Without a hint of hyperbole, I suggest this Sunday could prove to be the most impactful game in recent Browns’ history.
Simply put, the Browns - a team that has endured a staggering 33 different starting QB’s since 1999 - will witness the debut of Deshaun Watson, the player they acquired to be their new franchise quarterback. Watson represents both an immediate shot of dopamine and a bridge to a hopeful future for a fragile franchise and frustrated fan base.
For nearly three years (with a slight month and a half respite in late 2020), we’ve been left to wonder how Kevin Stefanski’s offense could evolve with a top flight QB. In most respects, this idealization has secured Stefanski’s job status during what has been a disjointed and dysfunctional 2022 campaign.
Similarly, Browns’ GM Andrew Berry’s immediate future has to be tethered to what Watson can show over the next six games. Berry’s rock star reputation has cratered this season, as several of his draft picks have struggled. An ascendant Watson can patch these holes - at least figuratively - until Berry is given another chance to fix a leaky defense and add playmakers.
The Browns’ playoff chances - while mathematically remote - will feel tangible if Watson’s debut provides at least some glimmer of hope, along with a much needed win. If anything, the Browns can carry momentum into a monumental divisional matchup with the Bengals.
As for the doom and gloom perspective, if Watson struggles - something conceivable given his long absence from playing - and the Browns lose, then everything Berry and Stefanski have built unravels. Expect a full on Jimmy Haslam-helmed nuclear meltdown.
In such a scenario, it’s best to find a fall out shelter.
However, Watson’s impact may not prove as meaningful as we think. I came across a fascinating stat from The Athletic’s Mike Sando, which basically sums up the 2022 Browns:
The Browns awarded a game ball to Brissett for his efforts during a 23-17 comeback victory against Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it was appropriate. But here is the reality for Cleveland: The team is 4-0 this season when its combined EPA on defense/special teams is at least average, and 0-7 in the rest of the games.
Deshaun Watson’s arrival as the Browns’ starting quarterback next week should increase the Browns’ margin for error in those phases, but he also will need more support than Cleveland has provided Brissett. The Browns finished with at least minus-4.4 EPA on defense/special teams in all seven of those defeats with Brissett in the lineup. Houston was 4-21 in those games when Watson was in the lineup — better, but not good enough to overcome that type of deficit regularly.
In other words, let’s hope that the improved defensive and special teams effort against the Bucs wasn’t an anomaly. In yet another odd paradox for the analytically friendly Berry and Stefanski, their immediate futures are tied to Watson’s potential - yet the team’s subpar defense and erratic special teams could prove to be their undoing.
The Biggest Revenge Game
Another intriguing angle to Watson’s debut features a narrative. While the Texans’ roster has undergone a massive personnel shift since Watson last played in 2020, the team’s owner is still a prominent voice - and likely a huge target for Watson’s personal on-field vengeance.
Watson’s desire to leave Houston originally began after he felt he had no input into the team’s personnel moves:
How it happened is not a mystery, though. It’s as simple as a broken promise: With a coach and general manager to hire, Texans chairman Cal McNair had pledged to make Watson a part of the process to reconstruct the front office. McNair misled him. Watson fumed.
The resulting discord could be viewed as isolated drama, the result of McNair’s struggles replacing his father, Bob, and the rise in the organization of Jack Easterby, who has gone from an appreciated chaplain and character coach in New England to just a character doing damage in Houston. Instead, consider it emblematic of what the past year has reaped in the NFL: a player awakening that owners should acknowledge and respect rather than trivialize the men who enliven the sport.
While Watson probably won’t recognize many players on Houston’s current roster, he will no doubt want to exact revenge on the owner and organization that he likely feels led to the savaging of his career and reputation. If at least based on his defiant press conference comments over the spring and summer, it’s likely that Watson will be unfazed by such negative attention. While Sunday’s game represents hope for an entire organization, it’s also something much more personal for Watson.
Dave Kolonich has written for Fox Sports Ohio, The Orange and Brown Report and created Cleveland Reboot.