BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson's first two seasons with the Browns have been short, underwhelming and incomplete.
While expectations haven't been met, they haven't changed.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Sunday he's still confident Watson will bounce back from a shoulder injury that limited him this season and become the elite quarterback Cleveland mortgaged its future to get.
“We all know what he’s capable of and we’re excited about the future,” Stefanski said a day after the Browns’ injury-riddled season ended with a 45-14 drubbing against the Houston Texans in the wild-card round.
Watson made just six starts this season before undergoing shoulder surgery in November.
Although the 28-year-old QB hasn't consistently played at an elite level — and in just 12 of 34 possible games in two seasons — since joining the Browns, Stefanski feels Watson's best is yet to come.
“I mean, 4-1 as a starter, some really great moments, that second half vs. Baltimore is something that I don’t know how many people on Earth can do what he did with the injuries that he had in that second half,” Stefanski said, referring to Watson's comeback win on Nov. 12 against the Ravens. “Very excited for him. He’s excited. I know he wants to get back healthy, and he is well on his way to doing that.”
On Saturday, Watson watched from the sideline in Houston as Texans rookie QB C.J. Stroud threw three touchdowns in the first half against Cleveland's top-ranked defense.
Watson has spent much of the past two months rehabbing his shoulder, which he injured while leading the Browns to a stunning road win against the Ravens in Week 10. Watson fractured the glenoid bone in his right (throwing) shoulder in the first half, but stayed in and completed all 14 passes after halftime.
Stefanski said Watson has made progress and anticipates him being ready for minicamp.
“I’m confident he’ll be ready to roll this spring,” Stefanski said. "He’s champing at the bit, but he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do when it comes to what the doctors are telling him as he rehabs through this, but he’ll be ready to roll.”
Watson didn't speak with media members after he and teammates cleaned out their lockers. Watson left with a bag slung over his shoulder and carrying one of the white throwback helmets the Browns wore in '23.
As he heads into the offseason, there remain questions about Watson's future. Stefanski, though, said he saw enough — highlighted by the QB's comeback against the top-seeded Ravens — to feel positive about what's next.
“He was disappointed that he wasn’t able to play more,” Stefanski said. ”But to lead his team, to play winning football in those games and to play the style that he played and then willing his team to victory there in that second half.
"And then just different moments throughout this season, making plays that are hard to coach. So I’m excited about him getting healthy and we’re excited about getting him back here.”
The Browns traded three-first round draft picks in March 2022 to the Texans for Watson, and then signed him to a record $230 million fully guaranteed contact.
Cleveland was hit hard by injuries all season — especially at quarterback.
After Watson went down, the Browns signed free agent Joe Flacco. The 38-year-old Super Bowl 47 MVP had a storybook run over the final month, going 4-1 in five starts and leading the NFL in yards passing and touchdowns in that span while carrying the Browns into the playoffs.
However, Flacco's feel-good comeback came to an abrupt ending Saturday as he threw a pair of pick-6s in the third quarter, sending the Browns (11-7) to their most lopsided playoff road loss since 1968.
Flacco, who turns 39 on Tuesday, is back on the street but Stefanski would not say if he'll push Cleveland's front office to bring him back.
"Joe was awesome for this football team,” Stefanski said. ”He did a great job, battled like crazy. I know he enjoyed it. We obviously wish the outcome was different, but have a ton of respect for Joe and what he was able to.”'
Flacco had a major impact in his short time with the Browns, and several players said they would like to see him back with Watson.
“I hope so," running back Kareem Hunt said. “Flacco’s a great quarterback and a great leader and I feel like Deshaun. He also could probably learn some stuff from him from his years playing. So I’m excited. If they can be teammates, that’d be really great.”
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