Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson has officially been reinstated to the NFL, and his first game in orange and brown will be on the road against his former club, the Houston Texans. Houston (1-9-1) is not a good team and has had quarterback issues all season. It seems likely that they will have the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, where they could aim to draft Watson’s long-term replacement.
Jacoby Brissett is now relegated to the backup position, but his efforts in the first 11 games proved that he is a valued commodity on the club, especially if Watson suffers an injury during these final six games.
In his first four seasons, Watson (6'2", 215 lbs) was a top-5 signal caller, earning trips to three Pro Bowls. In his last year playing in 2020, he was the NFL passing yards leader with 4,823 yards, 33 touchdown passes, and a 112.4 QB rating. He is also a running threat and has 307 rushing attempts for 1,677 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground in his career.
Watson has only received some game reps in one preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Houston game will be the first significant action with Cleveland. With that in mind, here at DBN, we wondered a few things — like what should we expect from Watson on the field? How will Browns fans and Texans fans receive him? And will the offense deploy a new game plan compared to the one we saw with Brissett at the helm?
Let’s go around the table to see what to expect with Watson in his first game. Our contributors include Ezweav, Barry Shuck, Matt Wood, Thomas Moore, and Jared Mueller.
What should fans expect of Watson in his first game as a Brown?
Ezweav: “I think much has been assumed about Watson’s ‘rust’ as he returns from the lengthy hiatus. I thus believe at least the Texans will play the Browns in much the same way good teams have recently where they have simply shut our run game down and forced us to beat them with the pass. Brissett has not been bad this year but teams realize that if you make him be the one that has to beat you, he probably isn’t going to make enough plays, and that stands to reason. Watson affords teams no such luxury.
I expect there to be some substantial chunk plays in the first game. That means Watson will probably light up the Texans through the air, because he’ll be doing things with this offense that teams haven’t seen yet. Houston probably won’t be able to do much about it but in the weeks that follow, the defensive game plan against Cleveland will necessarily have to change.
When that happens, all of a sudden our running game will become a major factor again. That is when guessing right whether we’re running versus passing will matter much more than it has. Watson will make them pay for guessing wrong a lot more than Brissett has been able to. That means just a bit of hesitancy when approaching our run game, and that’s all that will be needed for the gashes to ensue.
I’d go into this expecting hot fire in the passing game to be followed by a resurgence in the rushing attack, and then eventually a balancing of the two. This has already been one of the better units all year even with our struggles, so I expect it to get fairly super-charged even as Watson works through whatever he has to work through. The big, obvious and apparent areas of improvement will be third-down conversion percentage as well as red zone touchdown ratio/efficiency. That’s been the only thing preventing this unit from being top tier all season.”
What are the expectations of Deshaun the athlete since he has not played in 22 months?
Barry Shuck: “The Browns paid out the highest guaranteed contract in the league to Watson. Even if Brissett played well, they are going to play him immediately. You don’t buy a Maserati and leave it parked in the garage. At least, none of the DBN writers do.
Watson appears to be in shape. However, ‘in shape’ is not ‘in football shape.’ An athlete must be in elite condition to sustain an entire game. Does Watson have four quarters in him after not playing a meaningful game in 22 months?
Then, there is the preparedness side of the game. Watson has been in Cleveland since he inked his huge deal back in March. Prior to his suspension, he took first-team reps throughout the offseason, and only relented some of those reps late in the preseason so that Brissett could get ready.
Just like offensive linemen must work in sync with their other linemates, during practice reps a quarterback must build chemistry with his receivers, backs and tight ends on passing downs. The more you play together, the more one understands the other’s traits – such as a receiver who will come back towards the QB. And because Watson is also a very confident runner, often receivers must break off routes. Which direction do they normally go? These things take time.
Brissett was able to build a good relationship with Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones, but it didn’t happen right away. Cooper was the invisible man in the Week 1 win over Carolina. As games fell off the calendar, Brissett began looking his way more and more.
This week, the players were off until Wednesday. However, Watson was in the building Monday and Tuesday working out and getting a start on the game plan. That is what Browns’ fans can expect from their new quarterback.”
What to expect from Browns’ fans before and during the game (taunting/cheering/protests)? Also, the game is in Houston. What should we expect from his former team’s fans?
Matt Wood: “This will be something new for the Browns, but not new for the NFL. The NFL has dealt with players that have faced other serious accusations and have made their way back. I won’t pretend to ‘rank’ where Watson’s transgressions are, that is something every individual will do on their own but the NFL has welcomed back Mike Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Mixon, Ray Lewis, Adrian Peterson and others.
As for the Watson situation itself, Houston will be loud and angry due to the off-field allegations as well as the fact that Watson demanded a trade to leave the team. It will be loud, but the Texans flat-out are not good and I think Watson AND the Browns will want to show off their new toy. The crowd will lose their anger and angst if Watson starts to play well, and I fully expect him to.
Moving forward, the Browns and Watson will hear things for a while. The Browns and Watson will move ahead despite the noise and attention. It is exactly what the Browns expected when they made this move — weather the storm, get him back on the field, and start winning games.”
What form of improvement is expected for this Browns’ offense?
Thomas Moore: “There are two areas where Watson should be a major upgrade over Jacoby Brissett and have a positive impact on the offense.
The first is an end to the long-scoring droughts that have plagued the Browns after their opening offensive series of the game. It has been going on all season, but the issue was especially highlighted the past three games when Cleveland went almost 45 game minutes between touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins, almost 50 minutes between touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills and almost 56 minutes between touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That inability to stack touchdowns puts an impossible burden on a defense that too often can’t get out of its own way and has contributed to the Browns having five of their seven losses come in games when they scored first. Watson should be able to finish off more drives with a trip into the end zone, which in turn takes the pressure off the defense and increases the likelihood that the Browns can turn to the run game in the fourth quarter to close out a win.
The running game is the second area that will benefit from Watson’s return as he is simply a better passer than Brissett and one that opposing defenses need to respect. That will help open up more running lanes for Nick Chubb, and as everyone knows giving the ball to Chubb is always a winning proposition.”
If Watson struggles, is it possible that Stefanski pulls him for Jacoby Brissett?
Jared Mueller: “The ending to the Browns Week 12 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers creates an interesting narrative around Watson and former starter Brissett; who has played better than most expected and led the team’s comeback victory over Tom Brady’s Bucs. He got the game ball from HC Kevin Stefanski, gave a great speech, and has been lauded by his teammates over and over again this year.
Despite leading the Cleveland offense to the sixth-best EPA and 10th-best dropback passing EPA, Brissett has no chance of taking over for Watson this season barring an injury.
At 4-7, the Browns are not out of playoff contention but are a long shot. If Watson struggles for a game or two, those playoff hopes in 2022 go out the window and the focus turns to 2023. The future belongs to Watson from this week’s game until he is no longer with the team or is unable to play for some reason.
Brissett, on the other hand, has his future likely somewhere else as a bridge-type quarterback with the hope of a resurgence like Geno Smith has had in Seattle this season. Cleveland could reap a compensatory pick if Brissett signs a lucrative deal somewhere else this off-season. Ending on a high note with lots of praise from those around him in Week 12 may set him up perfectly for that type of deal.”