Deshaun Watson Looked Rusty in First Game Back

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated

If the Browns were expecting their new QB to be Superman right away, Sunday served as proof of how far away they still might be.

Deshaun Watson’s return from an 11-game suspension stemming from more than two dozen lawsuits detailing graphic accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault —or, as one unequipped television broadcaster Sunday chose to call it, “his long road back”—looked exactly like a guy taking a football field who hasn’t seen , or been able to effectively simulate, live-game speed in almost two years.

That’s mostly what we’re prepared to say right now, which is the ultimate insult to the hot-take gods, who lobbed us up a dunkable ball Sunday.

Most of Watson’s 22 throws were scattershot. He looked visibly uncomfortable, a step slow and somewhat unwilling to run in the open field. The Browns, as predicted, relied heavily on a running game and defense to beat the worst team in the NFL, the 1-10-1 Texans. They did not score an offensive touchdown. Watson completed only 12 passes for 131 yards. He was picked off in the end zone, and Nick Chubb was dropped for a safety for good measure. The cheap, easy schadenfreude for the many people rooting against the Browns was readily available for purchase like a homemade, unlicensed shirt being sold in the parking lot.

The Browns won their first game with Watson under center, but he was far from Superman in his return.

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

The truth is we will not know for a long time whether the Browns have made a critical error (strictly in terms of their judgment of his abilities on the field) in trading away a significant amount of draft capital to sign him to a lucrative contract . The offensive line did not lay down at the beginning of every snap, allowing him to get sacked each down as some kind of public penance. Coach Kevin Stefanski did not stand at midfield and beg to start Jacoby Brissett or else he’d walk away and join the USFL. The owner, Jimmy Haslam, didn’t hop on the broadcast and say, “Yeah, we got caught up in winning and now realize what an awful mistake we made.”

And so, they are in this thing. For better or worse. For most of the next decade. We’re off and running.

The Browns are probably hoping they can just toss the tape from this game into the garbage and, from a public relations standpoint, consider this the hardest part of ever having Watson as their quarterback. (I’m wondering, if other teams had known broadcast crews would be this friendly to Watson, if they would have tried to sign him as well.) And while we certainly expect Watson to get better as he acclimates to the NFL again, one of the fascinating aspects of a start where a player is essentially reduced to his most basic of instincts is that those innate QB tendencies are easier to dissect and pin down than they ever have been. Teams can replicate this discomfort. Watson and the Browns, to stave off the kind of deep, dark criticism that will almost certainly obliterate the franchise in a way that makes moving to Baltimore seem favorable, will have to get much better, much faster than anyone may have expected.

The excuse that he is merely working his way back after a suspension of his own doing will hold up for only so long. That is why Sunday’s tape is worth hanging on to. The coaching staff must figure out which aspects of his inefficient game might linger.

On Sunday, Watson played a little bit worse than Michael Vick did in his first full start for the Eagles after serving 18 months in a federal prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring. He played much worse than Peyton Manning did for the Broncos in his first start back after a year of rehabilitation from a herniated disk. It’s unclear whether anyone expected Watson to light up his former team, but it’s also unclear whether they expected him to look this raw.

Myles Garrett said after the game that no one expected Watson to be Superman, though I wonder whether, deep down, he hoped he would see the red “S” peeking through the dress shirt, with the cape folded up somewhere nearby, ready to don at a moment’s notice. Because, at some point down the road, Watson will be expected to become Superman. He’ll be expected to become more than Superman.

Sunday’s win was a nice, literal glimpse of what Watson’s teammates have been doing from an emotional standpoint for most of the season. In the locker room, they’ve been complimenting his leadership skills and, essentially, trying to turn valid public criticism of his signing into some kind of evidence of “haters” disliking them for no good reason. They’ve been carrying the load with a popular player in Brissett under center . This, I’m sure, is much easier when there is a payoff on the horizon. When there is a presumed Superman working his way back to the field.

Sunday showed just how far away that might be. Time will tell how long everyone is willing to wait.

More Coverage of Deshaun Watson:

A Letter Sheds Light on Why the NFL Backed Off a One-Year Suspension and Settled With Deshaun Watson
After the Watson Trade, a Blast Radius of ‘Emotions and Anger’
The Dangers of Pitting Cleveland Against Sexual Violence Survivors
What You Haven’t Heard—But Need to Know—About the Deshaun Watson Cases
A Massage Therapist on Her Session With Deshaun Watson
The Problems With the NFL’s Deshaun Watson Investigation
The Watson Case and the “Due Diligence” Myth

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