The debut of quarterback Deshaun Watson finally arrived in Week 14 against his former club the Houston Texans. Watson had served his 11-game suspension handed down by the league and was finally activated.
The Cleveland Browns came into the game just 4-7-0 with a dim view of the playoffs. Coming into the Houston game, Cleveland would have to win out and then have lots of help in order to make the post-season.
But alas – the Calvary had arrived wearing a Number 4 jersey.
Watson had not played since January 3, 2021, in the final game of the 2020 season. The Texans lost 41-38 to the Tennessee Titans and thus finished 4-12-0. In the loss, Watson threw for 365 yards with 39 attempts midst 28 completions. He had one pick but tossed three touchdowns which parlayed into a 115.9 QB rating for the contest.
For the 2020 season, Watson was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl with 4,823 passing yards, 33 touchdowns coupled with just seven interceptions. For his efforts, he was the NFL passing yards leader. Not Patrick Mahomes. Or Tom Brady. Nor Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, or Aaron Rodgers. But the QB of a four-win ballclub.
In a sea of misery and disappointments, Watson’s star never faded.
So when the brass of the Browns went after Watson and snagged him in a trade to be the next signal caller for the franchise, the move was the biggest acquisition in the team’s history – and the most expensive. Cleveland has not been able to solve their quarterback situation since re-entering the NFL in 1999.
What was odd was that his first game in orange and brown would be against his old club: the Texans. In Houston. The fact that the Texans were the worst team in the league with just one win was viewed as an asset for Watson since he had played at an elite level in 700 days.
The Texans game
A lot was written and talked about regarding Watson’s first game back. What should Browns fans expect? Would he be Deshaun the Magnificent as before, or a player that had signs of rust? Perhaps he shouldn’t play an entire game and allow his fill-in, Jacoby Brissett, to play some meaningful snaps. Brissett played admirable while Watson was on suspension.
The key to the acquisition of Watson was to bring in a Top-5 guy who could elevate the offense and do things that only a handful of quarterbacks can accomplish. And winning means more funds and success for everyone involved with the franchise.
After Cleveland kicked off, safety John Johnson intercepted the game’s first play. Out trots the Browns’ offense. Watson’s first call of duty was a handoff to Nick Chubb who gained seven yards. On second down, Watson short-armed a throw to Amari Cooper. Now facing a third-and-three, Watson dropped back and again threw short to David Bell.
Deshaun Watson's 53.4 passer rating yesterday was his lowest in 55 career NFL games.#Browns— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) December 5, 2022
Watson’s first drive occurred in great field position courtesy of the defense, and then out came the punt team.
Was this a sign of what would become of this offense with Watson at the helm?
Watson looked every bit of an athlete who hadn’t played in any sort of meaningful action in 700 days. It isn’t like riding a bike, not at all. The NFL is an elite level of competition regardless of if Houston is almost guaranteed the Number 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL college draft.
Watson completed his first pass in the second drive when he hit Anthony Schwartz for a 12-yard gain, but then fumbled.
During the third series, Watson’s first pass after two Chubb runs was into the turf to Cooper. The Browns drove to Houston’s 38 when a completion to Donovan Peoples-Jones netted 27 yards to the Texans’ 11. On the first play, Watson threw into double coverage in the end zone to which the pass was intercepted by Jalen Pitre - who basically never even moved except to catch the errant throw.
This was simply Watson not reading the defender and what his movements would be.
In all, the offense only crossed midfield three other times. This unit accounted for just two good drives that ended in field goals, a safety (with points awarded to Houston), plus six punts.
“However long I’ve been out, I felt every single one of those days,” Watson told nfl.com.
Watson finished the game going 12 or 22 for a paltry 131 yards, one interception, no touchdowns, and a 53.4 QB rating. An exceptional runner, he rushed only seven times for 21 yards. How did he rate? The below link will explain:
As far as the Browns’ receivers, the final totals were as follows: The Turf: 5 receptions, Cooper: 4 completions, DPJ: 3 catches, Kareem Hunt: 2 receptions. Yes, Watson threw five passes into the playing field.
Compare these numbers to where with Brissett under center, the Browns ranked fifth overall in total offense.
The big buzz on Twitter after Sunday’s games? Cincinnati taking down the Chiefs yet once again? The playoff-bound New York Jets taking on the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings? Or AFC South Division leader Tennessee against NFC East Division leader Philadelphia? Miami/San Francisco? Dallas putting up 54 points?
The most traffic was about how poorly Watson played against his former club.
Watson and the offense, though, will have to improve dramatically and quickly for the playoffs to be any more than the most distant mathematical possibility. Currently, Cleveland owns the 11th seed.
After the Texans win, Watson was like an excited kid on Christmas morning. The weight has finally been removed.
As the weeks fall off the calendar, Watson’s timing with his receivers will improve as they become more familiar with his throws. Anything is better than tossing into the dirt to open receivers.
The game is quite fast and perhaps his familiarity with the speed of the game will come back. The schedule is not kind to the Browns going forward with games against Cincinnati and Baltimore, who are each top in the division, plus a tough contest versus a much improved Washington club.
If Cleveland can run the table under Watson and finish 10-7-0, they have a decent chance to grab one of the bottom two seeds.
Regardless of how bad Watson played in his Browns’ debut, head coach Kevin Stefanski told the Akron Beacon-Journal that he is the starter going forward:
“He’s going to learn from every rep. Got to get this one out of the way. I know what the kid is capable of.”
The issue is that this is not training camp with preseason games on the line. The season is in full swing and losses that accumulate become that much distance from the prized post-season. The coaching staff will have to expect Watson to work his way back into the game and realize that he was once one of the league’s best at what he does.
But if more poor performances become the norm and the losses begin to mount, will the narrative become to shelf the $230 million man and perhaps wait until next year? Maybe Brissett should run this year’s offense more efficiently for the remainder of this season.
Can Watson get back to that elite status?
Watson had his view on the subject as he explained to the Beacon-Journal:
“Being traded was tough, but it was a business decision and it had to happen. Being my first game back here in Houston was tough, walking into the stadium on the opposite side of the stadium, the locker room. It was different. I know exactly how those guys get ready for the game, how they do the pre-game talk. It was a lot of emotion, a lot of just trying to keep everything in. ... It was tough. At the same time, it was very exciting to just be able to get my feet wet, just run around and take some hits and see everything at full speed.”
Perhaps the big question for the Browns at this juncture is how long will it take for Watson to return to his status of that elite player when he was in Houston?