Deshaun Watson is going to walk onto a regular-season practice field on Wednesday. What that means for the Cleveland Browns is vastly different than the unrealized hopes and dreams of September.
When the 2022 season started, the ceiling for the Browns (3-6) was to hand off a playoff contending team to Watson in Week 13. But something closer to the basement has unfolded for a variety of reasons.
The only thing that matters now is reality for the franchise. The brutal truth is Watson’s return from an 11-game suspension is a starting point. It's an opportunity to put a team on the field around him and then accurately judge what pieces Watson can elevate, versus the positions the front office and coaching staff will need to revamp in the offseason. The fact remains that this no longer looks like a team that can be fixed by simply plugging Watson into a regular-season NFL game for the first time in 23 months. There are too many problems to be solved, ranging from coaching to talent to injuries.
Adding a patience problem on top of all that isn’t going to help anyone. Not Watson. Not head coach Kevin Stefanski. Not general manager Andrew Berry. And certainly not all of the Browns fans who are looking at the quarterback change as some kind of cure-all for this troubling and lethargic start.
Don't be delusional about a Watson turnaround
Of course, that’s not what many Browns fans want to hear. There is a segment that wants to believe that splitting the next two games against the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then forking over a 4-7 team to Watson in Week 13 sets up Cleveland for a transformational run down the stretch. That finishing flourish under Watson would have to assume the defense could suddenly stop opposing run games or that Watson shows no lag from his layoff.
Not to mention the simple fact that an offensive play-calling head coach like Stefanski and an elite quarterback like Watson still need quite a bit of live game work to learn their best harmony. If you think that’s not a real thing, look at the Denver Broncos catastrophe unfolding between Russell Wilson and play-calling head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Or consider that after three straight 13-3 seasons and back-to-back league MVP awards for Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is still complaining about how head coach Matt LaFleur calls his offensive scheme.
Finding a groove with even the best quarterbacks can take an abundance of time and patience. Anyone in the Browns' orbit who doesn’t understand that is setting themselves up for significant frustration. It’s also self-inflicted because everyone invested in this situation should understand that some kind of flipped-switch moonshot for an otherwise mediocre record is delusional. Everyone is being warned right now and right here. If you’re pulling your hair out after a few uneven performances from Watson and the Browns, part of that is on you. And if you’re apoplectic that Watson couldn’t rattle off six straight wins to close the season, that’s all on you.
Remember Jimmy Garoppolo's start with the 49ers?
There is a decent frame of reference for expectations that can be drawn upon from recent history. If you want a comparable situation in terms of a quality midseason quarterback addition, look at the 2017 San Francisco 49ers. That team acquired Jimmy Garoppolo at the start of Week 9 of the regular season. He wouldn’t start his first game until Week 13. Amazingly, he closed out the schedule with five straight wins. But it was a double-edged sword that I talked about with head coach Kyle Shanahan nearly 18 months later. For the coaching staff, Garoppolo’s acquisition and debut with the team in 2017 wasn’t the franchise's destination. It was just the road map and a starting point for an eventual Super Bowl appearance.
As Shanahan told me in the summer of 2019, “Jimmy’s 5-0 finish [to the 2017 season] was probably a little deceptive when it came to how much work we had to do then and still have to do now. He’s part of the foundation, but there is still a process in figuring out how to build on top of the foundation. We’re still figuring that out. We feel good about it, but there’s work to do.”
Six months after Shanahan said that, the 49ers and Garoppolo advanced to the Super Bowl. It took a significant amount of tweaks to get the roster right. Changes in the coaching staff. Changes to the roster. Even changes in the scheme and how Shanahan called a game with Garoppolo in the saddle.
This Browns' roster is far ahead of that 2017 49ers roster, but I still think of that San Francisco team when I think about what is ahead for Watson and the Browns on the football field. Garoppolo and Shanahan had a five-game sprint to learn some things about each other and understand the fit with the surrounding roster. The Browns are going to have a similar six-game experience with Watson. Maybe they strike gold and win all six. Maybe the result is something far less. But the knowledge gained is the communication, interaction, film and final results that will undergo a full autopsy this coming offseason.
What can Watson provide on field in 2022?
Every molecule of data gained becomes something for Berry to finesse the roster. Every busted play or mistake becomes a coaching point or schematic tweak for Stefanski. And the entire process that unfolds becomes a lesson for fans who might have believed that one major quarterback addition changes everything. Can that happen? Sure. If it’s a transformational quarterback like Tom Brady or a last-missing-piece like Matthew Stafford. But as Wilson in Denver has shown us, it can also go horribly bad.
The key for Cleveland is to carefully guide the needle toward the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams experience. And the part of those experiences that worked best was having the high-caliber surrounding talent that made a difference.
When completely healthy, Cleveland has some of that talent. More additions can be made this offseason. Not to mention whatever moves are necessary to shore up the run defense and the languishing of the defensive scheme that seems to be an extension of coordinator Joe Woods. But what has to be understood is that Watson isn’t going to answer whether Jadeveon Clowney is a viable defensive piece beyond 2022. Watson isn't going to solve the deficit at defensive tackle. He can’t make the offensive line healthier or add depth where it matters most.
What Watson can do is the only things fans should expect him to do for the final six games of 2022. Play clean and mistake-free. Protect the football from turnovers. Develop a rhythm with Stefanski. Stay healthy and seek out answers about which skill position players fit his game the best. If he can do all of those things, it will be precisely what Cleveland needs from this brief window that is ultimately setting up 2023.
The rest of the equation is on Stefanski and Berry, and whoever the coordinators will be next season to figure out how to shore up or pivot parts of the roster and scheme. As for the fans, there’s really only one brutal assignment that has to continue on until next season.
Finding a silver lining and cultivating patience. It’s a lot to ask of this fan base after all these years, but failing to reach for it now is guaranteeing more pain and frustration that they already know so well.