When the news came down that the Browns had traded with Houston for QB Deshaun Watson during the off-season, there immediately became a difficulty in the quarterback room.
Yes, the fact that Cleveland still had starter Baker Mayfield under contract was the most glaring situation. But more deeply, the question was asked who would become Watson’s backup.
Mayfield, backup Case Keenum and third QB Nick Mullens were still on the roster, but they are all pocket passers. Watson is a mobile signalcaller who will – and can – take off and gain valuable yardage with his legs.
What this meant to the Browns coaching staff is that this offense would need to be reformulated to address the benefit of such an athlete.
A new need
With adding a mobile quarterback this ultimately entailed each of the pocket passers would need to be relocated. What this also meant, is that a complete overhaul to the QB room was in store. To say that this is a risky move is a given. Dump all three of your proven quarterbacks? The ones who all had at least one start for your team last year? The most important player on the offense?
And to top this all off, the Watson trade had indeed been offered but not exactly extensively planned out.
When Watson was cleared of his criminal charges and then voided his no-trade clause, this immediately set into motion the fact that Houston could now move him. There was a line of willing suitors for Watson’s services to which Cleveland had taken a number. When Watson finally made his choice of the Browns, the trade went through.
But it is not like this entire process had months and months of rigorous planning behind it. Watson was cleared of the criminal charges on March 11. He was traded March 18. Yes, that is just how fast this whole process became.
The realization set in with the Browns. They assumed Watson would become suspended for some duration in the 2022 season and would find out just how many games later. But here they were, about to revamp the offense to fit their new prize, and yet the QB room was full of pocket guys.
The need for a similar skill set at quarterback was put into motion. If a running quarterback offense was going to be put into place, they needed all of their QB’s to be mobile. Could Michael Vick still play? On televison Steve Young appears in shape. They failed on the hire of RG3 so mark that name off the list.
A quick look at the free agent mobile quarterbacks available wasn’t very enticing.
Teddy Bridgewater had just signed to be Miami’s backup one day before the Watson trade. The most alluring name on the list was Marcus Mariota. He had proved he was a capable starting QB if everything is right around him, but had a tendency to be a liability if things fall apart. Geno Smith was viewed as one of the best backups in the league while his future with Seattle was in limbo. He owned a 73.4% completion ratio with Seattle with 717 career rushing yards.
The ancient one Josh Johnson was also available as was Tyrod Taylor who played with Cleveland in Mayfield’s rookie season. Cam Newton? Josh Dobbs? Colin Kaepernick?
Along with Newton, Brissett had imposing size at 6’-4” and a beefy 235 pounds. He started five games and played in 11 for Miami in 2021. Starter Tua Tagovailoa was injury-prone so Brissett saw quite a bit of action. While with Miami, Brissett had 141 completions on 225 attempts (62.7 completion ratio) for 1,283 yards with five TDs and four picks. His career rushing yards were 191 rushes for 717 yards with 13 touchdowns plus a 3.8 yards per attempt average.
Brissett’s deal with Miami was one-year for $5 million with incentives that could bring up the amount paid to $7.5 million. He was expendable now with the Bridgewater signing. He then inked a one-year deal with Cleveland with a cap hit of $4.65 million.
The new starter
Right off, it was known that Brissett would start for the Browns while Watson was on suspension. Just how many games was the unknown. It was originally expected in the 4-6 game range. Six games was suggested by the arbitrator, then was changed to 11.
The media and fans had a field day with that realization. It was a tolerable notion to go with Brissett for four to six games, but 11? Almost two-thirds of the schedule with a career backup under center?
And to top it all off, the third QB signed to be Brissett’s backup was Dobbs. During the three preseason games, he virtually lit it up and was viewed as the possible starter instead of Brissett who saw only minimal live game action in a single preseason game.
There were several articles asking if Dobbs should be the starter instead of Brissett; who at that point had not proven anything to the viewing public.
In the opener against Carolina, Brissett did not look good. His final numbers were 18 completions on 34 passes for 147 yards. His accuracy was horrible. Read the comments of his game here:
The offense sputtered against Carolina and Brissett overthrew a lot of passes. Cleveland was able to build a nominal lead as the defense stymied Carolina’s offense for two-and-a-half quarters. After the win, nobody on social media was kind to the Browns quarterback while Dobbs’ name flared up again.
The following week against the New York Jets was the starting point of where most folks began to change their mind about Brissett.
In that contest Brissett began the game going five-for-five and went 12-13 in the first half. He made several nice touch passes and then was able to thread the needle on others. The touchdown-not-touchdown to DPJ was an excellent example. The throw was a phenomenal toss and if cradled properly would have been the catch of the week. There was the interception at the end of the game which ended any possibility of a long field goal and was poorly-thrown. The final numbers for Brissett were 22 for 29 for 229 yards with a touchdown and the one pick. Brissett also rushed for 43 yards including two runs that were key first downs.
The reaction after the Jets game was, “Hmmm....., maybe we have something here.”
Against Pittsburgh in the 29-14 win on Thursday Night Football, the entire NFL world was watching.
In the Steelers game Brissett was throwing in rhythm while his coverage analysis was on point. He proved he is unstoppable on QB sneaks as he converted both attempts. For his career, he is over 95% on conversions of third or fourth and short.
Regarding his success with the QB sneak, he told Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon-Journal:
“I told myself if I get a sneak, I am doing it. I almost blacked out. The flow of the game, just being excited, letting my emotions show and not holding things in, just being present.”
He has the ability to completely sell the play action. Brissett finished with 21 completions on 31 attempts for 220 yards with two touchdown passes.
The last two games have revealed one important element: the on-field relationship between Amari Cooper and Brissett. One of the best position receivers in the game, Cooper was invisible in Week 1 where he had a mere three receptions for 17 yards with six targets.
Cooper’s numbers against the Jets and Steelers were a complete turnaround as he gained 101 yards in each game with 21 total targets.
The relationship with Brissett and Cooper has only helped this offense which wants to pound the ball on the ground. Defenses can no longer stack the box. Plus Brissett is making gains with his legs which is one of the reasons he was hired. That ability was on full display with just over 11 minutes to play against Pittsburgh facing a third-and-one to which he scampered for six yards and a key first down to keep the chains – and clock - moving.
Brissett was mentioned as a game manager by the TV announcers. Has he proved he is much more than that?
Playing his best football
Several media articles have stated that Brissett is playing his best football with his play against the Jets and Steelers. Maybe so.
In 2019 when Colts starter Andrew Luck surprisingly retired, Brissett was the backup and subsequently went 5-2-0 out the gate. He tossed 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Folks in Indianapolis viewed Brissett as the answer going forward although he was an above-average quarterback. Then the bottom dropped out and Phillip Rivers was signed to be the new starter the following year. Brissett finished the 2019 season with 272 completions on 447 attempts for 2,942 yards, 18 TDs, eight picks, 56 rushes for 228 yards with an additional four touchdowns.
Brissett proved that he could play at a very good level as an NFL starting QB.
“He played solid. Didn’t start fast enough but made some big throws at big moments,” Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski explained at the post-game presser versus the Steelers. “He battled. He’s doing a nice job.”
But let’s look at this deeper. RB Nick Chubb is already having another Pro Bowl year. Is it possible that Brissett is hanging onto Superman’s cape?
Perhaps all Brissett is doing is playing slightly above Mayfield. Cleveland fans loves the fire that Brissett brings to the huddle, but he is the perfect player for this situation because his floor and his ceiling aren’t far apart.
And let’s examine who Cleveland has played. They just edged Carolina who just won their first game, gave away the Jets game who otherwise would be 0-3-0, and defeated a sad Steelers squad.
The fact that Brissett is playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the league is also a gauge of his success so far. James Hudson played well until Jack Conklin could return to the lineup and now the Browns are full-bore along the line.
Against the Jets and Steelers, Brissett’s passer rating has been an exceptional 106.2 while his completion ratio sits at 74.1. In all three games, those numbers stand at 94.3 and 66.3, respectively.
Despite this being their first year together, there is a definite chemistry being developed between Stefanski and Brissett. Stefanski, the play caller, seems to be getting more comfortable with the play of Brissett especially the short passing game plus his ability to take off out of the pocket in order to gain positive yardage.
This has allowed Stefanski to devise more of a mix between the pass and run instead of just pounding it every down. Remember the third-and-short play in the third quarter where Brissett hit Cooper for that huge gain? The Steelers had 8 men in the box waiting on a Chubb run.
Remain the starter?
What if the Browns have a good record after Watson’s suspension has concluded. What then? Should there be a conversation as to whether Brissett should continue as the starting quarterback?
Think about it: Watson hasn’t played a meaningful game since January of 2020 and only a cameo in the final preseason game against Chicago. If the Browns are rolling with Brissett under center, is it possible that Watson should be regulated to the backup role?
The Browns enter the difficult part of their schedule beginning in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers. What if Cleveland began to win some of those tough games and Brissett starting stacking wins?
At this juncture of the schedule, Cleveland should be 3-0-0 with Brissett at the helm. With Brissett, the Browns would have a guy playing well, winning games and has a connection with his receivers, play caller and offensive line. What if the Browns are 7-3-0 or 6-4-0 going into that final game of Watson’s suspension?
“I asked Kevin Stefanski that after playing Philadelphia in a preseason game and sat in his office. He made it very clear that when Deshaun Watson comes back he is playing,” stated Peter King in an interview on Pro Football Focus. “And we’ll see. It’s easy to say that in August. I don’t doubt Stefanski. I almost am certain he is playing. But if you are 7-3, it at least has to be a conversation.”
One thing to think really hard about is going into Week 12 it will have been 146 weeks since Watson has played in an NFL game that counted. Is that an unrealistic expectation for Watson to perform at a high-level in a tackle football game? How ready is he in order to be “game ready”?
With Brissett winning against the tough opponents, Stefanski may have a decision to make of leaving the hot hand in or inserting one of the NFL’s best talents at his position – back in seasons 2018-2020 where he was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls.
If Watson regains his form, he is easily a Top-10 quarterback. With this Browns offense that could certainly become elevated. After all Watson is a dangerous athlete.
Wouldn’t that discussion have to be made with Brissett coming in hot and Watson coming in colder than cold? Would the fact that the Haslams spent all that money on Watson and went through all that baggage that accompanied the talent have a bearing on who plays going forward?
“All of this is a little bit premature here. I just can’t imagine Brissett winning a bunch of those tough games,” King continued. “If Brissett beats the Bucs and at Miami and at Buffalo, then all of a sudden the landscape has changed radically. Let’s let him do it first.”
Maybe the truth about Brissett’s abilities will be revealed when Cleveland plays one of the really good teams. Hopefully, that truth will be good news.
A look at those difficult games reveal games in Weeks 5-12 (with bye Week 9) against the Chargers, New England, at Baltimore, Cincinnati, at Miami, at Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
But if Brissett is benched, it’s because Watson is considered a superstar and the Browns have paid him a truckload of money.