BEREA — “Wow” moments are difficult to come by in a May practice with no pads and minimal contact.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson beat the odds — and the defense — and gave coordinator Alex Van Pelt chills.
Toward the end of the organized team activities practice Wednesday, Watson fired a seed to receiver Elijah Moore down the left seam for a touchdown during a red zone seven-on-seven drill.
“He made a throw today I haven’t seen, hair stood up on my arm,” Van Pelt said. “He dotted a touchdown in the red zone that was really, really an impressive throw.
“That was over the hook (defender) and right on the face mask. So that was a throw. That degree of difficulty would’ve been high and smoked it.”
Van Pelt was a backup quarterback in the NFL for nine seasons and has been a coach in the league since 2006, including spending six years with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. He was asked the last time a throw did that to the hair on his arms.
“It’s been a long time,” Van Pelt said. “And I’ve been around some good ones, but that was one I literally got goosebumps.”
That type of play was too often missing last season.
Watson was suspended for the first 11 games after a settlement with the league following more than two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. He returned for the final six games but was inconsistent, completing 58.2 percent with seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a 79.1 passer rating as the Browns went 3-3 to finish 7-10.
“The biggest thing was just confidence,” Watson told reporters Tuesday at the team’s charity golf outing at Westwood Country Club. “Just being able to go out there and know who I am and show that I can go out there and make every play and be very, very sharp and conservative on those times I need to make those plays and let the other people around me make those plays.
“But building that confidence and getting back to Deshaun Watson, that’s the key and that’s what I’ve been working on this offseason.”
The return of Watson to his previous Pro Bowl form could be the No. 1 key to the Browns having a successful season, and Van Pelt has seen a jump in self-belief.
“Absolutely. There’s no question,” he said. “It’s just his confidence in the system itself, understanding of what we’re asking of him and how to communicate at the line of scrimmage, everything from protections to calling plays in the huddle.
“He’s improved tenfold since this time last year. You see it all start to come together, playing with a little swagger out there and having some fun.”
The good times included a pair of deep connections with lightning-fast receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was signed as a free agent in March. Watson struggled with the deep ball last week in the OTAs practice open to reporters but hit Goodwin in stride early in the session Wednesday on a deep post. Goodwin made another deep catch on a go route down the right sideline but may not have gotten two feet inbounds before going out of the back of the end zone.
“Connection was elite today, man,” Goodwin said. “Just grateful for the opportunity. Deshaun is electric. You see that arm? He’s got God’s arm, for sure.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski and Van Pelt prioritized improving the explosiveness of the passing game during the offseason, including changing route combinations and moving receivers across the formation. General manager Andrew Berry signed Goodwin and traded for Moore, adding speed that should help stretch the field and stress the defense.
“We’re going to keep pushing those balls down the field,” Van Pelt said. “Keep throwing them so we all get on the same page.”
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The on-field chemistry wasn’t ideal last season with Watson missing as much time as he did. The additions of Moore, Goodwin and rookie third-round draft pick Cedric Tillman require time on task in practice.
“It’s the timing, being able to understand their breaks and how they get in and out of different routes,” Watson said.
“There are some guys that you really have to rhythm up,” Stefanski said at the golf outing. “So all of the work that we’re doing, I believe it all adds up.”
Goodwin is 32 years old and has played for four other NFL teams but never with Watson. Goodwin said Watson was a huge selling point in his decision to join the Browns.
“It’s really humbling to work with somebody as elite as Deshaun,” Goodwin said. “When you have somebody who is dedicated and is focused and experienced as he is elite, it just makes my job easier. All I have to do is run.”
With Watson available for a full season and not as rusty, the offense is expected to expand.
“It opens up a whole lot in the run game, especially,” Van Pelt said. “The (shot)gun runs will be more than we have in the past, but we obviously know we can get under our center and run the football with our scheme as well as our players. So it’s finding that balance of how often are we under (center), how often we are in the gun and then how often do we really want to use Deshaun in the run game as a true runner. So that stuff will work out through camp and get it ironed out as we go into the season. But it does give us a lot of opportunity, a lot of different schemes.”
Watson must make it all go. That’s why the Browns traded five draft picks, including three first-rounders, and gave him a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
“His talent and his leadership, this speaks for itself,” Goodwin said. “So you see these chills? You can’t fake energy, right? That’s real talk.”