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No Shit, Sherlock
Signing Deshaun Watson was a grotesque moral compromise. It backfiring in football terms was predictable, too
Content warning: sexual violence
When the Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson a few months ago, criticisms of the move focused almost exclusively on Watson as a person, not a player. There were more important issues to consider than football: Watson has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior (up to and including to outright assault) by at least 30 different women. There’s no way for a fan who cares about sexual violence to feel good about their favorite team making a serial sex offender the face of the franchise, as Watson now is for the Browns thanks to both the visibility of the quarterback position and the $230 million contract extension they gave him. Nor is there solace in the team brass’ transparently disingenuous word-salad about Watson taking accountability for his actions, which was blatantly undermined by his repeatedly denying them. Thinking about the football implications of the despicable ethical compromise seemed gross, and viewing moral issues through the lens of sports (even if you’re rooting against unethical behavior) ultimately feels small and insignificant.
The Browns were counting on the focus shifting to actual football once the season started. In this sense, they have gotten what they wanted. Most of the media and many fans (or at least those who have not renounced the team after the Watson trade) seem more concerned with Cleveland’s disappointing 2-3 record than the organization’s sense of ethics. Analysts and broadcasters talk more about the on-field impact of the 11-game suspension Watson is serving than why he was punished. The embattled quarterback was permitted back at the practice facility this week, putting him on track to suit up under center next month. This is more or less exactly what the team was hoping for in terms of normalizing Watson’s presence on the roster.
But the Browns’ desire to judge the Watson move solely on its impact in the standings isn’t a flattering to them, either. Even ignoring the despicable ethics the franchise has displayed, and analyzing the situation in purely football terms, the trade looks like a colossal mistake — in precisely the way that the front office should have predicted.
The narrative surrounding the Browns at the start of the offseason was clear, if less inevitable than it seemed. They had a strong homegrown skill-position core in Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward. They retained veteran playmakers Anthony Walker and Kareem Hunt, and eventually added Amari Cooper and brought back Jadeveon Clowney. With salary-cap crunches on the horizon and the unpredictable but inevitable specter of age looming over the young stars, this looked like the best chance Cleveland would have to win a championship for some time. The only thing missing was a quarterback. The organization had made it very clear that they didn’t think incumbent signal-caller Baker Mayfield was capable of leading the team on a deep playoff run, so it was imperative to find someone who could. The cost to acquire Watson from the Houston Texans was steep — six draft picks, including three years’ worth of first round selections, plus $230 million in guaranteed salary — but if a great signal-caller were all this team needed to win a Super Bowl, it would be worth it.
The problem with this plan (besides rehabilitating the image of an unrepentant sex offender, a caveat that you may be tired of reading but that should not be taken for granted) is that Watson is serving a suspension for nearly two-thirds of the season. In his stead Cleveland has started second-stringer Jacoby Brissett, whose limitations as a quarterback have led Kevin Stefanski to largely eschew the passing game. While Chubb and Hunt comprise arguably the best running-back tandem in the league, leaning on them to move the ball downfield in lieu of the quarterback’s arm puts them at a disadvantage in the pass-heavy modern NFL. Brissett has actually outperformed expectations so far, and the defense is the bigger reason why the Browns are 2-3, but the more-conservative play-calling makes it hard to answer all the points the secondary gives up.
As they approach the halfway point of Waston's suspension, the Browns aren't where they wanted to be. An optimist could note that their three losses have all been close, with a cumulative margin of just six points. From an analytical perspective, this bodes more favorably for them going forward than if they had been repeatedly blown out. On the other hand, losing by a single score makes it easy to imagine how things could have been different — say, if they were playing with a first-string quarterback. The Browns also should have benefitted from an easy early schedule. Their losses include games against the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Jets, two games that a good team should have handled easily. The five teams they’ve faced to date have combined to go 7-13 in their non-Cleveland games. This is about to change: their opponents for the remainder of Watson’s suspension have a collective record of 17-13, and betting lines say the Browns are favored in only one of their next half-dozen matchups. Barring multiple major upsets, Cleveland will be under .500 with just six games to play when Watson comes back. Even if their new signal-caller is as great as advertised from the get-go — and after nearly two years without appearing in an NFL game, that’s hardly a given1 — he will have a tough time taking the Dawg Pound deep into the playoffs if he joins a team that’s 4-7 or 3-8.
What makes this so hard to understand (besides the callousness disregard for Watson’s pattern of reprehensible behavior) is that this situation was entirely predictable. Watson had not yet been sentenced at the time of the trade, but it was no secret that he was facing a lengthy suspension. The NFL was reportedly seeking a punishment of a full year or more; in that context (and when considering that it works out to a mere 22 minutes of game-time per accusation of sexual misconduct), 11 games is getting off easy. The Browns even diverted most of Watson’s 2022 salary to a signing bonus to minimize his financial losses from the suspension they knew he would receive. The fact that a team with championship hopes would count on Brissett to keep their playoff chances alive in Watson’s absence was (or at least should have been) part of the calculus, and the risks of that plan were apparent long before the season started.
The Browns would probably tell you that the trade wasn’t just about 2022. Watson is under contract through 2026, and may well contribute to multiple Cleveland championship runs. But this argument is directly in tension with the rationale behind paying through the nose for a quarterback. If the Browns’ prime contention window is closing and they needed someone to take them to the Super Bowl this year, why didn’t they find someone whom they could count on this year? Especially since acquiring Watson meant sacrificing other ways to improve over the medium-term: Losing three years of first-round picks and taking massive salary-cap hits from his $46 million salary will make it that much harder to surround Watson with talent as the young players age and the veterans depart.
In trading for Watson, the Browns seemingly staked the fate of the franchise on two assumptions: That the NFL cared as little about sexual violence as they do, and would give Watson (even less of) a slap on the wrist; and that the team could rack up wins in their soft early schedule with a backup under center. The former was proven wrong before the first snap of the season, and the latter looks like a bad bet too. Having worked in sports I’m generally loath to speculate about team employees’ job security, and I’m not connected enough to know who ultimately decided to trade for Watson — Andrew Berry? Paul DePodesta? The Haslams? — but frankly it’s strange to have seen so little speculation about front-office changes after they so massively misjudged the impact of Watson’s suspension. How long a leash can you have when you make a franchise-altering move that both bankrupts your morals and backfires on the field? In an organization that hasn’t kept the same GM for more than three years since I was in high school?
Cleveland fans are a couple losses away from resigning themselves to looking ahead to next season. It’s a feeling we know very well, but it’s one we weren’t supposed to experience so quickly this year. You can blame the porous defense, or the fact that the kicker we splurged for with a fourth-round pick is the only person in the NFL this year to have missed multiple field-goal and extra-point attempts. Yet despite the team’s flaws, they would have a winning record now (and given how close the losses have been, might even be 5-0) had they acquired a starting quarterback who wasn’t facing an immediate suspension. Even looking past Watson’s status as the most-odious person in the NFL, not wasting your best chance for a championship on a player who can’t play isn’t just obvious. It’s elementary.
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Prior to his suspension this year, Watson sat out the 2021 season as the Texans refused to meet his demand for a trade and the allegations against him started to come out.