Deshaun Watson has settled all but four of the 24 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct, but the Browns quarterback is seemingly on the brink of unprecedented NFL discipline for his alleged wrongdoing. While two different Texas grand juries have declined to file criminal charges against the former Pro Bowler, who's publicly sworn innocence in light of accusations from private massage therapists, all signs point to the league suspending the QB, possible for the entire 2022 season or more.
NFL executives are recommending to Watson's disciplinary officer, jointly appointed with the NFL Players Association, that the new face of the Browns be banned at least one year,. The NFLPA, meanwhile, which previously championed Watson's record contract with Cleveland, is concerned the QB will be suspended indefinitely, .
So what does all this mean for Watson and the Browns? What happens under center in Cleveland if Watson is, in fact, sidelined for an entire year? Let's tackle all the pressing questions:
Can Deshaun Watson appeal his suspension?
Yes. No matter what Watson's independent disciplinary officer rules, both the NFL and NFLPA will have the right to appeal the decision. The only reason the NFL might appeal is if it deems Watson's expected suspension too lenient (i.e. less than a full season). Watson's appeal, therefore, would come via the NFLPA, which as the players' union represents the player's interests.
Is Watson likely to reduce his suspension by appealing?
No. The NFL has lessened its own discipline in high-profile suspensions before. Specific to QBs, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger saw his 2010 suspension reduced from six games to four after meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell regarding sexual assault allegations, and the Eagles' Michael Vick had his 2009 suspension cut from six games to two after his own meeting. The difference is, Roethlisberger, while not criminally charged, faced accusations from two different women, whereas Watson has faced as many as 24 different lawsuits at one time this offseason. Vick, meanwhile, had already served almost two years in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring. The NFL is reportedly already pushing for Watson to be severely punished as a result of its investigation into the QB's conduct, and any appeal from either the NFL or NFLPA would be decided by Goodell, or his designated representative. That means the ball is ultimately in the NFL's court.
Are there other ways Watson can reduce his suspension?
Yes. If the NFLPA appeals an NFL ban and Goodell upholds the suspension, the NFLPA could conceivably sue the NFL alleging unfair discipline in light of the league's seemingly lesser penalties for team owners facing sexual assault allegations, a la the Commanders' Daniel Snyder. Going to court would not be unprecedented, as the NFLPA also sought to overturn Adrian Peterson's 2014 ban and successfully delayed Tom Brady's infamous "Deflategate" suspension from 2015 to 2016. It's possible, should the NFLPA sue the NFL, that Watson would be cleared to play while awaiting a court's ruling on the matter.
What's the most likely outcome for Watson?
Probably adhering to whatever discipline the NFL imposes. Not because the QB has publicly hinted that "" the findings of NFL investigators, but rather because his historic contract with the Browns is already structured to minimize significant financial losses with a 2022 absence. If delaying a lengthy ban is the best-case scenario for Watson (which seems likely), then it stands to reason he and the Browns would rather take the "L" now and not complicate his contract, or his future as a free agent, unless of course they're that desperate to immediately win games and somehow justify this entire ordeal.
What will happen at QB for the Browns?
This is the biggest football question of the fallout. Should Watson be sidelined through 2022, the Browns' stated primary fill-in is Jacoby Brissett, signed this offseason to a one-year, $4.65 million deal as the new backup. Cleveland's last No. 2, Case Keenum, went 2-0 in two emergency starts in 2021 but was traded to the Bills. The 29-year-old Brissett, meanwhile, is 14-23 in his career as a starter, serving primarily as a backup with the Patriots, Colts and Dolphins.
Is Jacoby Brissett any good?
Great question, Browns fans! Here's our best answer: yes, as a backup. Brissett has bounced around some unideal situations, offering serviceable production on short notice, but for a conservative passer, he's never been especially accurate, making him best suited for short-term work off the bench. The best thing he has going for him in 2022 is the Browns' supporting cast, which has star power at running back (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt), wide receiver (Amari Cooper) and up front, where two starters were Pro Bowlers in 2021. Even with that help, it remains to be seen if Brissett has the "it" factor to lead more than a wild-card bid.
What about Baker Mayfield?
Don't count on it. Four years after arriving with gusto as the No. 1 overall draft pick, Mayfield has already said multiple public goodbyes to Cleveland, and while he recently left the door ever so slightly open for a return while addressing Watson's likely suspension, the reality is the Browns don't want any further headaches in an already tumultuous QB room. More than that, they don't care to pay Mayfield his guaranteed $18.8 million for 2022, especially with a record $230M already committed to Watson. The most likely scenario for Baker, who had a mercurial four-year run in town, is a summer trade to one of the last remaining teams open to a veteran addition (i.e. the Seahawks or Panthers).
What are the Browns' other QB options in 2022?
Brissett will be there, with a chance at Opening Day QB1 duties, no matter what. Assuming Mayfield is gone, the only other QB on the roster is Joshua Dobbs, the former Steelers backup who's thrown all of 17 career passes. It's more likely Cleveland would explore external help to challenge or replace Brissett. The most intriguing name is Jimmy Garoppolo, who may have been a last-resort candidate to replace Mayfield had the Watson deal fallen through and Garoppolo not undergone shoulder surgery at the start of the offseason. Jimmy G is more expensive than Mayfield, at $25.5M, but he's very available as the 49ers look to begin the Trey Lance era, and more than that, he's a proven winning QB whose familiarity with a run-first offense would make him a logical fit for Kevin Stefanski's offense. As a last-gasp emergency placeholder for a roster ready to compete in 2022, you could do a lot worse. Other veterans who could be available include Eagles backup Gardner Minshew (a cheap trade option) and unsigned former Panthers star Cam Newton (don't bet on it).