Now that the Watson reality has set in—he’ll be suspended for the first 11 games of the season, and fined $5 million, and made to undergo counseling to address what Roger Goodell called “predatory” behavior—closure allows the Browns to plan for the season and Watson to plan for an uncertain future that will include five weeks when he can have no contact with his team.
This, as one person in the middle of this maelstrom told me Sunday, “is a complicated, complicated, complicated story.”
There is closure, but there is not satisfaction. Watson issued a statement when the settlement was announced saying, “I take accountability for the decisions I made.” Shortly thereafter, before the press, he said, “I’ve always stood on my innocence … I never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone.”
How does one person say—sort of—I’m sorry, and two hours later say, I’m not sorry for anything? It’s disingenuous absurdity. A few things I learned reporting on the Browns:
Watson has begun the league-mandate counseling, a source told me. My sense is the Browns hope that at some point Watson will understand what he either doesn’t understand or a denial he has been continually fed by his enablers—that he did nothing wrong. Very likely, the Browns believe counseling can help Watson get to the bottom of why he sought treatment from 66 massage therapists in 18 months, per the New York Times. That he has begun the counseling is a step in the right direction.
I would expect the Browns will look hard at adding a quarterback to supplement Jacoby Brissett. But tamp down the expectations that Jimmy Garoppolo is on the way. Not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t sense the Browns think the conditions are right for it. Too much money (unless the Niners pick up a ton of the obligation), lack of certainty on Garoppolo’s health with him coming back from shoulder surgery, and the difficulty of learning a new playbook overnight. Those are real issues. I doubt Cam Newton is in play either. But I do think the Browns will search for a challenger to backup Joshua Dobbs around the final cutdown next week.
I think the Browns gave Watson the $230-million guaranteed contract because they figured it was the only way they had a chance to get him. The Haslams have been pilloried for the contract, and rightfully so; Watson, even after his fine, will earn from the Browns $40 million in 2022. This is just my gut feeling, not something I was able to verify. But my gut tells me they felt they had only one chance after Watson told the team he was likely headed elsewhere after interviewing with four teams. Watson had Atlanta (near his home of Gainesville, Ga.), Carolina (near Clemson, his college) and New Orleans ahead of Cleveland on his wish list. How could the Browns differentiate themselves? A fully guaranteed contract. If you’re Jimmy Haslam, who had been through a slew of failed quarterbacks in his 9.5 years as owner, you might think: Taking an avalanche of criticism for a year will be worth it if I have my long-term QB on opening day 2023.
The league doesn’t like the 11-game suspension, but they wouldn’t have liked the continuing soap opera of this story if Watson had been banned for a season. I bet 90 percent of football fans, asked what they think of Watson being banned for 11 weeks with a $5-million fine, would have some significant problem with it. Either it’s too severe, not severe enough, or the league is soft, whatever. All of those positions can be argued. But the league just wanted this to end. Could they, would they have triumphed if the appeals office, Peter Harvey, had banned Watson for the season and the NFLPA fought it in court? Probably. At what cost? Two more months of Watson headlines? No thanks, they thought.
The plan for Watson during his suspension has some question marks. Mileposts along the way: Watson has to have no contact with the team from Aug. 30, when the suspension begins, until Oct. 9. He can return to the Browns facility on Oct. 10 and can be in meetings but can’t practice with the team for the next five weeks. On Nov. 14, 20 days before he is eligible to play, he can begin practicing with the team. I asked coach Kevin Stefanski Sunday about Watson’s work—presumably with private QB coach Quincy Avery—in the 41 days he’s away from the team with no supervision. “We can’t really direct that program,” Stefanski said. “Can’t check in day to day. Can’t watch him throw. He has a really good quarterback coach, Quincy Avery, so I know that they’ll have a plan of attack. It will be important for him to make sure that every day will count for him when it comes to the psychological part of this.”
I got the feeling that Watson will almost certainly start Dec. 4 in Houston, when he’s eligible to play, almost two years since he last played in a game. How ready will he be?
Stefanski: “It’s a totally fair question. There’s not a lot of examples of guys doing this. But Deshaun’s played a lot of football in his life. He’s played in a lot of big games, national championship games, playoff games. I think that he’s a player… that… say this the right way… in his young career, he’s had so many big moments that I think he’ll be ready to go. I’m not naive enough to say there won’t be some rust or whatever it may be because that’s a long time.”
Jacoby Brissett, the temporary QB, seems almost blissfully unaware of the turbulence in the outside world about this, and that’s probably a good thing.
Odd career … Backup to Brady, backup to Luck, successor to Luck, co-starter in Miami, now the 11-game man (probably) in Cleveland. “His career has uniquely prepared him for this,” Stefanski said. Talked to Brissett Sunday. “I never worry about all that stuff on the outside, really,” he said. “I tell myself to stay ready and actually believe it. I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this job. We set a plan when we first started this thing, and we’ve been going along with our plan. That’s why I think you see none of us really stressing with whatever’s going on on the outside.”
The other day, on NFL Network’s morning show “Good Morning Football,” panelist Kyle Brandt called Watson’s denials in a Thursday press conference “the actions of a liar.” He said, as if speaking to Jimmy Haslam: “You’re an enabler.” That’s on the NFL’s channel. It’s not just the outside world attacking the Browns and the Haslams—it’s league-friendly people too.
I formed this opinion over the weekend talking to people on this story … Jimmy Haslam is a big entrepreneur. He’s taken quite a few slings and arrows in his business life, some of them seriously litigious. Deep down, I would not be surprised if, thinking whether he wanted to go after Watson, this went through his mind: I’ve watched team after team build and build and build, and they’ve failed because of one thing—they didn’t have a quarterback. Fabulously successful businessmen—Steven Ross, David Tepper, Woody Johnson—have tried for years to find that guy. Even if we took a torrent of rip jobs, wouldn’t it be worth it if we could get Deshaun Watson? Character witnesses vouched for him. A guy like Haslam is used to looking at the bottom line. If there are rocky patches— even legal and moral ones —on the way to great success, isn’t it all worth it?
That’s the cynical, pragmatic way to look at it. But if Watson doesn’t come through counseling on this tremendous flaw a changed person, and if he doesn’t play great in years two through five of the deal, the decision to trade three first-round picks and to sign him to a ridiculous contract will be viewed in history as a desperate move without a moral compass. I know why the Haslams did it, but they’d better be right.
And that is all up to Deshaun Watson now.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column