As Deshaun Watson's hearing looms, Browns' all-in strategy could backfire
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
When the Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson and immediately signed him to a long-term contract in March, acquiring him from the Houston Texans and jostling to the front of the pack of teams seeking his signature, it was an "all-in" move.
On Tuesday, when the NFL begins its disciplinary hearing to address multiple sexual misconduct accusations against Watson, the Browns' acquisition might become even more of an all-in move.
A few months back, any mention of Watson’s name was accompanied then — just as it is now — by a series of sexual misconduct allegations brought forth against the QB by more than two-dozen massage therapists. They're allegations that have kept him off a football field since Jan. 3, 2021.
Even so, for the Browns, there could not have been any holding back if they were going to land their man.
It had to be all-in.
Any hedging and Watson would quite likely have opted for the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers, all of whom were in the final running and seemed like more probable options than the Browns.
Sometimes teams say they’re going all-in, but they’re not really. Not so with Cleveland. The Browns went by the textbook definition. They swung not just for the fences, but to clear the parking lot, too.
They offered Watson a mind-boggling, record-setting pile of cash. Five years, $230 million. No caveats. Every cent guaranteed, creating a new NFL watermark with terms structured to minimize any financial impact on Watson from a potential NFL ban.
All-in required burning bridges on Cleveland’s part, with the franchise torching its relationship with former No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield — a situation that lingers despite Mayfield still being under contract.
All-in meant giving Watson public backing, with Browns general manager Andrew Berry saying the organization felt "very confident in Deshaun, the person." All-in meant going full speed, knowing backlash would follow, aware that to do so would mean alienating at least some part of one of the NFL’s most passionate fan bases.
All-in, in every way. All-in, because the Browns feel they are a very good quarterback away from making a run at a Super Bowl.
However, if circumstances play out the way the NFL hierarchy reportedly feels they should, the Browns’ decision will instantly become something else. Call it "All-in Plus," a double-strength, fully-loaded version of the concept there might be simply no precedent for.
Various reports over the weekend stated the NFL’s preference would be for an indefinite suspension, that would essentially impose a one-year minimum on the ban and allow Watson to seek reinstatement only when a full 12 months have elapsed.
Presumably, the Browns didn’t see a year-long suspension coming, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t think that was a likely outcome now. More plaintiffs have come forward since Watson’s deal was inked, including Monday when one of the women accusing Watson filed a lawsuit against the Texans, alleging negligence.
Tuesday's proceedings will culminate in the first ruling under the auspices of new NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, who was appointed by both the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
If Robinson decides on an indefinite suspension or something that would keep Watson out for a year or more, then Cleveland’s all-in strategy just got upgraded. For it would instantly add an absolute whopper to the laundry list of items the team gave up — the 2022 season.
The Browns, with all kinds of pieces in place and the salary cap structured around "win now," would essentially be left with no choice but to essentially punt on what shaped up a campaign full of possibilities.
Jacoby Brissett would move to the top of the depth chart. Mayfield is still under contract, but there's no looking back there, and reports linking him with a move to the Seattle Seahawks have escalated. A one-year stop gap such as Jimmy Garoppolo would be too expensive, both financially and in terms of trade options.
Regardless of whether a full-year suspension would move Watson’s entire contract back (to begin in 2023), as some reports have claimed, the effect on the Browns would be drastic.
Everything would be a year later on the timeline, with success largely dependent on a signal-caller who will have been out of the game for more than two-and-a-half years.
Watson lost the last five NFL games he played and things had clearly gone downhill by the time he sought to leave Houston. At his best, he is outstanding. Quarterbacks of his age and ability are an extreme rarity.
That fact, of course, is why Cleveland went and got him, despite all the baggage, despite the public relations hit, despite all that money and all those picks.
But he didn’t play especially well in 2020, before sitting out all of 2021. If he misses all of 2022, how long would it reasonably be expected for him to take in getting up to full speed?
That’s a question for the future. Here’s one for now. Is there an outcome where Cleveland’s bold move is deemed a success? Or are we already at the point where it wasn't worth it?