Deshaun Watson will enter a regular season practice field on Wednesday. What that means for the Cleveland Browns is very different from September’s unrealized hopes and dreams.
When the 2022 season started, the ceiling for the Browns (3-6) would hand a contending team to Watson in Week 13. But something happened closer to the basement for several reasons.
All that matters now is reality for the franchise. The brutal truth is that Watson’s return from an 11-match suspension is a starting point. It’s an opportunity to field a team around him and then accurately assess what pieces Watson can improve, compared to the positions the front office and coaching staff have to refurbish in the off-season. The fact remains that this no longer looks like a team that can be fixed by simply putting Watson in an NFL regular game for the first time in 23 months. There are too many problems to solve ranging from coaching to talent to injuries.
Adding a patience problem on top of that won’t help anyone. Not Watson. Not head coach Kevin Stefanski. Not general manager Andrew Berry. And certainly not all Browns fans who view the quarterback substitution as some sort of panacea for this unsettling and lethargic start.
Don’t be under any illusions 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, then siphoning a 4-7 team to Watson in Week 13, sets Cleveland on a transformational run past the procedure. That completion flourishes under Watson should assume that the defense could suddenly stop opposing run games or that Watson shows no delay from his dismissal.
Not to mention the simple fact that an offensive 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 real, just look at the Denver Broncos disaster that unfolded between Russell Wilson and play-calling head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Or consider that after three consecutive 13-3 seasons and consecutive MVP honors for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers still complain about how head coach Matt LaFleur calls his offensive plan.
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 creates significant frustration. It’s also self-inflicted, as anyone invested in this situation should understand that some sort of flipped switch moonshot for an otherwise mediocre team is delusional. Everyone is warned now and here. If you’re pulling your hair out after a few uneven performances by Watson and the Browns, some of that is on you. And if you’re apoplectic that Watson couldn’t get six consecutive wins to close out the season, that’s all on you.
There is a decent frame of reference for expectations that can be drawn from recent history. If you want a similar situation in terms of a quality midseason quarterback addition, look to the 2017 San Francisco 49ers. That team acquired Jimmy Garoppolo at the start of Week 9 of the regular season. He would not start his first match until Week 13. Amazingly, he finished the program with five straight wins. But it was a double-edged sword that I talked about with head coach Kyle Shanahan almost 18 months later. For the coaching staff, Garoppolo’s acquisition and debut with the team in 2017 was not the destiny of the franchise. It was just the roadmap and starting point for an eventual Super Bowl performance.
As Shanahan told me in the summer of 2019, “Jimmy’s 5-0 finish [to the 2017 season] was probably a bit misleading when it came to how much work we had to do then and still have to do. He is part of the foundation, but there is still a process of figuring out how to build on top of the foundation. We’re still figuring that out. We feel good about it, but there is work to be done.”
Six months after Shanahan said so, the 49ers and Garoppolo advanced to the Super Bowl. A significant number of adjustments were required to get the selection right. Changes in coaching staff. Changes in the roster. Even schedule changes and how Shanahan called a game with Garoppolo in the saddle.
This Browns roster is way ahead of the 49ers from 2017, but I still think of that San Francisco team when I think about what lies ahead for Watson and the Browns on the football field. Garoppolo and Shanahan had a five game sprint to learn a few 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. Perhaps the result is a little less. But the knowledge gained is the communication, interaction, film and final results that will undergo a full autopsy next offseason.
What can Watson bring to the field in 2022?
Each molecule of data collected becomes something for Berry to refine the selection. Every failed game or mistake becomes a coaching point or schedule adjustment for Stefanski. And the whole process that unfolds becomes a lesson to fans who may have believed that one big quarterback addition changes everything. Can that happen? Secure. Be it a transformational quarterback like Tom Brady or a last missing piece like Matthew Stafford. But as Wilson in Denver showed us, things can also go horribly wrong.
The key for Cleveland is to carefully guide the needle to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams experience. And the part of those experiences that worked best was having the surrounding high caliber talent that made all the difference.
If it’s completely healthy, Cleveland has it some of that talent. This off season more additions can be made. Not to mention the moves required to bolster the running defense and the wasting away of the defensive plan that appears to be an extension of Coordinator Joe Woods. But what needs 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 clear the deficit with a defensive tackle. He can’t make the offensive line healthier or add depth where it matters most.
What Watson can do is all fans can expect from him for the last six games of 2022. Play clean and flawless. Protect football from turnover. Develop a rhythm with Stefanski. Stay sane and look for answers about what skill position players best suit his game. If he can do all those things, it will be just what Cleveland needs in this short window that eventually sets 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 support or rotate parts of the roster and schedule. As far as the fans are concerned, there’s really only one brutal assignment that needs to continue until next season.
Finding a silver lining and cultivating patience. It’s a lot to ask of this fanbase after all these years, but not grabbing it now will guarantee more pain and frustration that they already know so well.