Deshaun Watson's spent the last two weeks during Browns' practice playing the role of a starting quarterback in the NFL. Only, it was usually playing the role of someone like Buffalo's Josh Allen or Tampa Bay's Tom Brady.
“He threw a fade on me it was like − I can't really explain it," rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. said during a Zoom call Monday. "It was like an overhead, back-shoulder fade that only the receiver could catch. It was like out of bounds and a receiver had to throw both his arms over his shoulder to catch the ball. And I had no chance to make that play. … That was a great throw.”
This week, Watson can begin to play the role of a starting quarterback again for his own team. The NFL officially reinstated the Browns quarterback from his 11-game personal conduct policy suspension Monday, and he was added to the team's active roster.
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To make room for Watson on the active roster, the Browns waived quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Jacoby Brissett, who went 4-7 as the Browns' starter in Watson's place, and Kellen Mond join him in the Browns' quarterback room.
Monday's move puts Watson on track to start this Sunday for the Browns when they travel to play the Houston Texans. That means going back to face the team that selected him 12th overall in the 2017 draft before trading him to the Browns on March 18, along with a 2024 sixth-round pick, in exchange for three first-round picks, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
However, Watson did not play his final season in Houston due to a combination of a trade demand and the allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage appointments in late 2020 and early 2021. It was those allegations by 26 women through the judicial system in Texas − 25 resulted in lawsuits, 23 of which have been settled − which led to the suspension from the NFL.
That means, when Watson takes the field in Houston, it'll have been 700 days between regular-season starts for him, which has raised the concern about rust. He last started a regular-season game on Jan. 3, 2021, for the Texans against the Tennessee Titans.
Watson looked rusty and, even, a bit rattled by some noticeable boos during his lone preseason start on Aug. 12 at Jacksonville. He played three series, completing 1-of-5 passes for 7 yards.
"I certainly get it but can't really control that for me and for Deshaun and for all of our players," coach Kevin Stefanski said of the rust factor. "Just gotta keep the focus on doing our job. Think about it, there's some guys that don't play in preseason football and then they get in there Week 1, need to get tackled first time before they feel like they're ready to go. So I think some of those things may be true, but I don't wanna put anything on Deshaun. I think it's unfair for me to say at this point, we don't know."
Watson isn't returning to active status completely cold. He was a full participant in the Browns' offseason program and preseason before starting his suspension at 4 p.m. Aug. 30.
Throughout both the offseason and the first half of training camp, Watson received virtually all of the reps with the first-team offense. It wasn't until after his lone preseason game appearance that the Browns began to prepare Brissett for his role as the interim starter for the first 11 games.
"I think you can go back to the spring and summer," Stefanski said. "We spent a lot of time together, Deshaun spent a lot of time together with his teammates. I think we mentioned it at the time, I still believe those were banked reps, so to speak. So it's something to where Deshaun spent a lot of time with his teammates. I think they've all enjoyed having him back and being a part of the team and I think they're excited for him in this next step."
Watson has been back in the building in some capacity since Oct. 10, when he began the first stage of his return. That stage involved participating in meetings, receiving medical treatment and going through strength and conditioning work.
The on-field portion began on Nov. 14, when Watson was officially allowed back on the practice field. He has been working with the scout-team offense, but also has received some first-team reps depending on situations and has been working to the side with his receivers.
"I think all of it helps," Stefanski said. "When you're talking about getting ready to play football, I think you need the mental side of it. You need all those meetings, you need the walk-throughs. Obviously, the practice reps help. Even the scout team reps, when you're running the offense off of the card, you're playing the opposing team's quarterback in there in the huddle and you're looking at the card and we'll stand there and kind of put that card, put the play in our own verbiage, say, 'OK, here's this play. Think one-high, two-high, think progression, read − Hey, it's progression read with an option − those type of things, trying to put yourself in the game, if you will."
There remains the unknown part of the whole thing, which is how Watson will change the identity of the Browns' offense. Certainly, they expect him to add a dynamic layer to it that Brissett, for the successes he had despite the record, was not able to provide.
Watson's ability to run and keep plays alive will no doubt allow for an element that will stress defenses. His arm talent, also, will force teams to thin out the box a little bit, opening up more lanes through which Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt can run.
"We'll see is probably the short answer," Stefanski said of offensive changes. "What we'll always do is try to maximize the talents of our players. So are things that you certainly will do with Deshaun. There's things that Jacoby was really good at and we just wanna always be thinking about your players and doing what they do best. So ultimately it's our job to look at our players, who we have and what are the things we want to do that maximize their talents."
Brissett was more than serviceable in his 11 starts in Watson's place, capped by Sunday's 23-17 overtime win over Tampa Bay. He completed 64.1% of his 368 pass attempts for 2,608 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
The Browns offense, meanwhile, entered the Buccaneers game in the top 10 in the league in multiple categories. They were 10th in scoring, fourth in total yards and fifth in rushing yards.
More than that, Brissett emerged as an unquestioned leader within the locker room, almost a sage-like presence in there. Now, he'll once again shift to the role of backup, although Stefanski is confident in the makeup of both quarterbacks and how they'll handle everything.
"I think that's something we've talked about is this is a unique situation," Stefanski said. "I don't know that it's been exactly like this previously, but with these two guys involved, with these two parties, you have guys that respect each other, that really work hard together. That quarterback room is a team. So I think I've seen support from Deshaun and Jacoby over the last five weeks that Deshaun has been back. So it just becomes now Jacoby supporting Deshaun. And I think Jacoby’s gonna help us win this week. He's gonna help get Deshaun ready, he's gonna help get our defense ready, he's gonna provide leadership to this team and that's just what he does."
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Deshaun Watson returns, and Browns are ready for him to start