When the Browns made the unprecedented move to acquire controversial quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans on Friday, there was only one response: It’s so Cleveland.
The National Football League has its share of buffoonish owners like Jerry Jones in Dallas and Washington’s Dan Snyder, but Cleveland’s Jimmy and Dee Haslam have taken their desperation for winning to another level in agreeing to a five-year, $230 million deal with Watson — all guaranteed — making him the second-highest paid quarterback in the league behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Not only did the Browns mortgage their future by giving up first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024 in exchange for Watson, who might be suspended this season because of 22 civil lawsuits for alleged sexual assault or misconduct, they also gave up a third-rounder in 2023 and a fourth-rounder in 2024.
It’s so Cleveland, because the Clowns are desperate for wins and Watson for money.
Ever since the Haslams became majority owners in 2012, they have gone through six coaches and five general managers while posting a 52-108-1 record. The Browns went 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 in 2017. The losing, though, changed in 2020 when they finished 11-5 and won a playoff game by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37, in the wild card round.
The direction was expected to continue upward because all the pieces appeared to be in place. The Browns had a knowledgeable coach in Kevin Stefanski and a bright, young general manager in Andrew Berry. Baker Mayfield was going to be the star quarterback of the future even though the offense was centered around running back Nick Chubb.
But then came 2021.
Cleveland finished 8-9 as the season fell apart. The offensive line was depleted by injuries and Mayfield, taken No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, suffered several injuries but also became disgruntled in the locker room late in the season. His selfish attitude worked at the University of Oklahoma, but not in Cleveland, where he was nothing more than a game manager who struggled in crunch time.
The Haslams knew what was happening. They watched underused receiver Odell Beckham Jr. leave Cleveland and win a championship with the Los Angeles Rams. They watched the Cincinnati Bengals go from last in the AFC North to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. The Bengals developed their own star quarterback in second-year player Joe Burrow while the Ravens have a promising signal-caller in Lamar Jackson.
Meanwhile, Mayfield was falling as fast as he had risen. Combined with the terrible history of success and the little taste of it in 2020, the Haslams decided to make the move for Watson, a trade that will go down in infamy regardless of success or failure.
Unfortunately, it’s Cleveland where you expect these kinds of things. They’ve signed or drafted other players who were involved in domestic or sexual inappropriate situations before like former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt or Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
Back in 2014, they were one team that publicly was interested in former Ravens running back Ray Rice after he served a four-game suspension following a video that showed him physically attacking his then-fiancée, for which he was indicted. Charges were later dropped after Rice agreed to counseling.
And former Browns running back Jim Brown had more baggage than the terminals at BWI Marshall Airport when he played in Cleveland during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Watson’s case, he wasn’t indicted by a Houston grand jury. In situations such as these, you have to proceed with caution but also be realistic. Twenty-two women have come forward, and oftentimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and this appears to be an inferno.
The Browns have stated that they are satisfied with their background check on Watson, but this deal has the look of an old mafia movie. According to multiple reports, Watson is only expected to be paid $1.035 million in the first year of his contract, the base salary he would lose if he were to be suspended.
It’s like the mob boss saying, “We got your back. We take care of our own.”
Cleveland could have looked other places for a quarterback, like in San Francisco for Jimmy Garoppolo or Atlanta for Matt Ryan, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts on Monday. But Garoppolo’s style is similar to Mayfield’s and Ryan is 36, even though he can still play at a high level.
Watson, 26, should be in the prime of his career.
Of course, Watson’s contract touched off discussions about Jackson’s negotiations with the Ravens. Watson supposedly set a new standard of payment for an “elite” quarterback.
When did Watson become elite? A better question is when did Jackson become elite? Fans throw terms around like “great” too easily. Both Jackson and Watson are good quarterbacks with high upsides, but Watson has won only one playoff game in five years and Jackson only one in four.
Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady is elite because he has won multiple titles, and so is Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers simply because no one can throw like him. Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas were elite and have bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to prove it.
But the Ravens and Browns are in different situations. Jackson is under contract and can’t go anywhere for two years if the Ravens want to keep him in Baltimore. With the Browns, they were in a desperate situation and Watson took advantage. Apparently, Browns ownership believes Watson is the missing ingredient.
But just because the Browns were stupid doesn’t mean the Ravens don’t have to follow. We’ve seen this hype before.
Just remember, it’s only Cleveland.