The Cleveland Browns placed every single egg they had into QB Deshaun Watson when they traded the farm for him.
He came with extensive hardware having been a college football national champion while at Clemson University. While there, Watson (6’-3”, 215 pounds) started 38 games, attempted 1,207 passes with 814 completions for 10,168 yards for a 67.4% completion ratio, tossed 41 touchdowns against just 17 interceptions, and ended his career in the State of South Carolina with a QB rating of 157.5.
Plus, he won a National Championship. And a trophy case of individual awards.
As a first-round NFL draft pick, Watson was selected to the Pro Bowl for three consecutive seasons. In his final year with the Houston Texans, he threw for 4,823 yards in one spectacular season. With his TD-to-INT ratio always on the plus side, that year he threw 33 touchdowns with just seven picks. Oh, and his completion percentage? 70.3% if you can believe it. All for a 4-12-0 team.
So yes, the coaching staff and front office of the Browns were intrigued. The thought process was what could Watson do for Cleveland and their superior offensive line, a good tight end group with one of the best running backs in the league?
After serving his 11-game suspension at the beginning of 2022, Watson played the final six games in place of Jacoby Brissett. There were questions about what kind of player he would be after not playing for almost two years. Would he be the Watson who collected Pro Bowl hardware? Or would he be full of rust and play inconsistently?
Most would say “B” would finish that answer. Rust was only part of the problem for Watson with overthrown balls, short-armed tosses, and not nearly the same scrambler and runner that NFL fans had come to know of him.
In Watson’s six games, he threw for just 1,102 yards which calculates to just 183.6 yards per contest. A far cry from the 301.2 yards per game in his final year with Houston. His touchdown passes again were greater than his interception total, but that tally was just 7 to 5.
The allure of Watson has always been his ability to gain yardage with his legs. As a sophomore at Clemson, he rushed for 1,105 yards with a dozen rushing touchdowns. With the Texans, he had rushed for 1,677 yards with 17 rushing touchdowns. Yet in his six games with the Browns, his total was 175 yards and a single score. That was his worst total since he started six games in his rookie year in Houston where he netted 269 yards and two TDs.
So, which Deshaun Watson will the Browns get in 2023?
A better question
The jury remains out on Watson going forward, the fact that this offense is fully stocked and ready to rumble is a certainty.
Pro Football Focus rated the Browns’ offensive line as the league’s Number 1 unit. Tight end David Njoku had a decent year last season and is ready for a breakout season. The wide receiver room is bulging to the hilt with talent beginning with Pro Bowl veteran Amari Cooper, budding star Donovan Peoples-Jones, newly-acquired via a trade Elijah Moore, speedster Marquis Goodwin, last year’s decorated rookie David Bell, and also this year’s third-round draft pick Cedric Tillman. Plus, perennial Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb.
So, it’s obvious this Browns offense is going into this season as a highly anticipated offensive threat each and every week. And with Watson under center and his abilities, everybody is counting on just that.
But here’s a question to ponder: what happens to this offense if Watson doesn’t return to his Pro Bowl former self? Anyone?
Currently, the Browns have three other quarterbacks on the roster. The most experienced is Josh Dobbs (6’-3”, 216 pounds) who was in training camp last year and was viewed as having an exciting and productive preseason as starter Jacoby Brissett’s backup for the first 11 games. Yet when Watson was activated, Dobbs was released. He was originally a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.
His NFL stats are two starts in three seasons, 50 completions on 85 attempts for 456 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. His career QB rating is 66.6. He also has 14 rushes for 75 yards with zero scores.
Kellen Mond (6’-3”, 212 pounds) is another signal-caller on the roster. He was drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2021. His stats include zero starts in two seasons with only one game played, two completions on three attempts for five yards with no scores or picks.
Then there is UCLA rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (6’-1”, 205 pounds) who was taken in the fifth round of this year’s draft. He played five seasons in college with 48 games played. He passed for 10,710 yards with 1,359 attempts and 860 completions. He also had 88 touchdown passes with 36 interceptions. DTR is being viewed as Watson’s eventual back-up with the hope that he can be groomed for at least one season.
And that’s it for the quarterback room. As you can see, no veteran backup or presence.
Again, what happens to this offense if Watson never regains his old form? DBN has gathered some opinions from some very reliable Browns sources to debate this.
If he doesn’t return to form? If we are talking that he is bad-bad.
Well then, the Browns are in for a world of hurt. First of all, head coach Kevin Stefanski is gone. I’m not saying it’s his fault, but he will be the first one to pay the price and he will be fired. After all, you aren’t going to fire the QB with that gigantic contract. GM Andrew Berry is probably gone as well but he may get one more crack at it.
The roster will need to be torn down because this team is in a win-now mode and without the first-round picks, it’s not like the team can quickly shift.
The one slight - and I do stress slight - glimmer would be striking gold with a late-round QB like DTR. Now we are talking about lightning in a bottle type of odds here so don’t get your hopes up. But obviously, the Browns aren’t just going to sit around and hope that Watson turns it around. They will make backup plans (granted as slight as they may be) and play it out.
The Browns are all in on Watson because they have to be. In the AFC you HAVE to get that QB and they paid the price. So if it doesn’t go well, it’s going to be bad for a while. But if it goes right… well, that is going to be all kinds of fun.
The Mr. Deacon Experience
First, I must say that I never expected Deshaun Watson to be the savior in Cleveland in the last six games. The man missed almost two years of competitive football and lost the speed and feel for the game. Being rusty is an understatement. Yet, I can say that we saw flashes of his former self in a few plays that made him a Top-5 quarterback in the NFL. I’m 80% sure after having a whole season with OTA’s and training camp along with the chance to reflect on his public image that Watson will return to his normal self.
Honesty, that’s not what I’m afraid of the most. If Watson by chance does not return to the levels of prominence he once displayed. Here are my chain reactions that will reverberate in every Browns fan’s home after this season.
Stefanski will be the first to go into cannon fodder of chaos in Cleveland. Stefanski has shown us on many occasions and in key critical moments that he lacks common sense and coaching abilities that could have possibly catapulted the team into the playoffs with a backup QB in Jacoby Brissett last year. It also brings up the suspicion that Kevin was told by the owner to tank the season and throw it all in the wash. In hindsight, head coaches are always the first to go and Stefanski will be no different from any other NFL team.
Berry’s job will be safe in my opinion because he has displayed the ability to provide the talent and manpower needed to make deep playoff runs, and the mathematical prowess to manipulate the salary cap with player’s contracts to free up the necessary funds that the organization needs. I feel he is a valuable commodity in the rebuilding of this team. His efforts to restore the organization’s once fabled glory are a credit to his experience and knowledge of the everyday operations of an NFL team.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam on the other hand will not look so humble. His mishandling of the Baker Mayfield situation and the signing of Watson’s ridiculous $230 million contract has pissed off a lot of the other owners in the league. This move set a new precedent in the NFL over the value of NFL quarterbacks - especially those who may not be as deserving of that type of contract. Both Jimmy and Dee Haslam’s reputation as owners will spiral into the halls of obscurity forcing the public and Browns fans to sell the team. Like the Dan Snyder episode in Washington.
If Watson does not regain his Pro Bowl form and is something more along the lines of being mediocre, then a full tear-down is likely to commence at the start of the 2024 off-season.
To be clear: this is NOT my expectation but if it happens then it’s worth bracing oneself for what’s to follow.
The Denver Broncos are a good corollary here. They invested in QB Russell Wilson and he was straight trash last year. They didn’t decide to move on from him because they can’t. It’s not just that they invested too much in him, it’s that they did so because there weren’t (aren’t) better options because good quarterbacks are super, duper rare.
What the Broncos did do was fire the coach and retool the team as best they could. The same would be the case with Cleveland. If Watson doesn’t regain form, at the very least that means Stefanski is gone. Probably also spells doom for Berry and Depo and anyone else connected to the current construct.
Then the wholesale clearing out of the roster by high-priced dudes commences. OG Joel Bitonio, Chubb, and OG Wyatt Teller all have options in their contracts after this season, so they’re all gone opening up like $41 million in cap space. Other guys like CB Denzel Ward, TE Njoku, and Cooper likewise get 86’d. This would open up some more room for the new crew to bring in “their guys”.
And as such don’t expect much in 2024 as the new system fully acclimates. With luck, by 2025 Watson is back to form and we have enough of a new base to do something.
Okay, Browns fans! We’ve got the draft out of the way now, which we really didn’t need and now our QB 1 is taking the offense to another island retreat to bond. I am all for this! I love the team bonding! This will really let the guys get to know each other. Away from coaches, media, and hopefully masseuses!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 14-3! I believe Deshaun has “IT” still in him. He was definitely showing improvement after a few games of wiping away the cobwebs.
This man has a talent that won’t just go to sleep. This is why we paid so much for him. We all knew last season was a wash, now it’s for real. Last season when he came in, it was practice. He’s ready, the players are ready, the coaches are ready and fans were born ready! I’m more excited about this season than the 1999 season. Let’s go!!!!
DBN Staff Writer
The question is not if he can get back to form, but can Watson rebound?
To me, he did not look like a Top-5 quarterback in those last six games. He averaged under 200 yards a game and often sailed passes. He was very inconsistent and looked like he had just been hired the week of every game and wasn’t familiar with the new system.
Can he rebound? He was a holy terror with Houston. Being in the AFC North, Browns’ fans are well aware of what a talented option quarterback can inflect onto a defense. Once a guy like Lamar Jackson or Watson becomes flushed from the pocket, he instantly leaves the front four of the defense and sometimes even a fifth defender. With the linebackers involved in pass coverage plus the secondary, this type of QB is 17 yards downfield before anyone realizes it.
THAT is what Cleveland is paying for. The ability to move the ball with his legs when the pass is no longer an option.
There is also the issue of if Watson becomes injured. Then what? Are any of these guys quality backups? Can they come in and take control of games and add to the win column until Watson returns?
With Dobbs, both of his Tennessee Titans starts were losses. In fact, in Week 18, the Titans needed a win to clinch a playoff spot. He was a good game manager and went 20 for 29 attempts for 179 yards with a touchdown plus a pick as they led for most of the contest. But his fumble late in the game was returned for a score that killed their playoff chances and ended their season.
Those two Tennessee starts are Dobbs’ only NFL starts. He has thrown a total of 85 passes in actual NFL games. Mond has played in one NFL game with three passes attempted. DTR is a rookie fifth-round pick.
When a hurricane is bearing down on the coast, at some point insurance companies shut down selling policies. Cleveland does not want to be stuck with an expired insurance policy in the 11th hour.
Do the Browns need to sign an experienced backup? A look at the free agent market reveals the following unsigned players: Matt Ryan (age 38), Teddy Bridgewater (30), Carson Wentz (30), C.J. Beathard (29), former Brown Josh Johnson (37), and Chase Daniel (36). Then there are XFL and USFL options.
When the Browns had drafted Mayfield, they signed a veteran in Case Keenum, and his 62 NFL starts as a vital backup plan in case Mayfield wasn’t ready - or faltered.
Sports Illustrated ranked all 32 NFL backup QBs and Dobbs placed #19. Their assessment:
“Dobbs lost his first two career starts with Tennessee last season, but he still flashed at times, earning him a one-year deal to return to the Browns as Deshaun Watson’s backup. The 2017 fourth-round pick by the Steelers was cut by Cleveland last November before getting a shot with the Titans as the team pushed for a playoff spot. Dobbs has a career 58.8% completion rate with two touchdowns and two interceptions.”
These three men represent who will take the reins in case Watson is hurt or is having a bad year. Does anyone see this as a potential problem? Under Berry’s watch, the Browns have always had a capable backup with either Keenum or Brissett. And now?
Cleveland’s current backup plan is the aforementioned three quarterbacks who have two combined NFL starts.