CLEVELAND, Ohio — Kevin Stefanski said Monday he never considered holding Deshaun Watson out of Sunday’s game in Houston because of the potentially volatile nature of the game.
It marks Watson’s first game back from his 11-game suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, and it takes place in the city where most of the accusations of sexual misconduct from more than two dozen massage therapists took place. He’ll face the 1-9-1 Texans, who are gunning for the No. 1 overall pick — the second of the three first round picks they received from the Browns in the blockbuster and controversial trade for Watson.
“I think Deshaun has the support of his teammates, has the support of this organization,” Stefanski said Monday on a video conference. “Really right now, his focus and my focus is on the Houston game and that’s what we have to do as players, as coaches, is put the blinders on. Whatever’s going on the outside really can’t matter to us. We’ve got to focus on doing our job. And I think he definitely understands that.”
The game could feature protests inside and outside the stadium, and the same expletive-laden chants he heard in Jacksonville when he played in the preseason game there Aug. 12th. Whether or not he was rattled by the backlash, Watson went 1-for-5 for 7 yards in his three series en route to a 39.6 rating.
- Sports betting comes to Ohio on Jan. 1, 2023: Your questions answered
“A lot of people will be watching this game,” Texans coach Lovie Smith told Houston reporters Monday. “Hopefully, we have our best effort we’ve had this year.”
Officially reinstated Monday and back on the roster, Watson spent the first five seasons of his career with the Texans, who traded up with the Browns in 2017 to draft him No. 12 overalls. He made the Pro Bowl three times as a Texan, but things went south last season when he asked to be traded, and with allegations of his misconduct piling up.
He sat out all last season — still getting paid his entire $10.5 million base salary — and hasn’t seen the field in the 41-38 loss to the Titans on Jan. 3, 2021 — a span of 700 days.
“It was a little bit different last year,” Smith said. “He was in the building. We didn’t have a lot of interaction. It’s in the past. Now, it’s about a great quarterback coming to town with a history with our franchise.’
It would be understandable if Watson, who returned to practice Nov. 16, is rusty, but Stefanski wouldn’t handicap it.
“I certainly get it but can’t really control that for me and for Deshaun and for all of our players,” he said. “Just gotta keep the focus on doing our job. Think about there’s some guys that don’t play in preseason football and then they get in there week 1, need to get tackled the first time before they feel like they’re ready to go. So I think some of those things may be true, but I don’t want to put anything on Deshaun. I think it’s unfair for me to say at this point, we don’t know.”
Based on what he’s seen in practice the past two weeks, where Watson’s helped run the scout team and took a few reps with the starters, Stefanski is fairly confident that he’ll look like the elite player he is.
“The next step is obviously being out there taking all the first-team reps,” Stefanski said. “He’s been doing a nice job getting the defense ready with the scout-team reps that he’s got. So I think he’s done a nice job with his time away physically staying sharp, mentally staying sharp. So I think he’ll be ready to roll.”
Watson has worked tirelessly during his suspension to be ready for this moment, working daily with his private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery, and staying in his playbook. By the time he got back, he knew the terminology and played like the back of his hand.
“I have confidence in Deshaun based on his preparation and, really, the focus is on just him doing his job,” Stefanski said. “I mean, we’re still gonna be all about the team effort, still offense, defense and special teams. So this is never, ever gonna be about one person. But as it relates to Deshaun, I believe in his preparation, I believe that he worked really hard on a bunch of things to be ready to go.”
The Browns also believe that the preseason game was an aberration. Receiver Anthony Schwartz ran a wrong route on one of the three targets, and dropped two others. The feeling is that Watson will look a lot more like the smooth operator he’s been since his Clemson days who can make every throw and also make plays with his legs. In 2020, the last season he played, Watson led the NFL with 4,823 yards and finished second to Aaron Rodgers with a 112.4 rating. He also threw 33 touchdown passes to only 7 interceptions. The talent-challenged Texans went only 4-12, but Watson made his third straight Pro Bowl.
“Deshaun’s played a lot of football,” Stefanski said. “He’s played in a lot of big games. So I think the tape is out on him, I think everybody has seen his ability to make all the throws. very athletic, can make plays with his feet, but can really hurt you from the pocket as well. So I’d say his versatility is something that you’ve seen over the course of his career.”
Stefanski was careful to give Watson most of the first-team reps throughout the training camp, until he had to vacate the premises when it was over. Watson also took the offensive players to the Bahamas for on-field work and team bonding, accumulating a lot of camaraderie chips.
“I think you can go back to the spring and summer,” Stefanski said. “We spent a lot of time together, Deshaun spent a lot of time together with his teammates. I think we mentioned it at the time, I still believe those were banked reps, so to speak. So it’s something to where Deshaun spent a lot of time with his teammates. I think they’ve all enjoyed having him back and being a part of the team and I think they’re excited for him in this next step.”
Watson’s teammates, who’ve loved working with Jacoby Brissett, can’t help but notice how amazing he’s looked in practice.
“I know he’s ready,” rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. said. “I’m excited for him. He threw a fade on me it was like—I can’t really explain it. It was like an overhead, back shoulder fade that only the receiver could catch. It was like out of bounds and a receiver had thrown both his arms over his shoulder to catch the ball. And I had no chance to make that play. So I’m excited for him to come back. That was a great throw.
He acknowledged that it will be a lift for the whole team.
“I feel like Deshaun is very explosive,” he said. “I feel like we’ll have a lot more explosive plays.”
Watson’s return has the 4-7 team believing it can make a playoff run in the final six games, even though their chances are only 4.8%, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. They’ll likely have to win them all to have a chance, but a ‘why not us’ mentality prevails.
“What Martin’s saying is definitely honest,” said Donovan Peoples-Jones. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen some of the things that he can do and it’s amazing so I’m definitely excited to play with him and excited to continue to keep winning, keep our winning streak up.”
Stefanski acknowledged that he’ll have to develop his own chemistry with Watson as the playcaller, learning what he likes to run and the nuances of his game. Brissett was very vocal about what he liked and didn’t like, and Watson will undoubtedly be the same way. But it could take time.
“You’re right that the relationship is important,” Stefanski said. “To me, it’s also important to the play-caller to the quarterback room. It’s really a group effort in there when you’re talking about all the players, talk about (offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing). It’s a collective effort when it comes to play calling and the offensive staff when you get to game day.
“But that quarterback room is where a lot of things get talked through and evaluated and we end up navigating where we’re going to go with the game, so that’s important. With Deshaun, and again, we spent a lot of time together, so he was here all spring, all summer, been in the back of the building. I met with him this morning. So we’ll continue to do that. That’s what you do during the week. You spend extra time with the quarterback and the quarterback room and we’ll just stick to our process.”
It should help ease the transition tremendously that Brissett and Watson have developed a close bond over the past few months. Watson was 100% on board with Brissett as his backup, and the bonds formed quickly.
“This is a unique situation,” Stefanski said. “With these two guys involved, with these two parties, you have guys who respect each other, who really work hard together. That quarterback room is a team. So I think I’ve seen support from Deshaun and Jacoby over the last five weeks that Deshaun has been back.
“It just becomes now Jacoby supporting Deshaun. And I think Jacoby’s gonna help us win this week. He’s gonna help get Deshaun ready, he’s gonna help get our defense ready, he’s gonna provide leadership to this team and that’s just what he does.”
With Watson running the offense, Stefanski will open up the passing game and dial up more explosive plays in the red zone and end zone. He’ll also call more designed runs and more run-pass options. He talked to some of Watson’s previous coaches in the offseason, and has worked hard to tailor the offense to his strengths.
“‘We’ll see’ is probably the short answer,” Stefanski said of the changes with Brissett. “What we’ll always do is try to maximize the talents of our players so there are things that you will certainly do with Deshaun. There were things that Jacoby was really good at. We just want to always be thinking about your players and doing what they do best. Ultimately, it’s our job to look at our players who we have and what are the things that we want to do to maximize their talents.”
More Browns coverage
Browns send Jacoby Brissett out with a bang in 23-17 overtime victory over Bucs, with Deshaun Watson returning Monday
Gotta love it! Browns win one with Jacoby Brissett. Defense soars! – Terry Pluto
The franchise’s next chapter begins as Browns send Jacoby Brissett off a winner: Dan Labbe
Why Amari Cooper’s third-down overtime catch-and-run was the turning point of the Browns win vs. the Buccaneers
Browns win final game without Deshaun Watson, but what will their identity be with him?: Ashley Bastock
Nick Chubb hits 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth time in his Browns career
Watch David Njoku make possible the Browns’ catch of the year to tie the game vs. the Buccaneers
Browns fans find a skunk in FirstEnergy Stadium during Sunday’s game vs. the Buccaneers
Watch Anthony Schwartz take an end around 31 yards for a touchdown with the help of Jacoby Brissett’s big block
Watch Myles Garrett, Tom Brady and others arrive for the Browns vs. Bucs at FirstEnergy Stadium
Will the Browns sign Donovan Peoples-Jones to a long-term contract extension? Hey Mary Kay!