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, the Cleveland front office was comfortable signing the most expensive guaranteed contract in NFL history and trading away three years of first-round picks1 for a quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault or other inappropriate conduct. 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 as though the Browns’ ethical flexibility had paid off — at least in football terms. Sue Robinson, the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association to decide on a punishment, found Watson guilty of sexual assault, posing a threat to the well-being of another person and conduct that undermines the integrity of the NFL — but she suspended Watson for just six games and levied no fine.2 In that moment, Cleveland was surely reveling in its good fortune. The rest of the sports world? It was outraged.
But on Wednesday, a case that’s stretched on for over two years was extended 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 decision could tank the Browns’ chances in 2022 and beyond — plus, one would hope, teach other teams about the risk of trying to win at all costs.
The NFLPA has until close of business Friday to file a written response to the appeal, but at this point it has few options. Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement grants Commissioner Roger Goodell the ability to determine discipline on appeal (or delegate the decision to a person 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,3 and — based on the reporting around the league’s approach to the appeal — there’s almost no reason to believe that Watson will face anything less than a full year’s suspension.
It’s not hard to argue that would be the correct outcome, given the volume and severity of the charges against Watson — conduct Robinson found Watson guilty of, and which she called “predatory” in her decision. And the current moment is already one of reckoning for the league, as it continues to deal with scrutiny from a congressional inquiry into the Washington Commanders’ team culture and treatment of female employees.
That reckoning could be felt acutely by the Browns on the football field. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo model, which adjusts a team’s forecast for 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 percent shot at making the playoffs in that scenario, and a 4.2 percent probability of winning the Super Bowl.
|Suspension length||Wins||Losses||PPG Diff.||Make Playoffs||Win Div.||Win SB|
After Robinson’s decision on Monday, we ran the model assuming Watson would be out six games. Although the Browns’ odds fell under that circumstance, Cleveland was still very much in the hunt: Its playoff odds fell to 47 percent, for instance, but remained close to the playoff probabilities of division rivals in Cincinnati and Baltimore (53 percent apiece). And the Browns’ probability of winning the Super Bowl in this six-game-suspension scenario dropped to 3.6 percent, down only 0.6 percentage points from the projection with a full season of Watson. Even if Cleveland scuffled early without Watson, it’s possible a successful return against Baltimore in Week 7 could have sparked a midseason run. And at the very least, 11 games with Watson behind center to end the year could generate excitement about the future of the franchise.
But with a full-season suspension, the immediate future in Cleveland would be bleak. Our model gives the Watson-less Browns just a 27 percent chance of making the playoffs — about the same odds as the lowly New York Giants. Without Watson, Cleveland’s Super Bowl odds in 2022 are tiny: about 1 in 135. And things could get worse from there: If Watson’s suspension is indefinite, there are no guarantees that he’ll be reinstated in 2023.
It’s the prospect of more than a yearlong suspension that likely has the Browns worried and uncomfortable. Losing a year hurts, but it was in the range of potential outcomes when they signed Watson. In fact, Cleveland clearly foresaw that as a possibility; it protected Watson from the financial impact of his actions by structuring his contract such that just $1 million of the $230 million owed to him is forfeited if he’s 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 through the 2022 draft after trading three first-round picks for Watson,4 and he made it clear the team is taking a longer view with the trade.
“You know, it wasn’t that tough to get through (laughs), because you have what you wanted all along, right? Which is the franchise quarterback,” DePodesta said. “I texted Les Snead during the draft, the GM of the Rams, that I imagine it’s a lot more fun to sit out these nights when you already have the hardware to show for it. So hopefully that’s the way we’ll feel in the next couple years.”
DePodesta’s comments and the team’s contract machinations make it clear that Watson’s situation has been, up until now, just a game to the Browns. To truly address the issue, Goodell and the NFL need to upset Cleveland’s expectations and deliver significant consequences. If Goodell does impose a suspension longer than a year, he’ll ensure that real pain is felt both in Watson’s pocketbook and on the field in Cleveland. It’s also important to remember there were more teams interested in Watson than just the Browns. (Some put the number as high as 10.) A suspension of longer than one season would be a stinging rebuke to Watson and the Browns, certainly, but it would also send a strong message to future teams considering throwing their ethics aside in an all-out attempt to win.
Jay Boice contributed research.