CLEVELAND — Editor's note: the video in the player above is from a previous story.
When the Cleveland Browns traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson earlier this spring, they did so with the understanding that Watson likely wouldn’t be available for all 17 games this regular season. Watson is currently facing 24 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and is under the NFL’s investigation to determine if he has violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
The NFL can suspend Watson for four games, six games, 17 games, or really however many games it wants. While Watson is likely sidelined for whatever that undetermined amount of time is, the Browns will turn to backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Any thought that the team could play Baker Mayfield while Watson deals with his potential suspension should have died this week as the team excused him from next week’s mandatory minicamp. That was always a silly train of thought that had been floated out there by some, but now it should officially be of the past.
The question becomes, how long can the Browns survive a Watson suspension and still find themselves in the playoff hunt? The answer isn’t as cut and dry as saying if Watson is suspended for six games the Browns are still a playoff team and if he’s suspended for 10 games you can kiss postseason dreams goodbye. It’s going to depend, significantly, on what the Browns and head coach Kevin Stefanski can get out of Brissett.
There’s not really an argument that at their best, Brissett is better than Mayfield. In the same breath, it’s fair to say that Brissett should be better than the abysmal season put forth by Mayfield last year. That horrid stretch of football played by the 2018 No. 1 overall pick still allowed the Browns to finish with an 8-9 record, barely missing the playoffs. It’s also fair to say that Brissett likely isn’t capable of the type of season Mayfield had in 2020, at least in the latter half of that year.
Brissett has been a mostly average quarterback throughout his career in the NFL. Most years that’s not enough to guide a team into the playoffs, but it would have been with the Browns last year, and maybe it could be again this year.
Now, should the Browns be considered a true playoff contender if Watson is suspended the entire season? No. But it’s not impossible either.
Brissett’s best year as a professional came back in 2019 with the Indianapolis Colts. He guided the team to a 7-8 record during his 15 starts while throwing for 2,942 yards, 18 touchdowns, and six interceptions. If he can replicate those numbers, the Browns should be able to at least contend for a postseason berth.
One question worth thinking about is how close to the 2020 Mayfield can Brissett be? That year, Mayfield overcame a slow start to throw for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Can Stefanski push Brissett to be 75 percent of that version of Mayfield? That would be essentially a repeat of what he did in 2019 with the Colts, only on a team with what shapes up to be a better roster.
With the Browns having a relatively easy slate to open the season, opening up with the Panthers, followed by dates with the Jets, Steelers, and Falcons, the team should be at least 3-1 to start, if not 4-0. That, combined with what should be a relatively strong defensive unit, should give the Browns a chance at the very least at making a push towards the playoffs without Watson.
Now, this isn’t making an argument that the team can still win the Super Bowl should Watson be unavailable throughout the entire season. That’s not the case. It’s not even to make the case that the Browns would be a likely playoff team without Watson, but it’s not an outlandish thought that they could be in the mix.
Obviously, the less time Watson misses due to a suspension, the more likely it is for the Browns to be in the playoff hunt, but discounting Brissett as serviceable shouldn’t be done, either.