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Making Sense of Deshaun Watson’s Return to the Browns

Browns QB Deshaun Watson is about to make his controversial return. Here’s what it means, on and off the field.

The Cleveland Browns officially activated Deshaun Watson to their 53-man roster on Monday, clearing the way for his return against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

When Watson takes the field against his former team, it’ll be exactly 700 days since he last played an NFL game. He served an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, brought about when 25 women accused him of sexual assault and harassment. A 26th woman has since come forward. Watson was also fined $5 million and has had to undergo a mandatory professional program, the details of which are protected by privacy laws.

It all makes football seem trivial, but on the field, he will join a Cleveland team that’s currently three games out of the playoffs with six games left. The playoffs may not feel realistic, but in today’s NFL, anything is possible. The Browns have an extremely talented team with Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and David Njoku as three stellar pass-catchers and arguably the most talented backfield in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Not to mention, they have the seventh-easiest remaining schedule by opponent win percentage (.440).

The Browns traded three first-round picks for Watson in March, then signed him to a five-year deal worth $230 million guaranteed — the richest contract in NFL history. And while Browns’ coach Kevin Stefanski explained how the team is “excited” to see him play, others are anything but.

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The Allegations

As it stands, 26 women have come forward to accuse Watson of sexual misconduct. That number alone makes it difficult to comprehend how he is back and ready to play an NFL game.

Watson agreed to settle 23 of 24 lawsuits that he faced this past summer, and then the plaintiff dropped a 25th. Two other women filed criminal complaints, but didn’t sue him. There has not been any evidence that would jeopardize the credibility of the allegations.

Texas grand juries didn’t pursue criminal charges against Watson, though, and he has denied all allegations, stating how people haven’t been interested in hearing “his side of the story.” Ironically, he’s yet to speak publicly about the matter since being suspended in August.

When Watson makes his 2022 debut, several of the women who sued him for sexual misconduct are planning to attend the game. Attorney Tony Buzbee told the Associated Press that he’s expecting at least 10 women to attend the game between the Texans and the Browns.

The message? “We’re still here and we matter,” per Buzbee.

The Cleveland organization might view it as a distraction, and it is. But it’s one they signed up for when they signed him to that massive contract. The repercussions will last well beyond this week.

It’s All A Business

Throughout this whole situation, the business of The Shield has dictated the action. As the accusations against Watson continue to cast a heavy shadow and leave many questions unanswered, his return to the field brings more than X’s and O’s for the NFL, the QB, and the franchise.

The impact of Watson’s move to Cleveland has proven to be more than just his individual impact on the team and its bottom line. In October, the NFL Players Association sent a formal memo around the league accusing several teams, as well as the NFL itself, of colluding to refrain from offering fully guaranteed contracts to “certain quarterbacks.”

The Browns awarded the last fully guaranteed QB deal to Watson in September. Since then, several star quarterbacks have signed for less than 100% guaranteed at signing, while other extension candidates have been unable to come to terms at all. “It’s like, ‘damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed the whole contract,’” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at the time. “I don’t know that [Watson] should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract.”

A story of this type usually takes the topline, but in Watson’s case it is only the another detail in a troubling series of events. His return will mark a new chapter for the quarterback, but a number of questions remain. And even with his wrongdoings, jerseys and tickets will sell as Watson plays football, and fans become desensitized to the real issue at hand.

  • Jersey Sales: As of July, Watson’s jersey was 21st on the list despite everything that had gone on and despite him not playing in over a year.
  • Ticket Sales: The Browns are 12th in the NFL in attendance by percentage of arena capacity.
  • Betting: Oddsmakers over at FanDuel Sportsbook aren’t buying a late-season comeback. Cleveland is +1000 to make the playoffs.
  • Social Media: The Browns’ Twitter account has 1.5 million followers, the 18th-most among 32 teams.

We’ll see how those numbers change in the coming weeks. We’ll see if the Browns — and the NFL — insist on moving on without looking back.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.