Browns quarterback controversy overshadows team’s mediocre preseason efforts


Courtesy of Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Brown’s suspended quarterback Deshaun Watson, whose absence—due to the more than 20 sexual assualt allegations raised against him—may be to blame for their mixed preseason record.

Gaurav Hardikar, Staff Writer

The Cleveland Browns, while embroiled in one of the most high-profile NFL scandals in recent memory, are preparing for a season of uncertainty following an uneven preseason. 

With new starting quarterback Deshaun Watson suspended for the first 11 games of the year, the preseason battles against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears showcased the Browns’ weaknesses with their new star mostly on the sidelines.

Following an accomplished college career at Clemson University, Watson was selected in the first round of the 2017 draft by the Houston Texans. He spent his first four seasons in Houston, earning three Pro Bowl selections and charming countless fans with his flashy play and clutch deliveries. 

By 2021, his fifth season, Watson expressed discontent towards the Texans organization following early playoff exits and questionable trades. Watson demanded to be traded, putting the Texans in a bind. Then came the allegations.

To date, Watson is accused of sexually assaulting and harrassing over 20 women. The allegations tanked Watson’s trade value, leading many to speculate that the Texans covered up the allegations to force their star to cooperate and remain with the team. When he wanted out, it seemed as if the organization sought retribution.

This past March, the quarterback had all criminal charges dismissed, as there was insufficient evidence to convince the jury of Watson’s guilt. However, the vast number of allegations and the 22 ensuing civil settlements told a different story in the court of public opinion. A week later, the Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson, surrendering six draft picks to the Texans in a highly controversial move. To add fuel to the fire, the Browns signed Watson to a five-year fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million, the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history.

Yet Watson was still not in the clear. The NFL vowed to punish the former Texans quarterback for alleged conduct detrimental to the league’s reputation. A judge appointed by the NFL determined that Watson should be suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season. Unsatisfied with the brevity of the suspension, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appealed the ruling and came to an agreement with the league’s players association to suspend Watson for the first 11 games and fine him a record $5 million.

The lengthened punishment might have seemed righteous at first, yet fans were quick to realize that this was all an attempt by the league to save face while avoiding any serious punishment. Watson will now make his debut for the Browns this year against none other than the Houston Texans. To add on, the Texans avoided any sort of penalty for covering up the accusations, despite Watson’s extended suspension indicating the NFL’s stance on the issue. 

Fans also blasted the league for the comparatively small suspension considering the magnitude of the misconduct. Calvin Ridley, a rising star on the Atlanta Falcons, was recently suspended for a full 17-game season for placing bets on his own team. Josh Gordon, a talented wide receiver whose career has been riddled with suspensions, has missed 76 games primarily for repeatedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

While Watson has not been found guilty by law enforcement, Goodell has clearly stated that he believes the accusations to be true. Fans have since accused the league of trivializing such a prevalent issue, as Watson’s 11-game punishment comes off as tone-deaf in comparison to the Ridley and Gordon suspensions.

The Browns took quite a toll throughout the whole ordeal. Despite finally ending a decades-long search for a quarterback by landing one of the best ones in the league, the Cleveland players and fan bases are divided over the controversy. The franchise has also agreed to donate $1 million to organizations that combat sexual assault. Furthermore, Watson now won’t be able to play for the Browns for more than half the season while the team plays in one of the league’s most competitive divisions. To top it all off, the Browns’ previous starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, requested a trade after feeling disrespected by the organization. Despite Mayfield helping the Browns win their first playoff game in over 20 years, the team clearly believed that Watson was the better option.

With Watson forfeiting his pay for each of the 11 games and Mayfield getting traded to the Carolina Panthers, the Browns have more money to spend on an interim quarterback to steer the ship. But this silver lining still isn’t much to look at, as the Browns missed out on trading for plenty of viable options that comprised this past offseason’s quarterback carousel. 

The Washington Commanders acquired Carson Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts, who grabbed former MVP Matt Ryan from the Falcons. The Falcons in turn picked up former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota from the Las Vegas Raiders. Most notably, the Browns could have pursued Russell Wilson, the virtuous future Hall-of-Famer and Super Bowl champion who was sent to the Denver Broncos from the Seattle Seahawks just two days before Cleveland made the move for Watson.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has Super Bowl experience but was on the trading block while the reins went to the young replacement Trey Lance, seemed like the Browns’ only hope. However, the 49ers recently restructured Garoppolo’s contract to retain him and give him another shot in free agency next year. It now feels as though the Browns must struggle through the first 11 games with a backup quarterback.

Despite the noise, the Browns triumphed over the Jaguars in the preseason opener. Watson only played in the first quarter, completing just 1 pass in 5 attempts before being replaced by backup Joshua Dobbs, who immediately led the Browns to their first touchdown of the game. Rookie running back Jerome Ford stole the show for Cleveland, tallying 57 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown on 10 carries to add on to 45 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown on 4 receptions. Rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. also impressed fans, intercepting a Jaguars pass and taking it back 74 yards for a touchdown.

Following the 24-13 victory in Jacksonville, the Browns returned home for a game against the Eagles. While Dobbs continued to lead the charge at quarterback and even picked up a rushing touchdown, it seemed like Philadelphia had an answer for every Browns score. The Eagles eventually won 21-20 off a 55-yard third-quarter touchdown pass and held the Browns scoreless afterwards.

The Browns went on to suffer an identical loss at home against the Bears in the preseason finale. Jacoby Brissett, the likely regular-season starting quarterback through Watson’s suspension, floundered against the Chicago defense, completing less than 60% of his throws while throwing an interception and no touchdowns. Yet fans nearly witnessed an impressive Cleveland comeback thanks to the backup quarterbacks. 

After the Bears outscored the Browns 21-6 in the first half, their offense stalled completely. The Cleveland defense woke up to give their offense a chance. Dobbs took the second possession of the half into the fourth quarter and delivered a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Miller Forristall. Dobbs subsequently sprinted into the end zone for a 2-point conversion to put the Browns within one score of a tie. The Browns defense continued to frustrate the Bears, as the visitors punted, fumbled and missed a field goal before Josh Rosen took over at quarterback for Cleveland. Rosen, a former first-round pick, was signed when it became evident that Watson would be suspended. Rosen delivered with a 1-yard rushing touchdown to trim the Bears lead down to 1 point. 

Instead of going for the tie, however, the Browns opted for a potential game-winner and attempted another 2-point conversion. Unfortunately, Rosen’s pass fell incomplete, giving the Bears the chance to run out the clock and seal the win.

Despite the subpar August record, Browns fans shouldn’t lose hope over preseason woes, as starters rarely play in preseason games to avoid injury. Preseason games usually only showcase backups that can be developed into starter material in the future. With a capable starting roster and Deshaun Watson set to return this year, the Browns’ immediate focus should be preparing Brissett, who most notably started two games as a rookie for the eventual champion New England Patriots before playing well for the Colts. If Brissett can hold down the fort and Watson can thrive under the pressure on and off the field, the Browns may be in shape for Super Bowl contention this year.

The Browns open their season on Sept. 11 in dramatic fashion: a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to play a vengeful Baker Mayfield, who will look to settle the score by leading the Panthers to a victory in his Carolina debut.