Watson, Browns regroup following season shaped by suspension


By Tom Withers - AP Sports Writer



BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson is dealing with another suspension, this one not nearly as personal or punishing as the last.

His abridged first season with the Cleveland Browns is over.

He’s on another extended break.

One day after a 28-14 loss in Pittsburgh, Watson and his teammates cleaned out their lockers and tried to identify everything that went wrong during a 7-10 season that was shaped — and shifted — by his 11-game NFL suspension for alleged sexual misconduct.

In some ways, the Browns played two seasons, one before Watson’s ban with Jacoby Brissett as the starter, and then six games with the $230 million quarterback expected to change the franchise’s fortunes.

While going 3-3 down the stretch, Watson showed flashes of the three-time Pro Bowler who led the league in passing while in Houston. But he also had some rough moments, perhaps understandable given a 700-day layoff between games.

Watson knew it would be a challenge. He’s eager for it to continue.

“For 2023, yes, the expectations should be high because we have the talent,” Watson said. “We have the potential and we have the people and the pieces to be able to meet those expectations. We gotta make sure we do everything we can do consistently each and every week to try to meet those expectations.”

The Browns were undone by a lack consistency in all three phases, leading to the team missing the postseason for the second year in a row.

Watson was one of several players who pinned the team’s fall to fourth place in the AFC North on a lack of attention to detail.

“If we can do the little things, I think the big things can happen,” Watson said. “And that might sound kind of cliche, but it’s the truth. You gotta do the little things.”

Bigger, though, was his extended absence.

When they traded for Watson in March, sending three first-round draft picks to the Texans, the Browns understood the risks given his legal entanglement after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by two dozen women during massage therapy sessions.

And when he was ultimately suspended for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Cleveland’s season went from promising to problematic.

The suspension placed added stress on coach Kevin Stefanski and his staff, but general manager Andrew Berry insisted Monday that it didn’t change any goals.

“Our expectations are high every year,” Berry said at a news conference with Stefanski. “Look, it is a performance business, and regardless of circumstance, everybody goes through some level of adversity. In our minds, it has been to win games, and we didn’t do that enough this year.”

Watson’s six-game showcase gave the Browns hope that next season can last deeper into January.

“We’re excited about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We feel good about where he’s going to be as we get into the offseason, work through training camp and ultimately start in September. We are looking forward to that. We are looking forward to working with him.”

ON THE DEFENSIVE

The Browns’ first offseason move came with Stefanski firing defensive coordinator Joe Woods after three seasons.

Stefanski quickly began his search for a replacement, requesting permission to interview Pittsburgh assistant Brian Flores, New England linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, Seattle associate head coach Sean Desai and Tennessee defensive assistant Jim Schwartz.

Stefanski plans a close look at his defense’s scheme and personnel. Cleveland finished fifth against the pass (196.2 yards) but 25th against the run (135.2).

MOVING OUT

Before leaving, Brissett, who is hoping to compete for a starting job elsewhere, signed several of his No. 7 jerseys with personal messages and placed them in the lockers of teammates.

Along with Brissett, running back Kareem Hunt, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, cornerback Greedy Williams and linebacker Sione Takitaki are among the players not under contract for next season.

Hunt, who grew up in the Cleveland area, said playing for his hometown team was “like a dream come true.”

“I feel like I lived that out and I’m excited to see what else takes place,” he said.

WINNING WAYS

Nick Chubb’s best season ended way too soon for the Pro Bowl running back.

Although he finished with a career-high 1,525 yards, joining Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only Cleveland players to exceed 1,500, Chubb feels unfulfilled.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Individually, it’s something I’m proud of, for sure. But at the end of the day, I’m about winning and I didn’t have a lot this season. … Everybody has expectations coming into the season and we didn’t meet any of them.

“So going home right now isn’t great.”

NEXT STEPS

While Stefanski’s first priority is finding a defensive coordinator, he’s got a lengthy list of items to get to in his third offseason. He might not be done re-shaping his staff, and Stefanski intends to meet with Watson to discuss changes to Cleveland’s offense to better suit the mobile QB’s skill set.

By Tom Withers

AP Sports Writer