IMAGINE IF DESHAUN WATSON, ALREADY A PARIAH, IS A $230 MILLION BUST
Amid the league’s desperation to land elite quarterbacks, the Browns face this horror: What if he never plays well for the NFL's richest-ever guaranteed contract after trading six draft picks for him?
The scene was as grotesque as expected. A man who could be behind prison bars, if only one of 29 women accusing him of sexual assault or harassment is telling the truth, resumed his football career Sunday in the city where many of the alleged crimes occurred.
Deshaun Watson was on Second Chance Island, where so many prominent sports figures land in a society of twisted double-standards. Except his act of redemption, facilitated by the pathetic Cleveland Browns, is accompanied by the richest guaranteed contract in NFL history. Pause and think about this: Owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam were so desperate to win, they traded three first-round picks and three others to the Houston Texans and committed a cold, clammy fortune — TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS FOR FIVE YEARS — to an accused sexual predator.
He can’t just show up and be a bystander, as he was in his Browns debut. His weak performance was bailed out by three touchdowns from the defense and special teams, and, truth be told, Watson looked like a backup compared to the player he displaced, Jacoby Brissett, who ranked seventh in the league in passer rating. Taking advantage of the feeble, one-win Texans, the Browns stayed on the fringes of the AFC wild-card race with a 27-14 victory. Watson was booed relentlessly in NRG Stadium, home field of the team that enabled his would-be “massage” sessions with female therapists at a local hotel, yet he thought his first game experience in exactly 700 days went well. He noted that he signed a few autographs and posed for selfies. He also continued to reject questions about his legal cases.
“At this time, I can't address any of that stuff," Watson said when asked if he’ll discuss the situation at some point. "Who knows what the future holds? Right now, I'm so locked in on being the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.”
Any remorse? “That's something that, legal and clinical, we've answered before. And they don't want me to address anything like that,” Watson said. “Of course, it was a tough situation. The suspension was tough. But at the same time, my main focus is just trying to be 1-0 as a football player today. I was just excited to be back on the field. I did everything that I was asked and was required to do. I did all that. And I was able to play and be on the field.”
His unspeakable litmus test is just beginning. Whether he grasps the expectations or not, Watson must lead the Browns to unprecedented heights in a lowly organizational existence that has yet to involve a Super Bowl or anything remotely close. He must be an elite quarterback who contends for championships the next four seasons, when his annual salary increases to $46 million, or $2.7 million a game. The chances he’ll meet those demands? Quite unlikely, especially when he has missed a chunk of his prime amid a revolution in the sport, with defenses scheming to control two-way threats and reducing scoring to recent lows.
And even if Watson does rise to those challenges, would the team’s deal with the devil be worth it? Most reasonable people would say no, that a moral failure never can be overcome by on-field success. But billionaire owners like the Haslams aren’t reasonable people.
They are delusional, with nothing better to do in life than win a bidding war for a pariah and hope he leads the Browns to the playoffs once or twice. Their desperation has led to recklessness, in a league where quarterbacks are by far the most precious commodities, but where the science to identify the best ones is inexact.
Why was the draft trove all but emptied for Watson? Look around. How many teams can look forward and say they have lock-solid QB outlooks? Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes. Buffalo has Josh Allen. Cincinnati has Joe Burrow. Philadelphia has Jalen Hurts. The Los Angeles Chargers have Justin Herbert. Dallas has Dak Prescott. Baltimore might have Lamar Jackson. And that’s all, folks — notice how Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers aren’t listed. Also notice that Watson isn’t the only one who was grossly overpaid — Russell Wilson is an all-time bust in Denver after the Broncos relinquished five picks, including two first-rounders and two second-rounders, and three serviceable players in a massive trade, then gave him $245 million with $165 guaranteed. Kyler Murray signed for $230 million in Arizona, with $160 million guaranteed, and, like Wilson, has disappointed. Rodgers leveraged Green Bay for a $150 million extension, completely guaranteed, and he and the Packers crashed together this season.
See a pattern? A team might be better off gambling at the discount store for Taylor Heinicke, who has turned the Daniel Snyder scandal into a possible playoff berth in Washington. Who replaced Wilson in Seattle? Geno Smith, who might take the Seahawks to the postseason. And the teams that rely on the upper reaches of the draft? The Jets benched Zach Wilson and are better with unheralded Mike White. The 49ers lost Trey Lance to ankle surgery and turned to Jimmy Garoppolo, whose broken foot might cost them a Super Bowl run. The Patriots are dropping hints they’ll sign Brady, who will be 46 next season, as Mac Jones stumbles. Justin Fields is an Olympic-caliber sprinter in Chicago, a town that doesn’t know what quality quarterbacking looks like, but he’s capable of killing the Bears with an erratic arm.
So, whither Watson? He’ll face more fan discontent far beyond Houston, where 10 of his accusers watched from stadium suites Sunday with attorney Tony Buzbee, just to haunt him. Next week in Cincinnati, against an in-state rival, will be especially brutal. He doesn’t play in Cleveland until Dec. 18, and, knowing most sports fans as socially ignorant birds, they’ll decide how to greet Watson based on how the 5-7 Browns are faring then. He’ll have to perform much better than his first outing — 12 of 22, 131 yards, an interception in the end zone. “Obviously you're missing a bunch of time. So you've got to get back in it,” said coach Kevin Stefanski, on behalf of the Haslams. “You've got to get this first one out of the way. But I know what the kid is capable of.”
As for the Houston reception, the “kid” — who is 27 — continues to be in denial. “They're supposed to boo," Watson said. “I’m a Cleveland Brown now, and we're on the road, so they're supposed to boo.”
This was a bad day for the league. The commissioner, Roger Goodell, never has had a consistent handle on how to adjudicate conduct cases. In turning to an independent hearing officer who suspended Watson for only six games, a ban eventually increased to 11 games with a $5 million fine, Goodell was roundly excoriated here and elsewhere. Now we have evidence that his hand was forced by the NFL Players Association. In a story posted Sunday, as Watson was taking the field, Sports Illustrated reported the contents of a 13-page letter, sent by the NFLPA to the league, that detailed the union’s strategy if Goodell suspended Watson indefinitely as originally threatened.
The union would publicly accuse Goodell of hypocrisy in “whitewashing” the sexual misconduct of four NFL owners — Snyder, Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson (who since has sold the Carolina Panthers). All are White, of course, and so is retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended only four games by the league after being accused of rape by two women in 2010. Watson, like Roethlisberger, was not charged criminally. So why would Watson, who is Black, be banned indefinitely when Roethlisberger, who is White, only missed four games?
Soon after, Goodell settled with the union on the 11-game suspension. He did so because, in the final wash, the commissioner works for the owners and does favors for them when necessary. Jimmy and Dee Haslam were grateful.
The time may come when they’re hateful — of what they’ve done. One game in, the Deshaun Watson arrow is pointing south, toward hell.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.