Deshaun Watson's rusty 2022 debut shows how far QB, Browns have to go

When the NFL and Deshaun Watson agreed that he would serve an 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, it seemed to set up an unintentional marquee moment for his return, against the team he demanded to exit, in the city where the accusations were made.

But Watson's long banishment from the field and two struggling teams added up, instead, to something unexpected, but perhaps welcome: a lot of ambivalence. Houston's NRG Stadium, where Watson had once starred, appeared little more than half full. No large-scale protests materialized. There was applause and boos sprinkled throughout the day, including when Watson first entered the huddle with a smile on his face. But the performances of the Texans and Watson were so unsightly that it likely made fans eager to forget the game.

Maybe that's the best thing to do, for a little while anyway, while the Browns and Watson figure out how to make the Browns' blockbuster trade -- and accompanying guaranteed contract -- pay off. The 27-14 victory over the Texans leaves the Browns at 5-7, the same record as the Pittsburgh Steelers, three games behind the division-leading Baltimore Ravens, with a narrow path to an AFC playoff spot. Watson and the offense, though, will have to improve dramatically and quickly for that to be any more than the most distant mathematical possibility.

Watson declined last week to discuss what he had learned about himself during his treatment, leaning on the advice of his legal and clinical team to talk only about football. He was asked Sunday if he could say he was remorseful and Watson demurred again, allowing only that the suspension was "tough." Even with it over, though, it will undoubtedly take a while for Watson to rebuild his reputation, if he ever does.

In the meantime, his silence forces the focus to be on how he plays and there, the rebuilding will have to come much more quickly.

The Browns won on Sunday because they scored touchdowns on a punt return, a fumble return and an interception return, preying especially on the Texans' own non-competitive offense, which is in shambles. Watson, who had not played in a game that mattered in exactly 700 days -- nearly two full years -- was very rusty. Many of his passes were low and a few were short. He threw an interception in the end zone when he simply misread what the defender was going to do. He finished the game 12 of 22 for 131 yards, no touchdowns and the one interception. The Browns, with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, ranked fifth overall in total offense. They were far from that on Sunday, accounting for just two drives that ended in field goals, six that ended in punts and one that ended with a safety.

"However long I've been out, I felt every single one of those days," Watson said.

Watson's rust was not a surprise. He acknowledged last week he was not sure how he would play, conceding that two years was a long layoff. The question for the Browns is how soon Watson can get back to what he was when he played for the Texans, which was a top-five quarterback and one of the NFL's most dynamic players. Watson will surely get better even after this one game. Head coach Kevin Stefanski will know more about what plays he is comfortable with and what he has to work on in practice, Watson's own timing with his receivers will improve, his familiarity with the speed of the game will return and whatever nerves Watson had on Sunday will be behind him. Stefanski said Sunday that despite Watson's struggles, he is the starter.

"He's going to learn from every rep," Stefanski said. "Got to get this one out of the way. I know what the kid is capable of."

The onus is on Stefanski to get that from Watson as soon as possible. The Browns did not trade three first-round draft picks and give Watson a fully guaranteed $230 million contract to allow for a slow ramp up. With the first game over, there will be urgency for Watson to improve as long as the Browns are alive in the playoff race. They face the Bengals next week, and the Ravens after that, both of which are substantially better teams than the Texans. Stefanski and the Browns have to allow Watson to work his way back as the starter, but more poor performances, especially if they are accompanied by losses, will inevitably lead to questions about whether Brissett would run the offense more efficiently, at least in the short term.

But the Browns anticipated Watson would have a suspension when they made the trade, so this was a decision for the long term. The long term started on Sunday, and the Browns and Watson have seemingly already gotten through what should be the most difficult part of the season. The suspension is over and so is what was likely the biggest wave of questions about it. It might not be entirely satisfying to everyone watching, but with a month left in the regular season, the focus will now turn almost exclusively to how far Watson can take the Browns.

Watson was all smiles after the game. He looked giddy and relieved when he taped a short video addressing Browns fans. And he spent a few extra moments on the field, signing jerseys to give to some of his former teammates, who greeted him with hugs and posed for pictures. Watson's situation had cast a large cloud over the NFL. Nobody knows when it will entirely lift, but a game that invited many of us to find something else to watch sounded exactly like what Watson needed.

"Being traded was tough, but it was a business decision and it had to happen," Watson said. "Being my first game back here in Houston was tough, walking into the stadium on the opposite side of the stadium, the locker room. It was different. I know exactly how those guys get ready for the game, how they do the pre-game talk. It was a lot of emotion, a lot of just trying to keep everything in. ... It was tough. At the same time, it was very exciting to just be able to get my feet wet, just run around and take some hits and see everything at full speed."

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