Browns bet on Deshaun Watson was doomed from the start

The Browns’ reckless bet on quarterback Deshaun Watson is a failure. Desperate to change the team’s trajectory after just three winning seasons in the past 20 years, Cleveland’s front office was comfortable sign the most expensive guaranteed contract in NFL history and trade three years as a first-round pick for a quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault or other inappropriate behavior. The allegations against Watson include ejaculating on women without their consent, touching women with his penis without their consent, and orally penetrating two women without their consent.

On Monday, it looked like the Browns’ ethical flexibility had paid off — at least in football terms. Sue Robinson, the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to decide a penalty, found Watson guilty of sexual assault, threatening the well-being of another person and conduct that undermines the integrity of the NFL — but it suspended Watson for just six games and imposed no fines. By then, Cleveland was surely reveling in his good fortune. The rest of the sporting world? He was indignant.

But on Wednesday, a case that has been going on for more than two years was extended for a few more weeks when the NFL announced it would appeal and seek to impose both a fine and a longer, indefinite suspension. Such a move could reduce the Browns’ chances in 2022 and beyond — plus, hopefully, teach other teams the risk of trying to win at all costs.

The NFLPA has until after business hours Friday to file a written response to the appeal, but at that point it has few options. Article 46 of the collective agreement grants Commissioner Roger Goodell the ability to determine discipline on appeal (or delegate the decision to someone of his choosing – in this case, former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey), and no new evidence can be presented. Goodell’s decision will be binding and final, and – based on reports of the league’s approach to the appeal – there is almost no reason to believe Watson will face less than a full year. suspension.

It’s not hard to argue that this would be the right outcome, given the volume and seriousness of the charges against Watson – conduct that Robinson found Watson guilty of and called “predatory” in her ruling. . And now is already a big time for the league as it continues to face scrutiny from a congressional investigation into the Washington Commanders’ team culture and treatment of female employees.

This judgment could be felt acutely by the Browns on the football field. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo model, which adjusts a team’s forecast based on the quality of its starting QB, Cleveland would have been the favorite to win the division for the first time since 1989 with Watson available for the entire season. Our model gave the Browns a 58% chance of making the playoffs in this scenario and a 4.2% chance of winning the Super Bowl.

How Deshaun Watson’s suspension affects the Browns

Cleveland Browns’ 2022 season predictions from the FiveThirtyEight model, based on how long QB Deshaun Watson has been suspended by the NFL

Hanging length Won Losses PPG Diff. Make playoffs Victory Div. Earn SB
zero games 9.7 7.2 +2.6 57.9% 32.8% 4.2%
six games 8.8 8.1 +0.7 46.8 25.9 3.6
Full season 7.3 9.7 -2.6 27.1 12.5 0.7

Source: ESPN

After Robinson’s decision on Monday, we ran the model assuming Watson would be out six games. Although the Browns’ odds plummeted under those circumstances, Cleveland was still very much on the hunt: Its playoff odds fell to 47%, for example, but remained close to the playoff odds of division rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore (53% each). And the Browns’ probability of winning the Super Bowl in that six-game suspension scenario fell to 3.6%, down just 0.6 percentage points from the projection with a full season from Watson. Even though Cleveland struggled early without Watson, it’s possible a successful comeback against Baltimore in Week 7 sparked a midseason run. And at the very least, 11 games with Watson behind center to end the year could generate some excitement for the future of the franchise.

But with a season-long suspension, the immediate future in Cleveland would be bleak. Our model gives the Watson-less Browns just a 27% chance of making the playoffs — about the same as the lowly New York Giants. Without Watson, Cleveland’s 2022 Super Bowl odds are tiny: about 1 in 135. And things could get worse from there: If Watson’s suspension is indefinite, there’s no guarantee he’ll be reinstated in 2023.

It’s the prospect of a suspension of more than a year that worries and probably makes the Browns uncomfortable. Losing a year hurts, but it was within the range of potential results when they signed Watson. In fact, Cleveland has clearly foreseen this as a possibility; he shielded Watson from the financial impact of his actions by structuring his contract such that only $1 million of the $230 million owed to him is lost if he is suspended for the full season.

In a video released by the team in May, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta spoke about the difficulty of waiting for the 2022 draft after trading three first-round picks for Watson, and he made it clear that the team was taking a longer view with trade. .

“You know, it wasn’t that hard to go through (laughs), because you had what you wanted from the start, right? Who is the franchise quarterback,” DePodesta said. “I texted Les Snead during the draft, the Rams general manager, that I imagine it’s a lot more fun to sit down these nights when you already have the material to show it off. So hopefully that’s how we feel for the next two years.

DePodesta’s comments and the team’s contract machinations make it clear that Watson’s situation has been, so far, just one game for the Browns. To truly fix the problem, Goodell and the NFL must upend Cleveland’s expectations and produce significant consequences. If Goodell imposes a suspension of more than a year, he will ensure that the real pain is felt both in Watson’s wallet and on the field in Cleveland. It’s also important to remember that there were more teams interested in Watson than the Browns. (Some put the number as high as 10.) A suspension of more than one season would be a scathing rebuke to Watson and the Browns, sure, but it would also send a strong message to future teams considering putting their ethics aside in a everything. – excluding attempt to win.

Jay Boice contributed research.

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