After initially rejecting the idea of a move to Cleveland, on Friday, Deshaun Watson changed his mind. He warmed up to the idea of joining the Browns, in large part because of the eye-popping amount of money they threw at him:
5 years, $230 million, an average of $46 million per year. Just an absurd amount of money. $80 million more in guaranteed money than Aaron Rodgers’ previously record contract.
It is very difficult to say no to that kind of money. Honestly, Watson would have been an idiot to say no to that contract. Nobody would.
The thing is, I thought he was foolish to reject the Browns as a destination two days ago–even before the contract details came out.
Of all the teams he was considering–Browns, Saints, Panthers, Falcons–the Browns were easily the best positioned to become a Super Bowl contender with Watson at QB.
You could’ve argued the Saints, but Sean Payton is no longer the head coach down there. It’s a whole different regime now in New Orleans. I’m not saying new head coach Dennis Allen is bad or anything, but when your franchise loses an all-time great head coach like Sean Payton, you will inevitably take a step back. It’s unavoidable. And so I think that despite the presence of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, plus that great defense, the fact that Sean Payton is no longer the head coach of the Saints really tanks the appeal of going to New Orleans.
The Panthers would have been a decent destination. They’ve got Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore on offense, and a pretty good defense. But I’m personally not sold on Matt Rhule as head coach.
The Falcons are a so-so roster–not terrible by any stretch, but not nearly as good as teams like the Browns and the Saints. Outside of the hometown factor for Watson, Atlanta was in my view not a particularly strong option for him. You’re looking at a full year without Calvin Ridley, due to his suspension, which means you’d be looking at an offense that features Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson as the top options. And the offensive line in Atlanta is woeful–PFF ranked Atlanta’s offensive line 27th out of 32 for last season. That’s rough.
So I really think that of all the teams Watson was considering, the Browns were by far the best option. You’ve got Amari Cooper on the outside to throw to, a solid tight end in David Njoku, plus those two beasts at running back in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. You’ve also got a top-10 offensive line, and a defense with a ton of talent on it. I think they’re also working on a deal to bring Jarvis Landry back, which would be huge.
Add on top of all that a promising young coach in Kevin Stefanski–I’ve always thought the Browns should have been Watson’s top choice. And so, it ultimately doesn’t surprise me a whole lot that he chose them. There was no question in my mind that his best shot at a Super Bowl was in Cleveland.
Maybe he initially ruled Cleveland out because he didn’t want to move to Cleveland. It’s cold and miserable for most of the year, and Watson has lived in the South his whole life. That’s understandable. But Cleveland was always the best football move for him, and when the Browns came at him with that jaw-dropping contract offer, it was impossible for him to say no.
He would have been a moron to say no to that–a Super Bowl-ready roster plus the biggest contract in NFL history. Absolutely a no-brainer in my view.
From the Browns’ perspective, this is a defining moment in team history. They are now ready to win a Super Bowl. I got big-time LA Rams vibes from this move they made for Watson.
With Baker Mayfield, they were good–they made the playoffs in 2020 and won a playoff game on the road, and came close to beating the Chiefs at Arrowhead–but there were still those lingering doubts over whether Baker was truly the guy that would lead them to a Super Bowl.
And they obviously weren’t 100% convinced he was, so they upgraded. It’s like the Rams: they made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 with Jared Goff, but they still weren’t sold on him. So they went out and got Matthew Stafford, believing that he was the missing piece for them. And he was. They had a Super Bowl-caliber roster, they just needed a quarterback that could win a Super Bowl. They got one, and they won the Super Bowl.
When you have a roster that is ready to win a Super Bowl, you cannot squander that opportunity. The Rams did everything in their power to capitalize on their roster talent while the window was still open.
The Rams pioneered the “Fuck Them Picks” win-now strategy: they concluded that draft picks when your roster is ready to win a Super Bowl now are better used as trade bait. It’s an “all-in” strategy of using every resource and asset available to you to maximize your odds of winning a Super Bowl.
The Browns gave up 3 first-round picks, plus a few other picks, because they believe their roster is good enough to win a Super Bowl now. The best possible use for this year’s first round pick (13 overall), as well as next year’s first rounder and 2024’s first rounder, was as a trade asset to acquire a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Simple as that.
The Rams before last season felt they were a QB away from winning a Super Bowl, so they did everything in their power to acquire that franchise QB.
The Browns believe they are a franchise QB away from winning a Super Bowl, and they went out and got their guy. I absolutely applaud the move. They’re in win-now mode, and when you are in win-now mode, you do everything you can possibly do to maximize your odds at a Super Bowl.
I’m not saying the Browns are going to win a Super Bowl like the Rams did. But I am saying the Browns are following the same path as the Rams. They’re all-in. And they’ve given themselves their best chance to win a Super Bowl.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the elephant in the room here with Watson: the 22 lawsuits for sexual misconduct that are still open in civil court.
As far as my own thoughts on the situation go, I am basically in agreement with Shannon Sharpe:
It’s a big deal that a grand jury declined to prosecute Watson in criminal court, meaning there’s no potential legal ramifications for him. He’s in the clear in terms of criminal charges.
I don’t pretend to understand what this means as far as his civil cases go, but obviously the fact that a grand jury refused to press charges against him in a criminal court means the case against him isn’t particularly strong.
It’s still possible that he could be convicted in civil court and forced to pay out damages to some or all of his accusers, but I would imagine he and his legal team are emboldened by the grand jury’s refusal to indict, and now believe they can beat the charges in civil court.
People are saying that Watson should settle out of court with his civil accusers, but why would he do that if he and his legal team believe they can beat the charges and completely clear his name?
You pay out a settlement to your accusers, yes, it resolves the civil court matter, but it also is an indication of some level of guilt and wrongdoing. Watson and his legal team have insisted throughout this whole process that he did nothing wrong and that all the charges against him are without merit. Paying out a settlement to his accusers would undermine that claim. It would indicate that he did in fact wrong some or all of them.
And it would tarnish his reputation, too. So I don’t know if they’re going to be willing to pay out the settlements. I think they’re now emboldened to fight these charges so that Watson can one day be fully exonerated of any wrongdoing. If he’s truly innocent, then why would he pay out a dime to any of his accusers? That’s the way I see it.
The question then is, how long will it take to decide these cases in civil court? And what impact will that have on the NFL’s decision making in terms of suspending him? If Watson were to settle all the cases tomorrow, it would probably result in a 6-8 game suspension from the NFL, possibly more. The matter would then be resolved, and Watson would then only have to worry about serving out his suspension.
If he’s exonerated in civil court, though, then that could mean he won’t even face a suspension at all, I’d think. I mean if these accusations are ultimately found to be without merit, then how could the NFL really justify suspending him? Just because someone is accused of something doesn’t mean that person has actually done anything wrong. To suspend a guy just because he was accused of misconduct does not make a whole lot of sense, although the NFL would probably say that the accusations against Watson have done harm to the league’s reputation.
But still, if Watson didn’t do anything wrong, then how can you punish him? Suppose the guy is truly the victim of a malicious and baseless smear campaign and has actually not done anything wrong. It’s just not fair to suspend the guy.
I don’t know. I’m kind of talking in circles here. We really can only speculate as to what’s going to happen to him. I personally am going to assume he’s going to have this legal situation resolved at some point in the offseason, and that he will get probably a 6-game suspension to start the season, and he’ll be able to become the Browns’ starting QB around mid-October. That seems to be the popular consensus around the sports media world right now.
I don’t think the Browns would have traded for him without having some sort of hint or indication from both Watson’s legal team, and the NFL itself, as to what was likely coming down the pike. I feel like the NFL probably indicated to the Browns–and all the other teams that were trying to trade for him–that it’ll be a 6-game suspension. I don’t think any of those teams would have pursued him the way they did if it was going to be something like a 10-game suspension, or a full season.
So that’s really my bottom line here: Watson will probably be suspended the first 6 games of the 2022 season. That’s fine for the Browns, really. They’ve gotten rid of Case Keenum this offseason, and it’s because he was too expensive. Case Keenum was an elite-level backup QB, but with Watson’s new contract he was simply a luxury they could no longer afford. So, the Browns went and got Jacoby Brissett, who I think will be perfectly fine for them for the first month and a half of the season. Remember, that’s a top-tier roster with an elite run game and a tough defense.
Now, it is a very tough division they’re in. And while the schedule for next season hasn’t yet been released, we do know who the Browns are playing outside of their division rivals. They’ve got the Patriots, they’ve got the Bucs, the Bills and the Chargers as their toughest non-division matchups. It’s a tough schedule, for sure, especially when you consider they have the AFC Champion Bengals twice, the Ravens twice, and the Steelers–who are at this point the clear worst team in the division but always play the Browns extremely tough–twice. There are no pushovers in the division. But even if Cleveland goes 2-4 in their first 6 games, I think they can recover from that and make the playoffs.
The final part of this story is Baker Mayfield, of course.
I said just last week I thought the Browns should give him another chance. And the reason I believed that was because I didn’t think they had a realistic shot at DeShaun Watson. So, I just figured that with the lack of any clear and undeniable upgrades available on the market, it was best to stick with Mayfield. Sure, they could have gone for Garoppolo, and maybe he would’ve been an upgrade, but he’s very injury prone, and when both Baker and Jimmy G are healthy, I don’t think you can say one guy is clearly and undeniably better than the other.
Obviously, the fact that the Browns were able to get Watson changes everything. Watson is in a whole different class as a QB. You know if you follow this site that I am very high on DeShaun Watson. I think he’s a top-5 QB in the league, or at least he was the last time he played. Yes, even though the Texans went 4-12 with him the last time he played.
I’m sorry, but if after this season–where Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl in his first season as the QB of the LA Rams–you still believe a QB is 100% responsible for his team’s record and should be able to overcome literally any and every challenge, you’re wrong. I’m sorry, you’re just wrong. Matthew Stafford had a 4-12 season in 2012. His final two years in Detroit (2019 and 2020), his team went 3-12-1 and 5-11 respectively. Then, surprise, the guy goes to the Rams–a highly competent organization with great talent and a great coach, and he immediately wins a Super Bowl. Wow, it’s almost as if the NFL is about more than just the quarterback. It’s almost as if some organizations are such dumpster fire that even great QBs cannot overcome the dysfunction.
Anyway, as for Baker Mayfield, look, I think the guy got a bad rap. He inherited an 0-16 team when he became the Browns starter in 2018. He damn near led that team to a winning record as a rookie. He had two coaches his rookie season, then he had to deal with the incompetent Freddie Kitchens in year 2. It’s hard to fault the guy for being inconsistent.
I personally have always liked Baker; I like the swag, I like the attitude. I was just never 100% sold on him as a Super Bowl caliber QB. I thought he might be able to prove himself as one in 2022 when fully healthy, but it was never certain that he’d be able to. The Browns were honest with themselves. They asked themselves: can we really see this guy leading us to a Super Bowl? If the answer is not unequivocally yes, then for a team in their situation where they have a Super Bowl-caliber roster, you have to move off the guy. You simply have to. Otherwise you’re essentially squandering your window to win.
I think what Browns fans and the Browns organization has to always credit Baker for, however, is that I really do believe he changed the culture in Cleveland. Cleveland was the biggest loser franchise in the league bar none during the 21st century–they were worse than the Lions, worse than the Texans, worse than the Bengals; worse than everybody else.
We’re talking about a team that compiled a record of 88-216 between 1999-2017. They had one playoff appearance between 1995-2019. One. It was in 2002, and they lost the Wild Card round to the Steelers.
Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have had 12 different head coaches prior to Stefanski. They cycled through QBs like they had a 24 month expiration date tops. Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer–and that’s not to mention all the guys that filled in for those guys when they went down.
Baker was the first thing even remotely resembling stability the Browns franchise has experienced since Bernie Kosar, who played his last game with the Browns in 1993.
I really believe Baker lifted that franchise up out of the dumps and made them believe they could actually win games in the NFL. Baker embraced Cleveland. He didn’t care about the sorry history of the franchise over the prior 30 years. I know Browns fans. I have family in Cleveland. I’ve seen the change they’ve gone through over the past few years in terms of their attitude toward the team. Before Baker, it was a hopeless resignation that the team would always suck. Now they actually expect the team to win.
No matter what happens with DeShaun Watson, it will always be Baker who goes down in history as the guy who turned that franchise around and changed the culture. He was the first guy in a long time to come in and say, “We are not losers anymore. We are not the punching bags of the NFL anymore.”
Baker led the Browns to their first playoff appearance in 18 years. He led them to their first playoff win in nearly 30 years. Any success that the Browns have from this point on, like it or not, will ultimately be built on the foundation that Baker built.
Browns fans should be grateful to Baker for changing the culture. And I think the Browns front office should do him a solid and trade him to wherever he wants to go. They owe that to him. As long as it’s not the Steelers, although when he becomes a free agent a year from now–and if the Steelers don’t draft a QB this year and actually want him–I could absolutely see Baker signing with the Steelers as a big F-U to the Browns for giving up on him. That’s just how he’s wired, I think.
It was rumored that Baker wanted to go to the Colts, but news just broke today that the Colts are trading for Matt Ryan, so that’s not happening. I think the most obvious destination for him is the Seahawks, even though I’m not sure it’s a great fit. They’re really the only team that has a glaring hole to fill at QB at the moment. Washington traded for Wentz, the Falcons just signed Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston is re-upping with New Orleans, obviously Brady is back in Tampa–there’s really no other teams with glaring QB vacancies out there at the moment.
It’s just Seattle. Maybe the Panthers as well. They could be an option, too, I guess.
But the wild card here is that Seattle and Carolina (and Atlanta who I’m sure are not 100% sold on Mariota as their long-term starter) have top-10 draft picks this year. Two of the three could go well go QB this year and target either Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett in the draft. If we don’t see a Baker Mayfield trade in the next 48 hours or so, that’s probably why: because those potential Mayfield trade destinations have decided to go QB in the draft.
I really don’t know what’s going to happen to Baker.
But whatever happens, Browns fans should always be grateful for what he did for them.
Header photo cred: Clutch Points