BEREA, Ohio – Aside from battling the Houston Texans and some fans who are likely to taunt him, Deshaun Watson may have another not-so-visible opponent in his first NFL regular-season game in nearly two years.
Rust. 700 days worth of it.
Watson will make his long-awaited debut Sunday for the Cleveland Browns after serving an 11-game league suspension for alleged sexual misconduct, and it's not clear how he'll play after the long layoff.
His last regular-season game was Jan. 3, 2021, before his relationship with the team that drafted him crumbled, before he demanded the Texans trade him and before two dozen women accused him of lewd behavior during massages. He has denied the accusations, and settled lawsuits.
Watson's return could be spectacular, shaky or something in between.
“Going back to playing quarterback after two years is tough,” Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “Obviously he’s been working out and things like that, but it’s so much different getting out there and actually getting those live reps.
"But I applaud him, I salute him and we’re going to be right behind him the whole, entire way.”
The last time he played, Watson passed for 365 yards, three touchdowns and posted a 115.9 passer rating for Houston in a 41-38 loss to Tennessee. That game must seem like a lifetime ago for the 27-year-old, who admitted he's not even sure what to expect.
“We will have to see Sunday, honestly," Watson said this week in his first comments since August. “It might take time or it might not take time.”
Watson likened his return to “riding a bike.” But he might need training wheels back on for a bit.
His readiness is a legitimate concern, heightened by his rough outing in Cleveland's exhibition opener in August. But Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney watched his teammate ramp up his activity over the past few weeks, and is confident Watson will look like himself.
“He still can sling it,” said Clowney, who played with Watson for two seasons in Houston and re-signed with the Browns to be with him again. “I know he’s a little nervous. It’s been two years, a big let off from two years.
"But I feel like he’ll go out there and do his thing.”
When last on the field, Watson was among the game's top quarterbacks, leading the league with 4,823 yards passing in 2020, finishing with 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions.
His mobility outside the pocket makes him equally dangerous, and Watson's running ability will allow Browns coach Kevin Stefanski to delve deeper into his playbook — run-pass options come to mind.
That may not happen right away, and Stefanski said there's only one way for Watson to combat any potential rust: “You’ve just got to trust in your preparation, trust in what you do in the meeting room, individual period, all the practice reps you get.”
Watson worked with a private QB coach during the early stages of his suspension, when he was banned from the team facility, and has practiced with the Browns for the past two weeks. This week, he took over from Jacoby Brissett and was back with the starters.
“He’s getting a lot of the reps and trying to get extra reps with some of the guys that just build that trust and build that feeling where he knows how guys coming in and out of breaks and where they’re gonna be in the route,” quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing said. "Certainly trying to push that over these last couple weeks has been big.”
There's also the contact factor. Watson hasn't been hit, but Stefanski downplayed the notion his quarterback might not be ready for it.
“He’s played a lot of football in his life,” Stefanski said. “It’s part of the game. ... He's got his job to do.”
The Browns (4-7) may need to run the table to make the playoffs. And they'll have the man in whom they invested $230 million at the helm of that push.
Judging by the vibe in Cleveland's locker room Friday, the Browns are braced for a show.
“Last time I saw him, he was electric,” star defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We’ve all been a part of it or seen it in some way, shape or form. He’s very talented and there's a little bit of an excitement building.
“I’m sure there will be a little bit of taking it slow, trying to get those short throws, easy throws in and getting his confidence up — or those runs. And then once he feels warm, and feels like he can make those bigger throws, his confidence will come back pretty quickly and he’s going to start airing it out.”
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