The Cleveland Browns may have to wait yet another season to make a run at a Super Bowl, particularly if NFL authorities have their way.
The organization broke the bank this offseason to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans, wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Dallas Cowboys, and re-up with both cornerback Denzel Ward and tight end David Njoku on massive extensions to position the Browns for a deep postseason push.
Cleveland’s plans for 2022 were always going to be threatened to a degree by the uncertainty of Watson’s playing situation, as it has long been expected that the NFL will hand down a suspension of some significance based on the 24 civil cases alleging sexual misconduct the quarterback still sides.
But a report from Mark Maske of the Washington Post on Friday, June 17, indicates that the punishment the league intends to seek for Watson may dash the Browns’ entire season before it even begins.
The league “probably” will seek a suspension of one full season for Watson, a person on Watson’s side of the case said Friday. A person familiar with the league’s view of the case cautioned to be “careful” about specifying a precise length at this point for the suspension the NFL will seek. But that person also said: “Significant would be the proper term.”
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Allegations Against Watson No Longer Criminal, But Can Still Cause QB Serious Problems
As Maske notes in his piece, none of the allegations against Watson are considered criminal any longer, as grand juries in two Texas Counties decided not to pursue charges in any of the 10 cases in which criminal complaints were filed.
Of the 24 civil cases that remain open, two are new enough that criminal charges could emerge, though there has been no indication that will happen in either case as of yet. The 12 civil cases that were already on the books, in which criminal charges were never filed, could also still potentially result in criminal filings should the alleged victims and their attorney Tony Buzbee choose to pursue that route.
Watson has denied all of the allegations against him and has yet to settle any of the civil cases to this point. Pro Football Talks’ Mike Florio speculated in late March that Watson is likely to face a minimum suspension of six games based on perceived violations of the NFL’s player conduct policy, but suggested the punishment will be more severe should the quarterback fail to settle the cases before the season begins.
As it turns out, Watson may need to reach a resolution with his accusers even sooner than that, whether he wants to or not. Maske reported Friday that the NFL hopes former US District Judge Sue L. Robinson — whom the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to appoint as the disciplinary officer in Watson’s case, per collectively bargained rules — will reach a decision on the quarterback’s punishment prior to the start of training camp. The Browns will open camp on July 27.
Should Robinson land on a suspension with which the NFL disagrees, commissioner Roger Goodell reserves the right to appeal her decision. The league told Maske Friday they hope to have any potential appeal sorted out before the start of training camp as well, which means Robinson’s initial decision may come even sooner.
Browns Will Find Themselves in Difficult Situation Under Center If Watson Is Out for Season
With Watson likely to miss multiple games, if not the entire year, the Browns may find themselves in a tough spot when the regular season begins.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield remains on the roster, after Cleveland picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which guarantees him nearly $19 million in 2022. That was a decision the team made before they inflated Watson’s current deal to five years and $230 million guaranteed, structuring it so that he is paid a base salary of just $1 million this season to avoid serious financial penalties from whatever suspension is ultimately handed down.
The Browns miscalculated by not dealing Mayfield before the details of Watson’s agreement were made public, after which Mayfield was alienated by the organization and the franchise surrendered much of its leverage in potential trade talks for the quarterback with competing teams.
Mayfield remains on the roster, though he reached a mutual agreement with the team to sit out its first mandatory minicamp in mid-June without incurring any financial penalty. The Browns appear close to a deal to ship Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers, after which backup QB Jacoby Brissett will be the first option behind Watson.
Brissett — a six-year veteran of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins — has appeared in 60 games across his career. He has started 37 of those, earning a record of 14-23.
The 29-year-old Brissett has thrown for 7,742 yards to go along with 36 touchdowns and 17 interceptions over the course of his NFL tenure, per Pro Football Reference.