Deshaun Watson, who helped him off the turf late Monday night at Accursor Stadium in Pittsburgh, looked dazed and confused.
Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith had just pinned him, knocking the ball and the Cleveland Browns’ second win of the season out of his grasp. As the Steelers and their 65,000-plus fans celebrated TJ Watt’s 16-yard fumble return for a touchdown — a play that put Pittsburgh over Cleveland by the decisive score 26-22 with 6:58 left to play — Watson searched for answers and tried in vain to regroup.
This was after Highsmith, on the first play of the game, returned an interception by Watson 30 yards for a touchdown.
These weren’t the kind of plays the Browns expected from Watson when they traded him from the Houston Texans in 2022, then gave him a historic, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, the 2020 NFL passing leader and a regular MVP candidate, should be contenders for the Browns. The 2017 No. 12 pick is supposed to end decades of heartbreak, suffering and quarterback giddiness.
But there he was on Monday night, guilty of three crippling turnovers for only the second time as a pro, and some truly sloppy plays. The player who was once predicted to become the NFL’s Michael Jordan looked more like Michael Scott in the warehouse pick-up game “The Office.”
For the second straight week, Watson failed to complete more than 56 percent of his passes. This is the fifth time in Watson’s eight games with the Browns that he has failed to complete better than 61 percent of his passes, after recording only nine games with a passing percentage of less than 60 percent in 54 games with Houston. Watson’s passer ratings (67.3 in Week 1 and 70.3 in Week 2) also rank among the lowest of his career.
It’s only Week 3 of the NFL, and at 1-1, the Browns aren’t on the verge of disaster. But the losses to the Steelers are always more painful for Cleveland and its faithful. Given the way Watson looked in the loss, the defeat looked much worse, and the issues surrounding the quarterback were much more serious. On top of that, the Browns just lost Nick Chubb, one of the best running backs in the league, for the season due to a tough knee injury.
If the Browns aren’t careful, the season could quickly disappear. That’s why they need Watson to find himself again STAT.
There is no magic wand. There is no time machine for Watson to jump into and regain his magic. He’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way. To give himself and the Browns the best chance at success, Watson needs a mental recalibration.
He appeared to be a shell of himself during his six-game appearance last season, which came after a 700-day suspension following a dispute with the Texans, allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from more than two dozen women, and then an 11-game suspension by the club. League for violating the personal conduct policy.
He may not look like his old self out there. Those stunning, mind-blowing plays seem to have disappeared a long time ago. However, people familiar with Watson’s game say his issues aren’t physical. He still has the explosiveness and speed to break down crumbling pockets and leave defenders dizzy in the backfield as he rushes into the daylights. Watson still has the arm strength and touch needed to shape the defense.
These problems are all in his head, say two NFL talent evaluators who have studied Watson. They see it in the way he hesitates in the pocket: second-guessing whether he should pull the trigger or squeeze and run, often deciding too late when the pocket collapses around him. They see it in the inconsistent rate at which Watson executes. He thinks a lot and tries hard.
The second half of last season was all about shaking off the rust and cobwebs. Now Watson finds himself constrained by the weight of expectations from a hungry fan base, and the weight of a fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
The Browns desperately need Deshaun Watson to play like a franchise QB after Nick Chubb’s injury
It’s time for the quarterback to shake it all off, to live up to all the lofty expectations from his time with the Texans and at Clemson from memory. However, the path back to greatness begins with simplicity.
Watson should forget about the contract. he has to. He’ll never make it happen, so he has to stop trying. It is what it is. The Browns could ask for a restructuring to help with cap space, but they won’t ask him to return the money.
And he should forget the 2020 season in which he passed 4,823 yards (301.4 per game). The feat was impressive, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to throw for 300 yards every game.
Watson must take the following approach: just win, plain and simple. If a QB’s ultimate stat line is 100 yards passing and 85 yards rushing, so be it. Just find a way. Stop holding on to the ball for too long. Stop trying to be perfect. If there’s no playing with your arms, use those legs. Or throw it away and live to see another one fall. But if Watson starts running more, the defense will eventually start to count him out and leave a gap down the field to take advantage of through the air.
Style points don’t matter. The end results do.
He couldn’t even allow himself to think about the fact that his workload had become heavier due to Chubb’s absence. There are still other serviceable running backs on the roster, as well as talented wide receivers and tight ends. The Browns still have a strong offensive line as well.
Watson and company opened the season against two formidable defenses in the Bengals and Steelers, but the road won’t get any easier in the next two weeks, when they host the Giants and then the Ravens. Cleveland bids an early bye in Week 5, but then comes another nightmare matchup: San Francisco in Week 6.
Cleveland’s coaches aren’t asking Watson to be Superman. They simply want him to play within the system, and when things break down, they let his instincts take over. They know he can do it. There have been enough flashes in the last eight games and in practices to confirm those beliefs.
If Watson can do this very thing, he will be taking incremental steps forward. He can’t go back to the way he was in Houston. Evolution is natural. But if he can adapt to a similar, less frustrating mentality and focus squarely on winning popularity, the play, the practice, and the game at hand, he’ll have Brown’s back and venture toward contention before he knows it.
(Photo: Cooper Neal/Getty Images)
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