Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The Cleveland Browns found a way to win against the Indianapolis Colts. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, and they may have had a hand (or two) from the refs…but nevertheless, the Browns head into Week Eight feeling pretty good about themselves. Their defense is outstanding, their run game continues to churn even though their running backs continue to drop like flies, and their seemingly endless quarterback conundrum is finally fixed…oh yeah right, you’re not falling for that one!
The truth is, despite their roster looking playoff-ready, their QB Deshaun Watson has looked replaceable at best and downright incompetent at worst. Before exiting the Colts game with a concussion, Watson had only completed 1 of his 5 pass attempts, throwing one interception and very nearly throwing another on the play he was knocked out of the game. Former third-string QB P.J. Walker, who stepped in last week against the San Francisco 49ers and pulled off the miraculous upset, was pressed into action on Sunday and helped lead the Browns to another unlikely victory.
So now, the Browns sit at 4 - 2, tied for 2nd in the AFC North and off to their best start since 2020 when the Browns last reached the playoffs. And yet, the QB situation looks borderline disastrous – and could threaten to unravel their entire season.
Make no mistake: it’s been a miserable year for Watson – and that’s even with the Browns defense putting up literally historic numbers. Myles Garrett has officially become NASA's greatest evidence for other intelligent life in the universe, and used his alien abilities to generate two sack/fumbles (one was recovered for a touchdown) and a blocked field goal where he literally leapt over the offensive line like a bear-sized lemur. Through six weeks, the Browns defense had allowed an astonishing 1,002 yards…total. It’s the fewest yards allowed by a defense in that span in over 50 years.
The Browns hired Jim Schwartz to be their defensive coordinator after parting-ways with the often-maligned Joe Woods, and it’s been a perfect fit. Schwartz is known for his Wide 9 scheme, a defensive alignment that favors extremely athletic defensive ends, and Garrett is a massive beneficiary, along with his new running mate Za’Darius Smith. The Browns also added some pieces in the interior to help against the run, and combined with their excellent secondary featuring some truly sticky cover corners, and you have a defense that can win against any offense, and in any circumstance.
You’d think things would be peachy in Cleveland. They’re not. I saw Tom Brady’s name floated out as a potential 2023 replacement. Newsflash, Brownies: Tommy’s not coming back, and he’s certainly not coming back to play for the Browns, of all teams. But the fact that Brady is mentioned at all is a sign of how desperate Browns fans are becoming.
It’s hard to blame them. Watson, as mentioned previously, has been miserable. In 10 games since returning from his suspension, Watson has a 59.6% completion percentage, 11 TDs to 8 INTs, and averages under 200 yards passing a game. For reference, even Mitchell Trubisky managed to throw for more than 200 yards per game last year for the offensively-challenged Pittsburgh Steelers. He even completed 65.0% of his passes – and he did it all for a cool $6 million! Watson’s price tag for 2023? $46 million.
It appears the Browns decision to trade the farm for Watson is moving full steam toward “worst trade of all-time” status. Even though he’s in one of the best situations of any QB in the NFL, Watson still can’t get it done. That or he’s hurt, or he’s been “medically cleared” but still doesn’t want to play. Maybe my viewpoint is too colored by Joe Burrow, but I struggled to find the line between “healthy” and “medically cleared” because for Joe Cool, those are one in the same. For Watson, that’s apparently not the case.
The Browns' options are limited. P.J. Walker has now led them to two-straight wins, but he’s not a solution. Incredibly, even though he has a 5 - 3 record as a starter in the NFL, Walker’s career stats make Watson look like an answer. That 5 - 3 record is the most fraudulent in history and is the single strongest case I’ve ever seen against counting wins as a “QB stat.”
Do they turn to fifth-round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson? They already tried that once and he responded with three INTs against Baltimore. The free agent pickings are slim too. Does Carson Wentz get you going, Browns fans? How about a Colt McCoy reunion? Wait, I’ve got it – Matt Ryan!
The truth is the Browns best chance is to continue to hope that Watson figures it out, but that’s looking more and more unlikely by the day. Watson may have been one of the premier QBs in the NFL back in 2020, but that was three years ago. NFL defenses have come a long way since then. The league hadn’t caught up to the explosive, downfield passing of players like Watson and Patrick Mahomes yet. Now, with basically every defense in the NFL employing a two-high safety shell to prevent those plays, Watson has to turn to the dink-and-dunk game – and he’s clearly not adept.
It’s an incredible downfall. After the 2020 season, there might have been two QBs you’d pick to start a franchise with ahead of Watson: Mahomes and Josh Allen. Today, there are few QBs you’d want to start a franchise with less. And incredibly, his downfall was as predictable as it is remarkable.
Some might be shocked that a once-excellent player has had such a dramatic demise, but logically, it makes perfect sense. However you feel about him (and I, for one, tend to believe he’s a scumbag), Watson went through an extremely public – and personally traumatic – life event. This is a man who probably went his entire life without overthinking anything – now, he probably can’t make a single decision without overthinking. And even though the Browns made him the richest player in the NFL for a time, even though he’s protected by an outstanding offensive line and running game, and even though the entire Browns organization is dedicated to deflecting blame away from him, Watson is still struggling. Success is never guaranteed – and Watson is football’s clearest example.