Deshaun Watson came out of the tunnel at NRG Stadium in Houston – in uniform for a regular season game for the first time in 700 days – and stopped near the corner of the end zone. He looked down at the navy blue paint on his feet, cracked his neck, made the sign of the cross, looked up and pointed at the sky, beat his chest twice and moved up the side of the Brown.
By then the boos were raining down – before a big cheer came, coming from the few in the stands, the sound went out. It was a little less than an hour before kickoff.
Watson continued up the field towards center Hjalte Froholdt, shaking hands with his teammate. As he prepared to take a leap, he saw the owners of both teams 10 yards away. So he swung over to give his old boss, Houston’s Cal McNair, a handshake and a half-hug, while nodding and acknowledging his current manager, Cleveland’s Jimmy Haslam, and retreating back to Froholdt for a warm-up up.
But the most remarkable thing, and perhaps symbolic of this strange Sunday, was what happened just to the left of Haslam. MacNeil’s wife, Hannah, stood. She was wearing purple cleats, part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign, which featured the logos of the Houston Area Women’s Center, a facility that serves local victims of sexual and domestic violence. She also wore a purple dress, as a sign of solidarity with those women.
As Watson approached her husband, she subtly turned back on the back quarter. My understanding is that it was not an accident.
When I later asked the McNairs about Watson, both politely declined to comment. But Hannah had made a point. She delivered the vision that will stick with me the most from the afternoon when the disgraced star, accused by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault, and serving an 11-game suspension, returned to the NFL.
Some in attendance at the half-empty stadium tried to make a point, as did Hannah McNair. Others, from Houston and Cleveland, came to show support for Watson, believing that with the legal process complete, he should be able to move on. Many others, it seemed, were just for a football game, and not a morality play. And Watson was there to play football.
How did it play? Well, he and the Browns got out of here with a 27-14 win. But that’s just a small part of a complicated story that unfolded Sunday in Houston.
It’s hard to believe we’re nearing the final month of the regular season, but here we are and we’ve got a lot to do as we look back at Week 13 in this week’s MMQB. Within the column, there is…
• Joe Burrow on an unselfish Bengals team staking his claim among the AFC’s elite.
• Nick Bosa on leading his hometown Dolphins, and life after Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending injury.
• Josh Allen on his latest turn.
• Kevin O’Connell on an unexpected visitor on Thanksgiving.
• That’s all in the Top Ten, and we’ll bring you notes on Georgia, TCU, Kansas State, USC and, yes, Deion Sanders in Six From Saturday.
And with that, we return to Houston.
If you came to Houston expecting a polarized crowd in its views on Watson, it really wasn’t. I did a lap around the stadium at about 10:30 local time, about 90 minutes before kickoff, expecting protests and a level of unrest and unrest. What I got was far from that.
If you didn’t know the story unfolding inside, you wouldn’t have a clue that this was just any other NFL game. At the south end of the stadium, there was a stage with a hype man getting the crowd ready to go, with a dozen cheerleaders in front of him. There were people in Texans jerseys. There were people in Browns jerseys. There was tailgating in the parking lots, and kids everywhere.
A couple of Texan executives explained that there was city fatigue going into this one. Houstonians have had Watson’s story for nearly two years, which is different from how fans nationally digested it, reacting as new developments emerged along the way. And so, outside the stadium, the fans were loyal enough to still show up to support a team that came in at 1-9-1 right there, again, for football.
Inside, however, there were small pockets of fans who felt passionate about Watson. Scottie Weaver, 44, made the trip from Columbus, Ohio, with his girlfriend. He informed me that he was the guy who went viral in August by bringing a “F— Them Hoes” sign to a preseason game — and his son carrying a “Free Watson” sign to go with it. He originally planned to go to the Browns’ Monday night game on Halloween against the Bengals, but pushed back the trip when Watson’s suspension was extended to 11 games.
“When they said they pushed it back, I made sure we were here, front row, sideline, everything,” Weaver says.
Sixteen-year-old Cameron Cerrano stood a few feet away from Weaver, wearing Watson’s half-Browns, half-Texans jersey, explaining that he had rooted for the Texans “for a long time” and began to cheer for the Browns “a few years back,” and the jersey was made as a result. “I thought I was going to get some looks coming in here, but I just shared, like, good things about it,” says Cerrano. “I don’t have a big conflict.”
Up above him, in the lower bowl, was Solomon Steele, who made the drive from Mississippi, and wore a Browns helmet (a real one) and a Watson jersey. He picked up the helmet, signed by Nick Chubb, at a mall in Houston this trip, for a cool $600, and bought the jersey back over the summer.
“I ordered my jersey like three months ago,” Steele says. “When they said he was coming back, the first game back in Houston, I said, Man, I’ve got to go, bring my whole family. So we came out here for like four days, just cold, but we had a good time.”
The Texans, for their part, did little to stop anyone from voicing their opinions on Watson. I was told that their procedure for Sunday was much the same as it would be on any other Sunday. They weren’t confiscating signs, telling people to turn their shirts inside out, or doing anything outside of their normal policy on offensive messages or signs that blocked the view of others in the stadium.
Frugia was among the fans who were vocal in their criticism of Watson.
And so Shannon Frugia carried a sign across the stadium that said “I’d rather be 1-9-1 than have Deshaun Watson as my quarterback.” Frugia, wearing a red cowboy hat with a Texans logo and red sequins on it, is local and has been a Texans season ticket holder since the franchise’s inception in 2002.
“I hate that the NFL allowed this to be the game he returned – they should be ashamed of themselves,” says Frugia. “They should have given him a bigger suspension. And it’s shameful that they’re letting him play today, of all games.”
“Because he [assaulted] 20 plus women in this city,” says Frugia. “And he’s allowed to come back and have a parade as a welcome home. That’s terrible.”
Meanwhile, there was one fan – the self-styled “Ultimate Fan” (wearing Ultimate Warrior face paint to drive it home), Steve Beckholt – who Watson decided to say hello to before the game. After, in character, giving me a rundown of his history with Watson, and how Watson recognized him because Beckholt has been coming to games for years, I asked if he was contradicting his some previous feelings for Watson.
“The man is innocent until proven guilty,” he said.
“A man is innocent until proven guilty.”
The football part of Watson’s return to the field, and to Houston, was less complicated. But it wasn’t really that simple, either. That’s in part because Watson cost three first-round picks and $230 million guaranteed, meaning expectations were sky high. But a quarterback’s ability to work in a pro football game, after so much time away, can’t be turned on like a faucet.
“I mean, I can’t even equate that to anything someone would do in a regular 9-to-5,” Browns All-Pro Myles Garrett told me as he left the stadium. “If you haven’t done your job for two years and you’re immediately thrust into the highest rank and you have to perform at the highest level and expect no flaws because, you know , you are one of the best people to do it. in the league, that would be crazy. Of course, you will have to take some time, you will have to adjust again. This is the highest level of our profession.
“Not being able to get on the field, and getting the time and getting used to not only playing here, but playing on turf, there are a lot of different factors involved. It just takes an adjustment period, especially for quarterbacks. There is so much going on, so many different looks. He has seen this team for many years. We are not worried at all about where he is and what kind of player he can be, because he has shown that he was special. We have seen him be special on the practice field.”
But Watson, admittedly, Sunday was not special. “I will say that I felt every one of those 700 days,” he said in his post-match press conference. Some moments were rougher than others.
One came late in the first quarter, when he threw Amari Cooper in the end zone and didn’t see rookie safety Jalen Pitre, who picked him off to preserve a 3-0 Texans lead. Another came a quarter after him, when the pocket fell upon him; he threw the ball incomplete to the flat after mistaking it, which would almost have resulted in a sideways throw.
Then, in the third quarter, there were consecutive snaps, on separate possessions, when his rust showed again. The first sack was on third-and-5; he didn’t feel the rush properly and climbed the puck right into the head of Houston’s Ogbo Okoronkwo. The second ball Watson bounced to Demetric Felton, up the right sideline – he threw it out of play-action and just plain dirty.
“The guy hasn’t played in two years,” says Cooper. “I mean, it’s not like he played last week. I think he played a good game to have such a huge layoff. At the end of the day, what really counts in this series is wins and losses. And that’s why it’s not a single-player game. Everyone is harping on Deshaun’s return. But at the end of the day, we all have to play well together.”
And in that way, the Browns showed up for Watson.
On the play after Felton’s failed throw, Kareem Hunt ripped off a 15-yard run to get Cleveland back on schedule, sparking a drive that led to a 43-yard field goal by rookie Cade York to make it two properties. game.
All told, the Browns defense scored two goals (on Denzel Ward’s fumble return and Tony Fields’ Pick-Six), the special teams scored another (on Donovan Peoples-Jones’ punt return), and their fumble on a punt set up a field goal. Basically, the offense had one punt—they had the scoring drive in advance, but they also took a safety—and only one drive covered more than 45 yards.
While the offense struggled to find its footing, the defense scored two touchdowns, including a pick-six by Fields (42).
That said, there were positives hidden in the hole, too. Cooper had a cut into the third quarter (good for 13 yards) to convert a third down, on which he was working on a hi-lo backside concept, the defender felt the man underneath and threw behind him to Cooper it. Another Cooper throw on third down (this one for 10 yards) in the fourth quarter – he saw the nickel snapping inside the slot, so he threw the pass to Cooper behind him. And Peoples-Jones had a 27-yarder, just before the pick, when he stood up to position himself with an oncoming free rusher.
Then there were the flashes he showed while stretching plays and how his presence affected the way the defense could tackle the Browns’ running game, with the backs staying home to accounting for it rather than crashing down on current supports.
“Teams have to respect his ability to run the ball,” says Jack Conklin. “And that helps take away a defender that we have to deal with and it helps our running backs. I think you can see that’s going to flourish for us and help us in the future, just his incredible ability and speed. It’s going to be something that defenses have to deal with and respect.”
These are baby steps, of course. But after 700 days away, almost everyone agreed that those would still be necessary to get Watson back up to speed. They better win.
Now the question is, What next?
Next week, in Cincinnati, the media pressure probably won’t be there. The Bengals will welcome the Browns home at 8-4 with a lot on the line and a crowd more concerned about the AFC North race than anything. There will probably be signs, and boos, and all that. But it will also be another phase for Watson, as each week, the storyline and the crowd around Watson will fade. That’s just how these things work.
The Browns hope they can continue to buy him time to get comfortable, and he’ll be able to get closer to where he was two years ago.
“We’re making sure he knows he doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be Superman,” says Garrett. “We’ll be able to make plays, too. And when his time comes, we need a play, we know he’ll be able to make it. “
Another question is whether the right has been given to him at this point. But that question was not to be answered on Sunday. There wasn’t much else, football or otherwise, over a very strange weekend in Houston either.
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