Deshaun Watson is set to play a regular-season NFL game for the first time in nearly two years, with his new team visiting his old team. But in advance of Sunday's matchup between the Cleveland Browns (4-7) and Houston Texans (1-9-1), Watson is not ready to discuss the circumstances that led to his extended absence.
The 27-year-old Browns quarterback refused to answer any questions that weren't related to football on Thursday during his first media session since returning from his 11-game suspension, which was imposed by the NFL after accusations by more than 20 women of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
"I understand that you guys have a lot of questions," Watson said, while thanking Browns fans, teammates, coaches and ownership for their support in an opening statement, "but with my legal team and my political team, there's only football questions that I can really address at this time."
Despite Watson's refusal to answer non-football questions, his lengthy time away from the game spawned a number of queries about just how quickly the three-time Pro Bowler will be able to return to form.
"We'll have to see Sunday, honestly," Watson said. "It might take time, it might not take time. I just want to go out there and do what I want to do, make plays as much as I possibly can.
"Two years is definitely a long time, but at the same time, I've been doing this since I was 6 years old. So just like riding a bike, I'm just going to go out there and just find the pedals, get my transition going, and then just let everything kind of come to me. Don't press it, don't try to make anything bigger than what it really is."
The setting for Watson's return -- NRG Stadium -- is obviously a familiar one for the former Texans star, who maintains a home in Houston. Selected by the Texans with the 12th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Watson guided Houston to back-to-back AFC South titles in 2018 and '19, then led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards in 2020. But he requested a trade in January of 2021, with the initial civil complaints of sexual misconduct filed two months later.
On Thursday, Watson said he's focused on the game, not his reception in Houston this weekend, although he's uncertain how Texans fans will react.
"I'm not sure," Watson said. "My main focus is locked in on the game plan, to try and execute and make sure I'm keeping the standard the standard for the Cleveland Browns, so we can try to win."
Watson is taking an optimistic approach to the game, even if those in Houston might no longer be so eager to see him play, especially in the uniform of a visiting team.
"I still have friends and family that's still in Houston, relationships that are still there," Watson said. "Some of the players on that team that I played with or I've seen from the practice squad. I'm excited to get in front of all those fans. I have so much love for the city of Houston and H-town. Everyone in that city pretty much know that. I'm excited to do that, but the most important thing is that I'm excited to be in front of the Cleveland Browns fans, for sure."
In the meantime, the quarterback will look to establish an on-field rapport with his teammates, notably pass catchers Amari Cooper, David Njoku and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Such things typically take time, but with the Browns at 4-7, any potential playoff push must begin immediately. Watson has been practicing with the team for most of the last month, but has primarily served as a scout team quarterback, preparing Cleveland's defense for its weekly opponents.
Jacoby Brissett handled starting quarterback duties through Cleveland's first 11 games, playing the best football of his career while helping the Browns to a top-five ranking in total offense. It will be up to Watson to ensure Cleveland's production doesn't drop off.
"I think our offense is pretty much in the top five in pretty much every category, so I have to hold it up to that standard and do everything I can," Watson said. "Don't try to do anything special -- just try to let the game come to me."
The question of rust -- and just how much Watson will have to shake off -- will remain persistent until the QB performs well enough to render it irrelevant. His first opportunity comes Sunday, for which he's been preparing during his time away from the team and the weeks spent in the facility as a tertiary figure.
Watson is hoping Brissett will be a valuable source of guidance while he finds his footing.
"I think my biggest focus was the mental part of the game," Watson explained when asked how he spent his energy during his suspension. "Staying locked in on defensive schemes. Staying locked in also as much as I can with the scheme that we have here with the Cleveland Browns and with Kevin (Stefanski). Trying to watch from afar and learn and see what Jacoby is seeing on the field every Sunday.
"I watched every game like I was preparing myself to play. I kind of knew exactly what was going on. I wasn't in those meetings early on in the year, but once I was able to do be in those meetings, I was basically preparing like I was the starter that week -- asking Jacoby questions, what he sees, and the different things that he experienced during the game. I think that was very, very helpful."
Browns fans will hope those efforts produce a positive performance from the quarterback, who attracted plenty of negative attention in the last two years and required Cleveland to part with multiple first-round picks.
But no matter the quarterback, the immediate goal remains the same for the Browns: defeat the Texans and continue pushing forward.