Where did Deshaun Watson’s game go? The Browns need to figure it out quickly

On Monday night, an NFC personnel man staying late in his facility had a television on his office. It was muted, but he glanced at the screen periodically to watch Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson take snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football.

Watson had already thrown a pick-six on his first pass and now he was struggling to move the offense. But watching it unfold wasn’t just a random curiosity for this personnel man. He’d done some scouting work on Watson when he was at Clemson, and then worked on a second assessment when Watson was put onto the trade block by the Houston Texans during the 2021 season. While the personnel man’s team ultimately never engaged in talks with the Texans, he remained intrigued in how Watson’s career would unfold in Cleveland. And what he saw on Monday night bothered him.

“It wasn’t the guy I saw before the trade,” the personnel man said. “He’s doing things that are outside of his football character.”

The personnel man went into a spot assessment of what stuck out in the 26-22 loss to the Steelers.

“The facemasks, throwing the ball against the wall [after a touchdown], pushing the official,” he said. “… That was never how he played in Houston.”

In his time with Cleveland, Deshaun Watson hasn't come close to playing at the same level he reached with the Houston Texans. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

In his time with Cleveland, Deshaun Watson hasn’t come close to playing at the same level he reached with the Houston Texans. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

He could have added the fumbles, interceptions, inaccuracy and sudden deflation in fan confidence when it comes to Watson leading a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Not to mention the general lack of explosive moments in Watson’s eight starts for the Browns. A multitude of factors that are still not fazing the power brokers inside Cleveland’s building — all of whom still believe their quarterback is knocking off rust when it comes to playing at game speed.

At this point, the Browns’ internal confidence shouldn’t be surprising. It’s still just two games into the season. Cleveland was a strip-sack and fumble return for a touchdown from potentially moving to 2-0 on the Steelers’ home turf. And this was in a game that their best player, running back Nick Chubb, was lost for the season in front of his own teammates’ eyes. The Browns’ defense also played well, which is always a good sign for a quarterback still trying to find his groove.

But here’s the thing: Watson’s last great game — in his last great season — was Jan. 3, 2021, when he threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns in a narrow loss to the Tennessee Titans. That was nearly two years and nine months ago. To put that expanse of time in perspective, when Watson walked off the field after that performance, Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine for another 13 months.

So yeah, it’s been a while since Watson has been anything near the elite quarterback club. And despite having an offseason of work with his teammates, a full passing program, and plenty of time to immerse himself in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense, he’s still looking like a shell of what was. That would be concerning just from the element of his annual $46 million guaranteed salary, but now comes with an even more penetrating spotlight.

Because Chubb is gone for the season, and everything now rests on Watson’s shoulders.

But before we get to what that means, it’s worth considering what Stefanski continues to sell about Watson.

“I think it’s never about one person,” he told reporters earlier this week. “I completely understand that the quarterback gets way too much of the credit, way too much of the blame. That’s just life of being a quarterback in the NFL. It’s the [same as the] head coach. You get all the credit, you don’t deserve it. You get all the blame, it doesn’t matter. You own it. … When you’re talking about the pass game, to be precise in the pass game, you need great protection. You need great footwork from the quarterback position. You need guys to run routes at proper depth. We as coaches have to design it as such and get people in those spots.”

First and foremost, the Browns don’t have the problem of Watson owning it. He has said repeatedly that he needs to play better and that the failures ultimately fall on him regardless of what is happening. From a leadership standpoint, that’s what the team is looking for. And there’s also the matter of the film, which did showcase tremendous pass protection breakdowns against the Steelers. The strip sack fumble alone, Watson had nothing to do in that situation but protect the ball and not fumble (which he failed to do).

The game’s first interception? It was some kind of miscommunication or element of unfamiliarity between Watson and tight end Harrison Bryant. Watson threw a ball that went wider than where Bryant had stopped. Yet, even with the pass being a beat late and wide of target, Bryant did manage to get hands on it. Which isn’t good enough, but at least illustrates that the play was close. A fumble by tight end David Njoku hurt, too, and Watson had nothing to do with that, either.

Of course, none of that takes away from the general malaise of what is happening in Cleveland. The defense appears to be very, very good. But the offense looks like a still-slightly out-of-sync edition of what they’re trying to nail down. Now Chubb is gone, removing a running back that is instrumental in selling Stefanski’s play-action laden passing scheme.

Taken from a wider vantage, there is plenty to be worried about in Cleveland. But not all of it is Watson. The offensive line has to be far better in pass protection. And if it can’t be, Watson is going to have to take some more risks with his legs, or throw the ball away more often to avoid taking sacks. Lest anyone forget, that was a never-ending storyline with the Texans, too, getting Watson to get rid of the ball faster or just in any general way to avoid sacks. That never really happened consistently, and now it’s popping up again.

Fans have noticed. The Browns have noticed. Surely Watson has noticed, too. And everyone agrees that something in his game — and how he’s navigating the realities of the personnel around him — has to get better. Because the nitpicking and mountainous expectations won’t. That’s the exchange he made when he forced his way to Cleveland. And it will follow him everywhere, just like the criticism on social media, television, newspapers, the internet and every other corner that draws eyeballs and voices. As he said Thursday, it’s a chorus he knows exists and has to accept.

“It’s impossible not to see it unless I just turn off my phone completely [or] turn off the TV completely,” Watson said. “But, you know, it comes with the territory. It comes with the status and the standard that people hold me to. So I don’t look at it as anything bad. I don’t look at it as anything personal. It’s part of the game. It’s part of my level. And it’s part of — you know, I look at is as people hold me to this standard. So I feel like [I have to] make sure I play to that standard and if I’m not then I have to continue to find ways to get better.”

“I don’t take it personal. I don’t get in my feelings about it. I just continue to keep growing and keep learning and keep working each and every day.”

The days have folded into months. The months have folded into years. Seemingly everyone is still waiting for Houston’s Deshaun Watson to walk through that door — and it will never be more important than now, when Nick Chubb isn’t.