BEREA, Ohio — Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson made a brief appearance in the locker room on Wednesday at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus.
Headphones in, looking at his phone, seemingly unaware of the media scrum 5 feet away that would have loved nothing more than to talk to him, focusing on something else.
Watson, who was reinstated on Monday following an 11-game suspension, did not speak to reporters on Wednesday. The Browns didn’t give a reason for the QB not talking on the day Cleveland typically reserves for the starting quarterback; the day Jacoby Brissett typically spoke during game week.
Watson has not spoken to the press since Aug. 18 following the announcement of his suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy due to the 26 civil lawsuits he faced for alleged sexual misconduct during massage appointments.
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So how Watson feels in the leadup to his first game back — his first game in 700 days after sitting out the entirety of the 2021 season — will remain a mystery for at least one more day. But it’s clear that there’s plenty of anticipation among his teammates as they all prepare to take on Watson’s former team, the Houston Texans, on Sunday.
“We’re all excited,” running back Nick Chubb said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for him to come back. But it’s the same thing. We have to go out there and work. We can’t get too distracted by anything. Keep the main thing the main thing.”
Chubb is one of the players on offense who could stand to benefit most from Watson’s return.
Following Cleveland’s 23-17 win over the Bucs it was guard Wyatt Teller who quipped that if opposing teams try to put eight defenders in the box, “good luck,” given Watson’s own ability with his legs and arm talent.
“It helps everyone just because defenses don’t know what to do,” Chubb said. “Deshaun could throw the ball or run the ball. It makes it harder on them, obviously.”
Watson was officially reinstated on Monday, but he has been in the team’s facility longer than just the last three days. He officially returned to the practice field the week of Nov. 14, and even before then he was back in the building working out and attending meetings, first returning on Oct. 10.
During that practice time with Watson, the defense has already gotten to go against some spectacular plays from the quarterback. Denzel Ward couldn’t pinpoint one specific play that stuck out in his mind, but he seconded what Martin Emerson Jr. said two days ago, that Watson will often place balls where only receivers can get to them.
“Yeah, definitely,” Ward said. “Definitely. Like I said, he’s putting the ball where it needs to be. You got to be in pretty good position to make the ball against him.”
On the Browns, perhaps there is no one who knows Watson as well as one of Cleveland’s newest additions.
The Browns signed center Greg Mancz to their practice squad last week. Mancz was a teammate of Watson’s on the Houston Texans from 2017-20. He also, ironically, was a teammate of Brissett’s last year when the two were with the Miami Dolphins.
While Mancz is still getting the lay of the land in Cleveland, he said there’s no denying what Watson can do on the field, and he also praised Brissett, who’s started for the Browns over the last 11 games, for his handling of a unique situation .
“He’s always just had that, like, it factor,” Mancz said of Watson. “You can’t really put a characteristic or anything like that. Even when he just showed up his rookie year, it was pretty outstanding. Obviously I haven’t played with him in a couple years now, so I’m excited to watch him just like you guys are.
“Jacoby is a true professional. Always has been. And he really helped me both last year when I got traded to Miami and now here. So I can’t speak highly enough of him as a man, and also as someone who helps us out.”
Quarterback Kellen Mond is one of the guys who’s gotten closer with Watson over the last few weeks, even while he was out of the building.
Watson, Mond, Brissett and Joshua Dobbs all had a quarterback group text chain going to help Watson still feel connected to the team. Following the rules of the suspension, they weren’t allowed to discuss the upcoming game or strategy, but the rapport they built will be key for Watson going forward.
The fact that this isn’t just a one-week ramp up in practice for Watson has also helped.
“I think that’s important and I think, especially when you’ve been out as long as he has, to get back as many game reps as you can,” Mond said. “There’s only so much you can do with routes on air and trying to simulate defenses and, even when he’s back, scout team is obviously a big part in him getting reps, but the game is always different and he would probably first-hand to tell you that. I think he’ll shake back quickly and I think he’ll play well.”
When asked if he anticipated Watson to be rusty in his return, coach Kevin Stefanski conceded that it was a fair question with a hard-to-predict answer.
“I know this, he is focusing on his work,” Stefanski said. “Really in any endeavour, you have to focus on your preparation for Sunday. You can’t really worry about Sunday until you worry about Wednesday.”
Stefanski also said he wasn’t putting much stock into Watson’s poor performance during Cleveland’s first preseason game in Jacksonville.
In that game, Watson only played in the first three series, his first game action in 19 months. He completed 1 of 5 attempts for 7 yards and a 39.6 passer rating, in a game in which he was also heavily booed by the preseason Jacksonville crowd.
“I think a lot of that was just getting back in uniform, in the huddle, hearing my voice in the headset and those types of things,” Stefanski said. “That was all about the preparation. No, I don’t put much stock on that.”
The Browns also say they aren’t focused on the potential backlash towards Watson and seem to be confident that their quarterback can block it out, too.
There will certainly be plenty of it on Sunday, as he returns to his former team and the city where most of these sexual misconduct allegations arose.
When the game kicks off on Sunday, Watson will be playing in front of a suite filled with his accusers. Their attorney Tony Buzbee, who filed 25 of the 26 civil suits against Watson told The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler that he invited all 25 to join him in a luxury box and had about 10 who agreed to attend. Buzbee said that Watson’s accusers want him to know “you think you put us behind you, but we are still here.”
“We’re going down there to play a game, so we’ll be locked in, we’ll be in the hotel, we’ll be just going straight to the game,” Mond said. “So, I mean, a lot of the chatter will probably go right over our heads.”
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