Deshaun Watson, the former first round pick by the Houston Texans, was once upon a time seen as the future of the quarterback position in Texas. Coming out of a national championship winning Clemson, his play in the first four seasons of his career (2017 to 2020) was incredible. He ended his 2020 season with a league leading 4,823 passing yards and a QB rating that beat the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. He was on fire.
And then, his story changed. Numerous women came forward with allegations of sexual assault, and rightfully so, his career was derailed. The Cleveland Browns made the incredibly unexpected moral decision of bringing in a known sexual predator into the locker room as the starting quarterback, and they didn’t just bring him in for pennies on the dollar. They traded three first round draft picks for Watson and signed him to a 230 million dollar contract, all of which was fully guaranteed. Putting the moral arguments aside, as this is a sports publication, let us talk about the football argument. Let me warn you: the football argument is not very compelling either.
In his 2022 season, the debut year of the Watson era in Cleveland, Watson delivered an abysmal six games to the city that gave up three first round players for him. The league had suspended him for the first 11 games of the season, and in the remaining six, he went 3-3. His performance that season was awful, leading to a 79.1 passer rating and only 1,102 passing yards. If he had maintained that clip over the course of a whole season, it would have led to only a 3,100 yard season; that mark would have only been 15th in the league, hardly worth three first round picks and his contract of $230 million dollars.
In 2023, his first full season since the allegations were released, he has played in only five games (this article was written post Week 10), throwing for 902 yards and a passer rating of 86.7. His numbers are as unexciting as last year was. And beyond the numbers, Watson just doesn’t pass the ‘eye test’ anymore; he looks as if he’s moving slower than everyone on the field. He doesn’t show off his exciting arm talent the way he used to, and he seems to be scared to use his legs, which had formerly been a massive asset to his game.
What caused this dramatic downturn in performance, from one of the league's rising stars to one of the many fallen prospects? The first explanation is that his absence in the 2021 season and his missing half of 2022 certainly led to him being rusty. But football players and quarterbacks, more specifically, have sat out for whole seasons and come back to be dominant in the past. Tom Brady’s 2008 ACL tear didn’t stop him from winning multiple Super Bowls later in his career. Peyton Manning missed the entire 2011 season and followed it up with the best season of his career in 2013, setting records in single-season passing (5,477) and touchdown (55) numbers. So, that excuse isn’t fully viable. The second, and to me, more likely explanation is this: he doesn’t need to play anymore.
What I mean by this is that his future is secure. He got his contract, and more importantly for him, he got it fully guaranteed. Read that again. Fully guaranteed. All 230 million dollars will be paid to Watson. It doesn’t matter how poorly he performs under the lights. He’s getting his bag no matter what. The Cleveland Browns can’t escape that. Watson no longer has a monetary incentive to chase, and because of that, he doesn’t want to play anymore.
The Cleveland Browns dug themselves into a monetary hole with Watson, one they can’t dig out of, and I have no sympathy. An organization that makes the moral decision to pay a man like Watson 230 million dollars is one that deserves their fifth of a billion dollar asset to fail them. So, to all the Browns’ fans this season, good luck handling the burden of watching your quarterback flounder at the bottom of the league while your defense looks like a Super Bowl contender. The Browns are done for as long as Watson is their starter.