For all the hubbub over the return of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, the individual with the least to say about the unusual circumstance is Watson himself.
Watson, reinstated on Monday after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, will make his Browns debut when Cleveland (4-7) visits the Houston Texans (1-9-1) on Sunday.
Watson sat out the 2021 campaign after a trade demand from Houston prior to that season and he hasn’t played this year due to the suspension he received after being accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women.
On Sunday, Watson will get his first action since Jan. 3, 2021, when he passed for 365 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-38 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Houston.
Watson earned three Pro Bowl nods in his four seasons with the Texans and led the NFL in passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.9) and yards per completion (12.6) during his final season in Houston.
He has practiced with the Browns since Nov. 16, and given his reputation, enthusiasm is cresting in Cleveland as Watson returns despite the long layoff between contests.
“We’re all excited. We’ve all waited for a long time for him to come back,” Browns running back Nick Chubb said of Watson, who has not spoken publicly since his suspension was announced.
“He’s special. He’s a playmaker. He puts the ball exactly where he needs it to go and guys like that. Guys are excited. We all are. We’re ready.”
In theory, Watson should be a boon for an offense that ranks fifth in total yards (4,146), bolstered by the Chubb-led rushing attack that also ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,698 yards. The Browns should benefit from having a quarterback renowned for accuracy — Watson completed 70.2 percent of his attempts in 2020 — and an ability to dismantle defenses with his scrambling ability.
Still, the concern over the time that has elapsed since Watson last played is a legitimate one. And while it is difficult to anticipate how rusty Watson will be, there is an expectation for rust.
“I don’t think I can predict that type of thing,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “But I know this: he’s focusing on his work. Really, in any endeavor, you’ve got to focus on your preparation for Sunday. You can’t really worry about Sunday until you worry about Wednesday.”
The Texans, mired in a six-game losing skid, are in a position similar to that of the Browns, just from a different perspective. Houston has ample game footage of Watson to dissect and first-hand knowledge of his myriad skills. The struggle for the Texans is factoring in the layoff and how that shapes what version of Watson will be under center for the Browns.
Expecting the Pro Bowl iteration of Watson would seem to be folly. However, the Texans are preparing for precisely that.
“We’re telling our guys we’re going to see the best version of Deshaun,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “I think you go into every game that way. We have no idea. He hasn’t played for a long period of time, but we hope there is some rust and all those things. But no, that’s not what we’re telling them.
“We’re showing them the stats. One of the best offenses in the league statistically, adding a great player, so that should say that they’re going to be better. That’s how we’re going into the football game.”