On Tuesday, Deshaun Watson will appear before NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, a former federal judge, to sort out a league response, if any, to over two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct involving massage therapists Watson hired.
The Wall Street Journal on Saturday reported that the NFL is seeking an “indefinite suspension” that would sit Watson for “no shorter than one year.” Numerous other media outlets have confirmed that thinking, a sign that the league wants it publicly known how seriously it wants to punish Watson.
That is either to soften the shock of an eventual heavy penalty or to claim a moral high ground even if it runs shorter.
Robinson was jointly appointed by both the NFL and the NFLPA, and the union will defend Watson and likely appeal any decision, while Watson himself will have ample legal representation.
Yet the history of league discipline and a system where final determination for any penalty remains with either commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee suggests that whatever the NFL wants here, the NFL is going to get.
In other words, don’t expect to see Watson play for Cleveland in 2022.
While a full-season ban once seemed unlikely in this case, a spring full of accusers continuing to come forward has extended this into an ugly public relations situation for the NFL.
Where conventional wisdom once hovered on Watson missing six or maybe even eight games of the upcoming season, the Browns suddenly need to brace for the idea that this might extend all the way into 2023.
It would likely take dropping truth serum into the water supply at Browns headquarters to get them to admit this was not something they planned for, but the reality is the player and the team are facing — in pure football terms — an unexpected punishment.
Cleveland traded three first-round selections, a future third and two fourths to Houston to acquire Watson and a 2024 sixth-round selection. It then committed a fully guaranteed $230 million to Watson over five years, upending the league’s salary structure by ensuring the terms of the contract whether Watson played or not … a la the NBA or MLB.
The deal is even structured so Watson’s base salary for 2022 is just $1 million, meaning any missed game checks due to suspension would be minimal. His nearly $44 million bonus is already paid and untouchable. That kind of obvious subversion of justice is unlikely to play well with the NFL.
The Browns sold their future — and a sliding scale of goodwill with some fans — for the chance to land a quarterback who was considered one of the best in the league prior to the flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits. (Watson has since settled 20 of 24 of them.)
Now the terms of the deal may get truncated by the league. Five seasons at $230 million could be three and a half seasons at $230 million, or something like that.
That includes 2022, when the Browns have a loaded roster that looks capable of competing for a long-awaited Super Bowl … if it just had a great quarterback.
Instead, having all but severed its relationship with Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall pick and four-year starter, the Browns may go into a once-promising campaign with journeymen Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs.
If the Browns couldn’t win last year with Mayfield, who is still on the roster but expected to be dealt unless Cleveland can (or even wants to) grovel and bring him back, then how is this going to go?
Cleveland owners Jimmy and Dee Haslem sounded joyous and confident when they announced the trade and signing of Watson earlier this spring. General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski talked about their trust in Watson “the person” and went on about the endless investigative work the team did on the cases.
Do those feelings remain?
It’s one thing to think you might lose Watson for a stretch of early games this season. Everyone expected that. However, an indefinite suspension — especially with four unsettled civil suits out there — or a ruling that might hold Watson out significantly in 2023 changes the dynamics.
Watson, who turns 27 in September, hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL since the 2020 season. The longer he sits, the longer, presumably, he will take to shake some of the rust off.
Watson was a tremendous player, but it would be an extreme challenge to have to jump into action four, six, even eight games into the 2023 season and expect no drop-off in play. Can he really go zero-to-Super Bowl?
That would mean two prime years of a strong team have been wasted or hamstrung, all while the chance to add top-line talent through the draft is limited and huge portions of future salary caps are tied up with Watson.
For Watson to make this deal worth it, he’ll have to be an incredible performer when he finally gets to perform. And that’s discounting whatever fan resentment there is. Cleveland is banking on the idea that Watson will deliver enough victories that all will be forgotten (at least by most fans). The team is likely correct, but that’s a lot of pressure on Watson to be really, really good from the jump.
Officially, nothing has been settled. Yet the NFL signaling that it wants a significant punishment isn’t good for Watson or the Browns.
The 2023 season is now the question, and it’s unlikely that possibility ever seriously crossed Cleveland’s mind when it brought in Deshaun Watson.