Jackson: Following Deshaun Watson injury, Browns’ season in danger of turning sour

Cleveland Browns players said the right things on Wednesday. They hit the practice field and started preparing for what’s still a big game Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town.

But things have changed, and not for the better. Not that there is a great time to get the news that your starting quarterback is going to miss the season, but this was supposed to be the start of the most exciting, momentum-filled November work week the Browns have had in three years — and maybe in almost 25 years.

Instead, it became a downright depressing day in and around team headquarters as the Browns announced that quarterback Deshaun Watson needs surgery to repair a broken bone in his throwing shoulder. Surgery will be scheduled soon, and Watson won’t play again this season.


Browns’ Watson to have season-ending surgery

Rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson was announced by coach Kevin Stefanski as the starter for this week. Presumably, Thompson-Robinson is the starter for the rest of the season. But that’s not certain, and now nothing is. After winning last week in Baltimore, the Browns were alive in the AFC North, the overall AFC playoff race and loomed as the kind of bully built for December high-stakes games.

The defense is that good. On Wednesday, the overall vibe was that bad.

Since the Browns’ early October bye week, four of the five games have come down to the final seconds. Riding a defense that’s been dominant in big moments and occasionally impenetrable, the Browns have won four of those five to position themselves at 6-3 and just a half-game out of first place in the division. But the biggest of those wins was last week, and that’s not just because they won at first-place Baltimore. It was the biggest because it was Watson’s first successful rally. Watson went 14-of-14 passing in the second half to erase his own nightmarish start and keep Cleveland in a game in which it trailed by 14 points three different times, including with just under 12 minutes left.

It was supposed to be the arrival, the breakthrough, the long-awaited win delivered because Watson’s presence and playmaking meant the Browns weren’t buried. Instead, 20 months after making the trade that included three first-round picks for the right to give Watson a fully guaranteed $230 million contract, the quarterback is out again. He’s played 12 games in two years, and he won’t play again this season.

The Browns that dominated the second half in Baltimore were true AFC contenders. The Browns with a backup quarterback — or some collection of backup quarterbacks — are not. The defense is still stingy and nasty enough to potentially drag Cleveland to the brink of the playoffs, and maybe even into the first round. But what Cleveland was starting to assemble with half a season left was built around Watson getting healthy, more comfortable and eventually being what this version of the Browns has never had.

Getting to the second week of January still matters, and it’s still at least a semi-realistic goal. But the Browns had earned the right to call themselves contenders and be viewed as one of the AFC’s scariest opponents and toughest outs. Winning big games sets up bigger ones, and validates decisions like the ones Cleveland made to build so much of its operation around Watson. Without him, this defense and this exceptional Amari Cooper season seem doomed to be at least partially wasted — or even completely exhausted by the season’s final few games.

In Watson’s six games, the Browns were averaging 5.1 yards per play. Without him, they’re averaging 4.1 yards per play, which would rank 31st. They’ve been a middle-of-the-pack offense in points per drive, though Watson’s return two games ago had come with a big jump in scoring. They’re a bottom-third team in total offensive expected points added. They’re averaging 151.2 rushing yards in their five games since the bye week, but in losing Watson they no longer have their second-most explosive runner. In no way am I doubting this offense’s ability to go heavy and fight, scratch and claw for first downs. I’m just simply not seeing much of a ceiling beyond the fighting, scratching and clawing.

The Browns are getting the best version of Cooper in his ninth season. He’s averaging a career-best 17.4 yards per reception and a career-best 79.4 yards per game. Their Pro Bowl guards, Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, have been their usual, rock-solid selves — and occasionally dominant. The offense just finished its first consecutive weeks of having Watson in practice since September and, based on his performance for most of the last two games, stood to only improve with more reps and chances to grow. Watson completed every pass he threw in the second half versus the Ravens while playing with a high ankle sprain and a broken bone in his shoulder.

Now, the Browns are going to a rookie quarterback and playing at least one backup offensive tackle — maybe two — against the Steelers. Then they play back-to-back road games. Stefanski chose Thompson-Robinson over the turnover-prone but more experienced P.J. Walker because he’d seen almost three full games with Walker running the offense. Even with all their chips in on this season, the Browns traded away veteran backup Joshua Dobbs in August, leaving Thompson-Robinson as their top backup and Walker leading two wins while still on the practice squad. Dobbs has gone on to become one of the season’s best stories, and now the Browns are looking at their own feel-good story turning sour as the games get bigger.

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Fifth-round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson will start in place of the injured Deshaun Watson as the Browns enter a critical stretch. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

It’s nice that Thompson-Robinson was Cleveland’s scout team player of the week last week. It’s hard to believe he can give the real Browns offense much of a chance against quality defenses over the next two months. The Browns’ game plan — and the awkward circumstances surrounding the team’s plan to play Watson up until two hours before kickoff on Oct. 1 — never gave Thompson-Robinson a chance in his first outing. It was unfair to the rookie in what became a white-flag performance by Cleveland.

Thompson-Robinson should benefit from knowing he’ll start and getting a full week of semi-normal preparation. With more reps, he’ll get better. But he won’t escape trouble or sustain drives the way Watson did. This week, he might have to play against the Steelers with two backup offensive tackles. The Browns will be run-heavy, but even with this defense, they can’t run from the reality of things given this Watson news.

The Browns traded Dobbs thinking Watson would excel this season, and that they wouldn’t as a team if he didn’t. They didn’t add a veteran passer ahead of the trade deadline despite Watson dealing with a lingering shoulder issue, and even ignoring (for now) the future uncertainty, it’s looking more like they erred greatly in the construction and reconstruction of what coaches consider the most important room in any football building.

Stefanski has been adaptable (and good!) with his personnel groupings and play calls given the quarterback shuffling and early-season loss of Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb. But there’s only so much the Browns can continue to dress up. This was an offense built around Watson mixing the exceptional with efficiency and settling in with more experience. This was an offense that still had several weeks to continue to tinker and grow given the early-season struggles. It was well-positioned to ride this defense until the training wheels could be taken off for good.

Now, the Browns need several wrenches and screwdrivers handy. They need their defense to be better than ever, for longer than ever. Just a few days ago, having eight games left brought a level of excitement and optimism that’s rarely existed around a franchise that’s only been 6-3 twice since returning to the league in 1999. In 2020, the Browns found enough answers to get themselves to the divisional round of the playoffs. This suddenly feels more like 2014, when the Browns went from 6-3 to 7-9.

There’s time for this defense to prove that thought wrong, but the thought that the time was now — finally — for these Browns, feels like it’s gone.

(Top photo of Deshaun Watson: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

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