Browns QB Deshaun Watson set to start against Washington, a year after “blur” of hyped debut


By TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson’s debut with the Cleveland Browns last summer was hyped and largely horrid.

This year’s lacks any hysteria.

Watson, who was on the field for just eight plays in the 2022 preseason, will start Friday night against the Washington Commanders, giving him another chance to knock off some of the rust he developed during his lengthy NFL suspension.

A year ago, Watson, fresh off signing a controversial $230 million contract with Cleveland, hadn’t played in 19 months and was only days from being punished by the league for violating its personal conduct policy when the Browns played at Jacksonville.

More than two dozen women accused Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions while he played for Houston, and the buildup to his first game with Cleveland was extraordinary for the preseason.

Before taking the field against the Jaguars, Watson offered his first public apology “to all the women I have impacted” and then played some forgettable football.

Roundly booed throughout his three series, Watson competed just 1 of 5 passes for 7 yards and didn’t pick up a first down. He was also targeted by fans, who jeered him with vulgar chants.

On Wednesday, Watson said he barely remembers that warm night in Florida. A lot has happened since.

“It’s like a blur, to be honest,” he said.

Things are clearer now for Cleveland’s much-debated quarterback, whose latest fresh start begins Friday.

Watson said before Wednesday’s practice that he doesn’t know how long coach Kevin Stefanski will play him against the Commanders, but that he’s looking forward to the chance to work on “operational” aspects of the game.

The Browns open on Sept. 10 against Cincinnati.

“It doesn’t even matter to me,” Watson said when asked how much he’d like to play. “I’m a competitor, so however long he (Stefanski) wants us to play, I’m going to go out there and compete for that length of time and we’ll see what happens.”

Stefanski intends to play Watson and the “majority” of Cleveland’s starters. He has a number of plays in mind, but he said the actual amount will be dependent on “if you’re getting what you want accomplished.”

The Browns sat Watson in their final two preseason games last year so they could get Jacoby Brissett ready to start.

When Watson returned from his suspension, he went 3-3 as a starter and rarely looked like a former Pro Bowl QB — never mind an elite one — or worthy of the fully guaranteed investment the Browns made him.

Watson’s rust was as orange as a Cleveland helmet.

Does he still have some?

“I have no idea,” Watson said. “It’s just really once we get out there and play, we’ll see what happens and go from there.”

Stefanski deferred to his starting QB when asked if there is any carryover.

“I would tell I’m you very pleased with where he is right now in these practices,” said Stefanski, adding all four Cleveland quarterbacks will play.

Watson sat out last week’s Hall of Fame game against the New York Jets, and is eager to get on the field. He’s not taking any snaps — even in the preseason — for granted.

“It’s everything,” he said. “You just got to get that routine again. You just got to start fresh, get back to the basics of how you get yourself prepared for the game, mentally, physically, and just really just operational for the team so we can go out there and be sharp.”

Watson has had a solid training camp, but there have been days when Cleveland’s revamped defense has dominated. He’s embraced the challenge of scrambling away from All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett or trying to complete a pass to his favorite new target, wide receiver Elijah Moore, with Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward in coverage.

And while the defense has enjoyed the upper hand throughout much of camp, defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo has seen enough moments of brilliance from Watson to think he’s going to have a special season.

“Oh, man, that guy,” Okoronkwo said. “He has an arm — from the side throws to the deep throws. I mean, Deshaun Watson is Deshaun Watson. He definitely was rusty last year. Who wouldn’t be after missing that much ball?

“But y’all are going to see Deshaun Watson football this year, for sure.”

NOTES: No. 2 RB Jerome Ford, who hurt his right hamstring in practice Monday, has been ruled out from Friday’s game. Stefanski said Ford is being evaluated weekly and it’s “unfair to say yet” whether he’ll miss the start of the season. Ford is expected to spell star Nick Chubb. Ford’s injury could move general manager Andrew Berry to sign another proven veteran back.

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