to perform oral sex, masturbating on another and exposing himself to multiple.
To many, the reputation of the team remains tarnished.
Watson has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying he never harassed, assaulted or disrespected a woman. He settled all but two of 25 civil lawsuits and settled with the NFL after it appealed the initial six-game suspension handed down by an independent arbitrator who ruled Watson’s “non-violent sexual conduct” was “more egregious” than any previously reviewed by the league and termed his habits before and during the massage therapy sessions “predatory conduct.”
The settlement included an 11-game suspension to start the 2022 season, a $5 million fine and the directive he be evaluated by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program. Watson didn’t accept blame.
“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said that I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone and I’m continuing to stand on that,” Watson said. “But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career, and for us to be able to move forward, I have to be able to take steps and put pride to the side.”
The discussion of the accusations has mostly faded into the background, although a couple of lawsuits remain unsettled. But time doesn’t erase history. People remain affected. People are still upset with the Browns for pursuing Watson. Some insist they’ll never cheer for the Browns again.
Watson hasn’t handled it well. He settled and offered a generic apology but never took responsibility.
The news conferences from Watson and the Haslams after the settlement with the league in August were contentious and dismissive. Watson has chosen not to talk about the accusations and treatment since returning from the suspension, so it’s impossible to know if he took it seriously and it helped.
For the fans who didn’t turn their back on the Browns, even those bothered or disgusted by the decision to acquire him want the Browns to succeed. They can’t do it without Watson playing well.
That didn’t happen last year. The Browns went 3-3 after his return, which marked 700 days between regular-season games. He completed a career-low 58.2 percent with seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a career-worst 79.1 passer rating.
He still has the skill set that made him a three-time Pro Bowler with the Texans — strong and accurate arm, speed and elusiveness as a runner — and the Browns believe he’ll be much improved next season.
He must prove it. He must be the same guy he was in 2020, when he led the NFL in passing yards, yards per completion and yards per attempt. He must shake off the rust, get comfortable and excel in Stefanski’s system and be where he needs to be mentally. Whether he can do all three is a legitimate question and not easily answered.
If he’s not the player he was in 2020, the Browns won’t live up to their potential despite high-level talent across the roster. They won’t be able to compete with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Joe Burrow and the Bengals, Josh Allen and the Bills and the rest of the loaded and QB-rich AFC.
The Browns traded a net of five draft picks, including three first-rounders, for Watson, which will hurt their ability to restock the roster with prime young talent. The NFL-record $230 million in fully guaranteed money also forces difficult salary cap decisions. The Browns restructured Watson’s contract Monday to clear space and allow for free agent signings, but it pushed the issue down the road, as Watson’s cap number spiked to $64 million in each of the next three years.
A top-five NFL quarterback is worth all of it. One less than elite isn’t.
The pressure is on Watson. Without the ability to stockpile depth at every position, the quarterback must elevate those around him.
None of this is a surprise to the Browns. They felt Watson was the best choice last season despite everything, as they were determined to move on from former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. With a weak draft class and limited veteran pool, Watson may have been their “only” option as they tried to make a run to the playoffs in 2022.
That didn’t happen.
The Browns guessed wrong on the length of the suspension and essentially lost a year and about $45 million of the five-year contract. In hindsight, would they have had better, or at least more palatable — to some — options if they waited until this offseason to find their franchise quarterback? One without the mountain of baggage.
Derek Carr became a free agent this year. Aaron Rodgers was made available in a trade. Lamar Jackson might be had for the right price. The draft has four prospects who could go in the top 10.
Those hypotheticals are worth considering but don’t matter in 2023. The Browns are married to Watson.
But if he doesn’t perform and the Browns fall short of expectations for the third straight year, major changes would likely come. As much as the pressure is on Watson, the ones in jeopardy of losing their jobs are Berry and Stefanski. Watson’s contract ties him to the Browns through 2026 — unless he forces his way out like he did with the Texans.
A year after his arrival, the story of his Browns career is only beginning to be written.