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Deshaun Watson and the Faustian Ripoff
The Browns sold their soul for naught. Time for an organizational exorcism
Content warning: Sexual violence
To be a Cleveland Browns fan is to engage in a perpetual act of self-degradation. Revealing that you root for the Browns puts an immediate end to any conversation about which sports fans are the longest-suffering. We cheer for the only NFL team to have endured a winless season in the last decade. Even fans of other famously hapless franchises like the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets have taken pity on me after seeing my mug and hoodie.
The humiliation grew still greater last year when the Browns traded for Deshaun Watson amidst credible, highly disturbing sexual assault and harassment allegations from at least 30 different women. In giving up three years of first-round picks to acquire him, immediately signing him to a $230 million contract extension, and messaging that he was the final piece the team needed to contend for the Super Bowl, they anointed the most-odious man in the NFL as the face of the franchise. It was a literal deal with a devil. By definition, anyone still part of the Dawg Pound has had to compartmentalize their moral code from their rooting interest — or worse, to swallow the preposterous narrative that Watson is actually a stand-up guy.
Yet for all my indignation, I was honestly excited to renew the masochistic ritual as kickoff approached Monday night for Cleveland’s second game of the season. I had missed their opening game, a 24-3 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals, so it was my first chance to root for the Browns this year. Throw in the heightened expectations after Week 1 and a primetime matchup against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers? My anticipation was high.
The 26-22 loss that followed was the single least-enjoyable Browns game of my life.
I’ve witnessed more-consequential losses, like the AFC Divisional Game against Kansas City in 2021. I’ve seen bigger blown leads and more-egregious missed opportunities. I’ve certainly watched worse-quality football — did I mention the year we went 0-16? But never in my years of rooting for the sorriest organization in professional sports have I felt more hopeless about the direction of the franchise than I did at the end of the fourth quarter on Monday.
Expectations were high for Deshaun Watson this season. His 2022 Browns debut was a wash as he sat out most of the year serving a well-deserved suspension. With what he callously called the “distraction” of last summer’s punitive proceedings behind him,1 the narrative went, he could fully focus on preparing for the 2023 season, and his performance would reflect that. Naturally he threw an interception that the Steelers returned for a touchdown on the first snap of the game. He went on to complete just 22 of 40 passes and threw for only one touchdown. He complemented his pick-six with two fumbles (including one the Steelers returned for another defensive score) and six sacks, making Watson the only QB to meet all three ignominious criteria in one game in the franchise’s miserable 21st-century history. He looked rigid and vulnerable in the pocket. He lacked any apparent chemistry with his receivers. For good measure, he elicited two separate 15-yard penalties with his reckless play. Would the Browns have lost this game with Jacoby Brissett under center? Brandon Weeden? Johnny Manziel? Meanwhile, Baker Mayfield is 2-0 this year.
The silver lining of Watson’s ineptitude was that it gave Nick Chubb a chance to shine. In addition to being one of the premier running backs and most-dynamic athletes in the NFL, Chubb is arguably the Browns’ best player. A common complaint in Cleveland is that the Browns have underused him over the last few years, often favoring other RBs in an apparent effort to keep Chubb fresh and forestall the aging curve at a position infamous for rapid attrition. With former co-lead back Kareem Hunt no longer around and Watson struggling in the passing game, the Browns leaned on Chubb harder this week than I can remember them ever doing before. When he finished the first quarter on pace for 36 rushing attempts (compared to a career-high of 28), I wondered aloud if the Browns should just run the Wildcat scheme and let Chubb take the snaps directly.
That dream was dashed in the first minute of the second quarter, when Chubb suffered a knee injury so gruesome that the broadcast refused to show a replay. The Browns actually scored and took their biggest lead of the game on the next play, and second-string RB Jerome Ford filled in capably in Chubb’s absence. But it sure felt like their championship hopes were carried off alongside him in the injury cart. Reports immediately after the game confirmed what everyone immediately knew, that Cleveland’s best offensive weapon will be sidelined for at least the rest of the year.
The twin miseries of Watson’s mediocrity and Chubb’s knee buckling epitomized the failures of the Browns’ grand plan. Leave aside the egregious ethics of condoning and celebrating a serial sex pest. Forget the organization’s inability to create positive clubhouse chemistry. It’s now safe to call the Watson trade a complete and utter failure in pure football terms. And Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, General Manager Andrew Berry, and perhaps Head Coach Kevin Stefanski — whoever signed off on that deal 18 months ago — have only themselves to blame. (Perhaps they’ll take a cue from Watson and spin the situation so see themselves as heroic victims.)
Deshaun Watson was supposed to be the guy. The reason the Browns signed him to a record-breaking contract, the reason they felt they didn’t need a first-round pick until 2025, the reason they were willing to abide his grotesque sins,2 is because DePodesta, Berry, or whoever ultimately calls the shots in Cleveland believed he was the missing piece who could lead this roster to a championship. He looked conspicuously pedestrian in the six games he suited up for last year post-suspension, but the Browns were out of the playoff hunt by the time he returned so his lack of production largely flew under the radar. After nearly two years away from the NFL, there was consensus reluctance to judge him too harshly for a few games of subpar play.
Now, after Watson laid an egg in a primetime game against what was assumed to be the worst team in the division, the conversation has changed. The excuses of post-suspension rustiness and learning a new playbook no longer apply. Fans and analysts around the league, and even smart Browns observers who are more cautious with hyperbole than I am, are starting to take his poor play at face value. Maybe the $230 million man, the promised savior of the franchise, the darling of the front office’s revamped progressive evaluation process — the subject of the team brass’ Faustian bargain — actually sucks. The Browns have manifested some strange Broadway fanfiction: What if the hero of Damn Yankees had instead sold his soul to hit .200?
The front office would surely tell you, and themselves, that Chubb’s injury was bad luck. On its face that’s true. Yet punting the 2022 season and cashing in all their chips for a player facing a lengthy suspension was a deliberate choice. Last year was clearly the time to go for it with Cleveland’s vaunted skill-position core. It wasn’t controversial to note that the salary-cap math would get harder in each subsequent season of Watson’s deal. The absence of the first-round picks they surrendered in the trade will grow more apparent over time. And yes, as players advance in their careers in this cruel, violent sport, they are increasingly likely to suffer injuries. As if to underscore this point, key defensive players Greg Newsome II and Denzel Ward were both (temporarily) knocked out of Monday’s game too. It’s not the front office’s fault that Chubb got hurt — unless you see him as a civilian casualty of their karmic debt, that the devil came for Chubb’s knee on his way to collect the team’s soul — but this was the risk they took when they wasted a year of his healthy prime while a serial assailant was served some meek form of justice.
After my years of working in sports, I don’t like speculating about team employees’ job security. Leadership firings are scary and sad for the whole organization, even if they’re ultimately for the best. I know what it’s like to hear strangers calling for your friend to lose their job on the radio, or even for people to say as such to your face. But the combination of screwing up the biggest decision in franchise history this badly and condoning an unrepentant sex pest makes this an extenuating circumstance. It’s time for some organizational leaders to join Watson in getting sacked.
Whom exactly that means is hard to say. Given DePodesta’s C-suite status and involvement in personnel moves but supra-football-operations title, the common ambiguity about NFL head coaches’ power in roster-building, and how meddlesome the Haslams are as owners, I don’t know from the outside where the buck actually stops. But whoever is responsible for the organizational impact crater of the Watson trade — my best inference is the duo of DePodesta (who was understood as the ultimate decision-maker at the time of his hiring in 2016) and Berry (who now holds the most-relevant title of GM) — cannot be trusted to guide the Browns through another offseason, or even through the midseason trade deadline. It would be gauche to fire the leadership team two games into the season, though then again this is an organization on its eighth different GM of the last 15 years. I spent the last two days trying to think of reasons to stay the course and I’ve come up empty.
In the second year of the Deshaun Watson Era, the problem isn’t merely that the Browns sold their soul. It’s that their Faustian bargain got them nothing. Whether the front office misevaluated Watson, they underestimated the impact his suspension would have on their contention window, or DePodesta and Berry were so tunnel-visioned on rehabilitating Watson’s image that they forgot to consider whether signing him was a smart football move, they clearly lack the strategic judgment to run an NFL team. If Watson will never be held accountable for his sins, maybe the organization can be exorcised of those whose moral compromise was too foolish for parable. Then again, these are the Cleveland Browns. We’re already damned for eternity.
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I don’t doubt that what we was going through off the field in 2022 made it hard for him to focus on learning Cleveland’s playbook, but sportswriter and broadcasters keep forgetting that that he was dealing with the consequences of his unacceptable behavior, not some adversity he had to overcome.