CLEVELAND — As the dust starts to settle on one of the most turbulent weeks in the history of the Cleveland Browns, it's time to take a deep breath and consider all of the ramifications of a deal for Deshaun Watson.
Yes, the Browns have a franchise quarterback. Yes, Watson is incredibly gifted and can put up video game numbers with this offense.
But at what price?
That's what I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around. And I'm not just talking about money.
$230 million reasons why
Let's all just stop for a second and realize what the Browns did on Friday. They were part of one of the biggest blockbuster trades in the long history of the National Football League. The numbers are staggering.
In terms of draft currency, the Browns became just the second team in the history of the NFL to part with THREE first-round draft picks in a trade. The last team to pay such a hefty price was the Minnesota Vikings in the mammoth trade with the Dallas Cowboys for Herschel Walker in 1989. While Walker went on to have a solid, but unspectacular rest of his career, Dallas stocked up their roster with talent on their way to three Super Bowl titles in four years.
I'm not suggesting that the same thing is going to happen to the Browns. I'm just saying that forfeiting your first-round picks in three straight years is a huge risk. You better hope that Watson can get you to the Super Bowl, because otherwise, you rob yourself of the chance to load up your roster with top talent.
And then of course, there's the contract. One tweet from ESPN's Adam Schefter says it all: "Every dollar of Deshaun Watson’s new five-year, $230 million deal is guaranteed, per sources, setting a new record for the highest guarantee given to an NFL player."
Want to know why Deshaun Watson changed his mind and decided to come to Cleveland after all? Cold hard cash. The Browns have moved all of their chips in the NFL poker game in betting that Watson can get them to the promised land. That's a hell of a risk to take for any player, let alone one that comes with exceptionally heavy baggage.
I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television or on a digital platform. But as I tried to explain in a post I wrote right after the trade, Deshaun Watson is facing a few legal hurdles as a result of allegations of sexual assault from 22 women that first came to light last year.
Let's be clear about a couple of things. From a criminal standpoint, a grand jury elected not to indict Watson last week. He's innocent until proven guilty regardless. But he faces a mountain of legal hurdles moving forward.
But those 22 women who accuse Watson of sexual misconduct during massages have filed civil lawsuits against him. Earlier this week, Watson sat for a deposition and was questioned about two of the plaintiffs suing him. The attorney for the plaintiffs says he intends to question Watson about all of the cases. It's going to take awhile and could certainly be a distraction heading into the 2022 season.
Could Watson get suspended by the NFL at some point despite being cleared of criminal wrongdoing? It's entirely possible. I thought The Athletic's Lindsay Jones and Aaron Reiss laid the case out beautifully in a piece written earlier this week.
The NFL's personal conduct policy gives Commissioner Roger Goodell a lot of latitude for punishment, even if offenders are not facing criminal charges.
Consider the following list of players who were given notable suspensions despite a lack of criminal charges against them:
- Ben Roethlisberger: Six games, reduced to four on appeal, in 2010 after allegations of sexual assault.
- Jameis Winston: Three games in 2018, after a female Uber driver accused him of sexual misconduct.
- Ezekiel Elliott: Six games in 2017, after an accusation of domestic violence by a former girlfriend.
- Kareem Hunt: Eight games in 2019, after a physical altercation with a woman at a hotel was captured on surveillance video.
So it's entirely possible that despite the grand jury's decision, Watson could still be facing a lengthy suspension at some point. Those games away could be the difference between the Browns making the playoffs, or being home for the holidays. And when you've gone all-in, you can't afford to miss the postseason.
I've covered Cleveland sports closely for more than 20 years. I'm not sure that I've seen an athlete divide the fan base as much as Watson has in Cleveland. And that was earlier this week when the Browns brass just met with the three-time Pro Bowler. Now, social media is erupting.
Fans are divided into two camps: The ones that want to win at all costs against the ones that are disgusted by the allegations made against Watson by nearly two-dozen women.
I had a friend text me today: "What do I tell my son about Watson?"
Honestly, I don't know. Despite what the grand jury decided, Deshaun Watson has been found guilty in the court of public opinion for many people across the nation. And that doesn't just go away. In this time of the #MeToo movement and renewed calls for social justice in this country, we are going to see protests, signs, and a lot of negativity directed towards Watson, the Browns, and the NFL. Are the Haslams ready for boycotts? Can Kevin Stefanski and his coaching staff block out the noise and focus on football?
We're going to find out.
Whether this move to get Watson was a product of Jimmy Haslam's desperation to win now, or not, this trade will ultimately decide the fates of head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry. Remember, Baker Mayfield wasn't their guy, he belonged to John Dorsey and Hue Jackson.
The pressure is going to be turned up to volcano heat in Berea. Every move that Stefanski makes with Watson and the offense will be under close scrutiny, while Berry will be tasked with putting the right pieces in place around the franchise quarterback, despite limitations of salary and draft picks.
This was a move made to go to the Super Bowl, something the Cleveland Browns have never done.
And if it doesn't work out, we know what will happen next. Because you can't fire the owners.
I want the Browns to go to the Super Bowl. I want the Browns to be an organization we can take pride in.
But I don't want to win at the cost of alienating so many of my fellow Northeast Ohioans.
Because that's too high of a price to pay.
More Deshaun Watson to the Browns coverage:
- Cleveland Browns acquire Deshaun Watson in blockbuster trade; expected to sign record $230 million contract
- A look at Deshaun Watson's legal situation as he joins Cleveland Browns. Can he be suspended by NFL?
- Social media reacts to Deshaun Watson traded to Cleveland Browns
- 'Cleveland, LETSSSS GOOOO!': Deshaun Watson celebrates trade to Cleveland Browns on Instagram