Deshaun Watson’s elite talent and Pro Bowl resume may lead the Browns to believe they are destined for a run late this year after the quarterback’s suspension expires.
And sometimes procrastination doesn’t cost NFL teams a trip to the playoffs because they can warm up after Thanksgiving and clinch a postseason berth despite a less-than-stellar start.
However, “Football Night in America” analyst and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy doesn’t envision the Browns’ upcoming season unfolding within those parameters.
“Deshaun Watson is not going to be the savior that brings together a poor team or a dysfunctional team,” Dungy said Thursday during a “Football Night in America” conference call hosted by NBC Sports. “They’re not just going to say, ‘Oh, all of a sudden Deshaun’s back, and we’re going to start winning.'” What do they do these first three months of the season?
“What kind of ball will Cleveland play? What is the rest of the team doing? Jacoby Brissett is a good quarterback, and if they can rally around him and be relevant [when Watson returns from his suspension]then they will be fine.”
But treading water without Watson might not be good enough, especially in the stacked AFC.
Deshaun Watson’s suspension is ongoing and is scheduled to keep him out until December
Watson is suspended for the first 11 games of the regular season because of violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy and a settlement agreed to Aug. 18 by the league and the NFL Players Association. The punishment comes from 26 women who have accused Watson through the court system of sexual harassment or assault, allegations the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has denied. Two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson in March on a combined 10 criminal charges. Twenty-four of Watson’s accusers sued him, with all but one settling.
Watson’s suspension began Tuesday. In his absence, the Browns will start Brissett at the sport’s most important position, starting Sept. 11 with the season opener on the road against the Carolina Panthers and former Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield.
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Watson, 26, is not allowed in Browns headquarters in Veria until Oct. 10. He won’t be allowed to practice with the team again until Nov. 14. And to get back on time, he must fulfill the terms of the settlement. These conditions require that he comply with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, which includes counseling.
As long as Watson checks those boxes, he could make his regular-season debut with the Browns on Dec. 4 on the road against the Houston Texans, who drafted him 12th overall out of Clemson University in 2017 and traded him to Cleveland in March. 18. Watson waived his no-trade clause to join the Browns after being offered a record five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
Watson declined to play for the Texans last season amid a trade request, so his layoff is scheduled for the final 28 games (17 last season and 11 in 2022). He last played in a real game on January 3, 2021, so if he returns on December 4, it will have been 700 days since his last regular season appearance. In other words, his break will have lasted one year, 11 months and one day.
“There’s definitely going to be obstacles,” Dungy said, “especially when you haven’t played in two years.”
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Rust can be a real factor in sports. When Watson played on August 12 in the preseason opener, he completed 1 of 5 passes for 7 yards with a 39.6 rating. He was also met with boos and boos from the crowd at TIAA Bank Field.
The experience provided a glimpse of what to expect when he returns, especially with four of the Browns’ final six regular-season games on the road. They will travel to Houston and Cincinnati, then host Baltimore and New Orleans before visiting Washington and Pittsburgh.
“[Cleveland’s] The roster is talented. It’s a lot of things you like,” he said Chris Sims, “Football Night in America” analyst and former NFL quarterback. “It starts with that offensive line [and] incredible two-headed monster running back [Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt]. The defense was top five in football last year. They have arguably the best passer in football [Myles Garrett]. If they run the ball, make some plays on defense, it can be a pain in the butt.”
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Simms said he questions whether the Browns should absolutely turn to Watson in December, even if Brissett has led them to an astounding number of wins — nine being the number Simms used for the sake of discussion.
“I mean, I’m not crazy, but I’m kind of crazy — I’d say, ‘Maybe let’s not upset the applecart there and just ride it out for this year,'” Simms said. “But if they feel in any way, shape, or form, ” Well, it’s not this year, we’re a .500 ball club [and] we’re not doing well,” Deshaun Watson needs to play again.
“He has to go out there and play football and face the booing crowd, because the crowd will be there in 2023, so you might as well take the training wheels off that experience. But I’ll be interested to see what this Browns team looks like before he comes back.”
Jason Garrett has a clear idea of what the Browns should look like.
“If you think about the DNA of this team, when it’s at its best since then [coach] Kevin Stefanski has taken over, it’s about their offensive line and their running game,” said Garrett, a “Football Night in America” analyst and former Dallas Cowboys coach. “So if they can prove that with Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback, that will take the burden off him.
“He’s played football, but he hasn’t played a ton of football. You don’t want him to have to carry the whole load. If they can get back to playing that natural style of ball, with the running backs, making their big plays in the play-action game, in the motion game, if they can do that early in the season, it’s going to be fine for Deshaun when he returns. But that’s a big question. We’ll see if they can do it.”
If the Browns can’t do that, making the playoffs with the quarterback they surrendered six draft picks and an unprecedented amount of guaranteed money for could be a far-fetched scenario at least through the 2023 season.
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
This article originally appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal: Tony Dungy: Browns can’t rely on Deshaun Watson to salvage poor season