Deshaun Watson goes from great comeback to latest setback, vows to keep ‘head above water’

BEREA, Ohio — For 13 seconds, Deshaun Watson stood silent with his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth and side to side. The question posed to him Wednesday was about his emotional state after the last 48 hours and Watson needed a moment to compose himself before answering.

Watson is out for the rest of the season with a broken bone in his shoulder that requires surgery. He has fought through shoulder problems most of the season, so when he felt discomfort in the first half Sunday at Baltimore, he tried to ignore it and play on. He went 14 of 14 in the second half of a remarkable comeback against the Ravens, a game the Browns won on a field goal as time expired after Watson led them back from a two-touchdown deficit.

Given what we know now, Watson’s performance in the second half Sunday was extraordinary. Not only did he play with a broken shoulder, he thrived. It was his finest hour against a bitter division rival amid two turbulent seasons in Cleveland.

That’s where all of this gets complicated.



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There is perhaps no more polarizing of a sports figure today than the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. His critics won’t feel sorry for him over this latest injury, not after the 24 civil suits regarding massages that were once brought against him alleging sexual misconduct while he was with the Houston Texans.

His supporters, mainly Browns fans, point to two grand juries that refused to indict him over the allegations. Watson settled nearly all of the suits and has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. The allegations, meanwhile, continue to make him an easy target even for his peers. At least one former NFL quarterback, Brady Quinn, made massage jokes at his expense on social media just a few weeks ago.

For three years, Watson has been a punchline while spending more time off the field than on it. The Browns’ clumsy messaging over his initial rotator cuff injury in September led to confusion over the severity of the injury and Watson was again the target of vitriolic attacks over whether he was really hurt or just cashing checks. Watson’s stories of playing through injury were once legendary. Now his every motive is scrutinized.

It’s impossible to discuss his emotional state without questioning how much of it is self-inflicted. Nevertheless, it’s more than fair to acknowledge how difficult all of this must have been on him, too.

The Browns and Watson were always sort of a perfect match. Both were under duress and in serious need of image rehab when they formed an unlikely union last year. The Browns have been a wreck for decades and were so desperate to find a franchise quarterback they were willing to trade three first-round picks, guarantee Watson $230 million and invite all the baggage into their home that comes with taking him on.

Watson, conversely, needed a fresh start after the scandals in Houston. He chose the one historically dysfunctional franchise most desperate to love him.

Despite the injuries this year, the Browns are 6-3 and in the thick of the wild-card race. Beat Pittsburgh at home on Sunday and they are in position to win the division for the first time since 1989. With a dominant defense and Watson finally starting to resemble the quarterback the Browns thought they were getting, this franchise appeared to be hitting its full sprint speed at the perfect time. Now this.



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The Browns could have far bigger problems than just a wrecked postseason run this year. Watson’s terrific 2020 season, when he led the NFL in passing yards and mesmerized this team into taking this gamble, is fading farther and farther into history.

He has appeared in 12 games over the last three years and has accounted for just 16 touchdowns since the start of the 2021 season. Forty-one NFL quarterbacks have more, including C.J. Stroud, Houston’s new franchise quarterback. Stroud has more passing yards and touchdowns in nine games as a rookie than Watson has produced since the start of 2021. He will only plunge deeper and deeper down all of those lists before he’s able to take the field again next year.

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Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is helped up by running back Jerome Ford (34) after being tackled during the second half against the Ravens. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

What type of quarterback Watson will be when he returns is anyone’s guess. He has a displaced fracture to the glenoid bone in his shoulder, an injury so uncommon among quarterbacks that Watson has yet to find another one who suffered it and came back.

“It’s very tough,” Watson said Wednesday after he finally gathered his thoughts. “I’m going to make sure I keep my head above water.”

The storms have been rising around him for years. Same with the Browns. One thing is certain: Regardless of how he plays when he returns, Watson will collect every penny of his fully guaranteed $230 million contract. His cap hit next year is $64 million, the highest in NFL history. Lake Erie’s frigid winter waters are thrashing again in Cleveland.

(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

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